BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.
Listen to Radio 3 - BBC Radio Player

Free Thinking : The world

From New Delhi, writer Rana Dasgupta

The Architecture Of Impregnability

  • Rana Dasgupta
  • 30 Sep 06, 09:37 AM

At a time when it seems impossible to escape Hollywood's nauseating 9/11 narcissism - Oliver Stone's film is out this weekend here in England, just after we've got over United 93 - I wanted to write a few thoughts about the relationship of an architect to terrorism.


The towers were designed by Minoru Yamasaki, an American architect born to Japanese parents in Seattle in 1912. His parents were poor, and could not afford to send him to university. Who knows if this is why he seemed to become so impressed by wealth and influence. He came to specialise in buildings symbolising total, impregnable power, and he liked to work with the people in charge of the world.

These buildings proved to be mouth-watering targets for terrorists.

-- There was the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, which injured over a thousand people. A bomb in the basement.

-- In the early 1960s, Yamasaki designed an airport for Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. Dhahran was a secure city that housed the corporate compound of Saudi Aramco, the controllers of Saudi oil, and Yamasaki’s airport became an important Saudi and American military airbase. It played host, in 1996, to a massive truck bomb attack that killed nineteen American airmen.

-- Yamasaki built the tallest building in Madrid, the Torre Pablo Picasso (shown above). This building is still standing only because police intercepted in 1999 the enormous cache of explosives that ETA had intended for it.

-- And then, two years later, his towers fell in New York.

It is common knowledge that the desire to build the tallest building arises from a self-confidence that has parted ways with reality and become transformed into a mania for immortality. Such mania often destroys itself in less time than it takes to complete a tall building. This is why the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, conceived during the exuberant 1920s, were completed only amid the devastation of the Depression; and why the confident world that envisioned the World Trade Center and the Sears Tower was swept away in another crash before they opened. The triumphal Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur were completed amid the desolation of an Asian financial crisis.

As we know from the deep feelings and furious debate surrounding the fate of the site vacated by the World Trade Center, architecture is always political, even before terrorists decide to strike it. I suppose the question is: what kind of politics is embedded in our international style of soaring glass and steel?


  1. At 02:27 PM on 30 Sep 2006, fitz wrote:

    the Tower of Babel story always comes to mind here - a metaphor maybe - a symbolic icon maybe - but think about the metaphysics of it all. Man, who no longer believes in God but wants to be as big as the biggest - so keeps on building taller and taller buildings - until the wind blows them aways or a terrorist blows them away.

    Personally I find tall building vulgar; ostentatious and dangerous. I know why they are built - money saving measure - that's the logical reason - but what about the metaphysical - trying to reach to God perhaps?

    the amazing thing is that we never need to try to reach to God - we have God within us and around us

    We just don't understand it all and so we build our buildings in a blind pursuit of the unecessary and ridiculous and for something to knock down.

    build a kid a leggo tower and I will guarantee he will knock it down within minutes - why - he/she understands God better than adults do.

    What he/she is really saying is stop trying to climb to God it's expensive and unecessary - he/she is here all around within and without - don't waste ya money on stupidity!

    Post a complaint

    Please note Name and E-mail are required.

    Contact details
  2. At 04:50 AM on 01 Oct 2006, a_x wrote:

    In this case, size--or height, to be precise--does matter especially as the target of terrorism. The publicity that follows even if the act of terror were to be foiled would already be a plus point for the cause. Whatever it is.

    True, architecture is always political, which some will insist very much inseparable with ego. And it continues to be so despite the 9/11 tragedy.

    Just take a look at this site:

    It has a concise compilation of incoming tallest building for near future. Yeah. The race is still going on. I won't be surprised if none of them ponders about the risk of "What if my building will become the next terrorists' target?"

    History shall repeat itself? I hope not. I'd rather blame people who don't learn from their mistake.

    Post a complaint

    Please note Name and E-mail are required.

    Contact details
  3. At 09:51 AM on 03 Oct 2006, jason wrote:

    Ta for mentioning :)

    mmm, if only cities had more places like vauxhall pleasure gardens ...

    Post a complaint

    Please note Name and E-mail are required.

    Contact details
  4. At 08:13 PM on 03 Oct 2006, Jonathan Raisin wrote:

    Firstly; thanks for a great sequence of articles. All fascinating and, as you talked of in relation to China in the last piece, perhaps only possible from the perspective of a newly 'developing', non-European, world...?
    We cannot help, in England, but to live, to some extent or another, in the past...

    The 'politics... of soaring glass and steel'?

    At first sight, yes... there is, as fitz says, the tower of babel story- human hubris ripe for a/'the' fall... And in relation to America at the beginning of the C21st, this seems increasingly inescapable... overreaching power and ambition coming to the end of its days. (as an aside, I read recently Arnold Toynbee on the techniques of imperial Rome in its final days - "the roman establishment... fought shy of taking direct responsibility for the administration of the territories that it had turned into political vacuums by destroying their previous governments." - Sounds familiar?).

    But, although the architectural language may be international, are the politics quite so universal?

    Are the new developments of Pudong, the hothouse of the current Chinese 'cultural revolution' quite as vulnerable?

    I don't know.

    I suppose what I'm thinking is that, although the statement, the ambition, contained in these buildings might be the same, the 'meaning' of a rebuilt World Trade centre site in Manhatten is different from a newly built modernist city in China... Both may be statements of intent but one comes from a wounded empire struggling to assert its dominance; the other rises afresh from a newly powerful economic force.

    September 11th 2001 may go down in history as the symbolic moment of America's fall, but are the skyscrapers of the 'east' as vulnerable as those of 'the old world'? (Dharan was targetted because of the American connection, surely...?).

    From here, in old Europe, I feel too far removed to know, but its seems less likely.

    This seems to be about the shifting of power. Of gravitational fields... Of the way the wind blows.

    Post a complaint

    Please note Name and E-mail are required.

    Contact details
  5. At 01:31 AM on 04 Oct 2006, fitz wrote:

    The two essential reasons for building high would seem to be economy (try housing all this in a tower at ground levels offices) and also glorification (there is always a challenge of who can build the biggest and the best)

    Apart from the economic factor which has credibility there is no real logic in always wanting to be bigger and better, especially when others always want to knock it down!

    Tall buildings are an irreristable target and always will be if not from terrorists then from natural phenomena.

    Maybe our tall building obsession needs to come to an end and we need new architects to design the real cities of the future. There are many examples after all in our sci -fi books.

    Building other towers to replace those lost, would seem to some sheer stupidity and yet another case of 'we won't be beaten' which seems to be a great war cry from the Bush camp. Hasn't he caused enough devastation around the world already?

    Post a complaint

    Please note Name and E-mail are required.

    Contact details

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy