Bin Laden's special complaint with the World Trade Center.

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Dec. 28 2001 11:58 AM

The Mosque to Commerce

Bin Laden's special complaint with the World Trade Center.

We all know the basic reasons why Osama Bin Laden chose to attack the World Trade Center, out of all the buildings in New York. Its towers were the two tallest in the city, synonymous with its skyline. They were richly stocked with potential victims. And as the complex's name declared, it was designed to be a center of American and global commerce. But Bin Laden may have had another, more personal motivation. The World Trade Center's architect, Minoru Yamasaki, was a favorite designer of the Binladin family's patrons—the Saudi royal family—and a leading practitioner of an architectural style that merged modernism with Islamic influences.

View of the King Fahd Dhahran Air Terminal
View of the King Fahd Dhahran Air Terminal
Saudi banknote, 1966
Saudi banknote, 1966

The story starts in the late 1950s, when Yamasaki, a second-generation Japanese-American, won the commission to design the King Fahd Dhahran Air Terminal in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. His design had a rectilinear, modular plan with pointed arches, interweaving tracery of prefabricated concrete, and even a minaret of a flight tower. In other words, it was an impressive melding of modern technology and traditional Islamic form. The Saudis admired it so much that they put a picture of it on one of their banknotes. 

For Yamasaki, an architect with a keen mathematical mind and a taste for ornamental pattern-work, this brush with the intricate geometries of Islamic architecture was inspiring, and he began to incorporate arabesques and arches into his work. For the next 12 to 15 years he played with Islamic forms in projects as diverse as the Federal Science Pavilion at the Seattle World's Fair, the Eastern Airlines Terminal at Logan Airport, and even the North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Ill.

View of the World Trade Center Plaza
View of the World Trade Center plaza

Yamasaki received the World Trade Center commission the year after the Dhahran Airport was completed. Yamasaki described its plaza as "a mecca, a great relief from the narrow streets and sidewalks of the surrounding Wall Street area." True to his word, Yamasaki replicated the plan of Mecca's courtyard by creating a vast delineated square, isolated from the city's bustle by low colonnaded structures and capped by two enormous, perfectly square towers—minarets, really. Yamasaki's courtyard mimicked Mecca's assemblage of holy sites—the Qa'ba (a cube) containing the sacred stone, what some believe is the burial site of Hagar and Ishmael, and the holy spring—by including several sculptural features, including a fountain, and he anchored the composition in a radial circular pattern, similar to Mecca's.

View of a World Trade Center Tower
View of a World Trade Center tower

At the base of the towers, Yamasaki used implied pointed arches—derived from the characteristically pointed arches of Islam—as a transition between the wide column spacing below and the dense structural mesh above. (Europe imported pointed arches from Islam during the Middle Ages, and so non-Muslims have come to think of them as innovations of the Gothic period.) Above soared the pure geometry of the towers, swathed in a shimmering skin, which doubled as a structural web—a giant truss. Here Yamasaki was following the Islamic tradition of wrapping a powerful geometric form in a dense filigree, as in the inlaid marble pattern work of the Taj Mahal or the ornate carvings of the courtyard and domes of the Alhambra.

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The shimmering filigree is the mark of the holy. According to Oleg Grabar, the great American scholar of Islamic art and architecture, the dense filigree of complex geometries alludes to a higher spiritual reality in Islam, and the shimmering quality of Islamic patterning relates to the veil that wraps the Qa'ba at Mecca. After the attack, Grabar spoke of how these towers related to the architecture of Islam, where "the entire surface is meaningful" and "every part is both construction and ornament." A number of designers from the Middle East agreed, describing the entire façade as a giant "mashrabiya," the tracery that fills the windows of mosques.

In the early '70s, as the trade towers were nearing completion, Saudi Arabia was awash in oil revenues, and the state embarked on a massive modernization and building campaign. Yamasaki was premier among the many foreign architects hired during this period. Unwilling to take on too much work, Yamasaki decided to accept just three choice projects in Saudi Arabia: the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency head office, the Eastern Province International Airport, and the King Fahd Royal Reception Pavilion at Jeddah Airport. In all three projects he continued his explorations in melding traditional Islamic form with modern materials, methods, and functions.

As a scion of the Binladin contracting firm, destined to inherit some portion of its vast operations, Osama Bin Laden would certainly have been aware of Yamasaki's Saudi Arabian projects. Indeed, his family may have built them. (Minoru Yamasaki Associates won't say, but the Binladens were involved with almost all royal construction.) While Osama was in college in the mid-'70s, Yamasaki was designing his second generation of Saudi work, and the World Trade Center—then the tallest building in the world times two—came to completion in New York. This period was the high-water mark both for Yamasaki's world reputation and for the Saudis' national construction plan—which in Saudi Arabia must have brought a heightened sense of importance to the World Trade Center.

Having rejected modernism and the Saudi royal family, it's no surprise that Bin Laden would turn against Yamasaki's work in particular. He must have seen how Yamasaki had clothed the World Trade Center, a monument of Western capitalism, in the raiment of Islamic spirituality. Such mixing of the sacred and the profane is old hat to us—after all, Cass Gilbert's classic Woolworth Building, dubbed the Cathedral to Commerce, is decked out in extravagant Gothic regalia. But to someone who wants to purify Islam from commercialism, Yamasaki's implicit Mosque to Commerce would be anathema. To Bin Laden, the World Trade Center was probably not only an international landmark but also a false idol.

Laurie Kerr is an architect in Manhattan whose work includes a Cambodian Buddhist temple and the decorative and symbolic elements for a Sephardic synagogue.

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