Islamic architecture in the Twin Towers

I never knew that the design of New York’s World Trade Center was influenced by Islamic architecture, but evidently it was.  Laurie Kerr, writing for Slate about three months after the 9/11 attacks, explained:

The World Trade Center’s architect, Minoru Yamasaki, was a favorite designer of the Bin Laden family’s patrons—the Saudi royal family—and a leading practitioner of an architectural style that merged modernism with Islamic influences. …

Interior of World Trade Center

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.

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.

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.

Minoru Yamasaki

Yamasaki, a second generation Japanese-American, got his start in the 1950s designing the King Fahd Dhahran Air Terminal in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which became known for his blending of high tech and traditional Islamic elements, Kerr wrote.  He became known for incorporating arabesques, arches and other Islamic forms into projects as diverse as the Federal Science Pavilion at the Seattle World’s Fair, the Eastern Airlines Terminal at Logan Airport near Boston, and even the North Shore Congregation Israel temple in Glencoe, Ill.

In the 1970s, as the Twin Towers were nearing completion, Yamasaki took on more work in Saudi Arabia – the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency head office, the Eastern Province International Airport and the King Fahd Royal Reception Pavilion at Jiddah airport.  Kerr said it isn’t known whether the Bin Laden family construction firm, which was involved in almost all Saudi government projects, has any part in the construction of these buildings.

She speculated that Osama bin Laden may have had an extra hatred for the Twin Towers because of its architectural style.  He would have seen it as blasphemous to build a monument to Western commerce using architectural traditions of Islamic spirituality.

We can only guess what Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin would have thought if they had known.

Click on The Mosque to Commerce for the whole Slate article.

I found the link on Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality With Both Hands web journal.

The original post was edited and rearranged for clarity.

Click on Muslim Prayer Room Was Part of Life at Twin Towers for a New York Times article on how a room on the 17th floor of the south tower was set aside for Muslim religious observance. [Added 9/18/10]

The following is from the comment thread of a different post.

I read your article on Islamic Architecture and the Twin Towers, but comments were closed… just wanted to bring your attention to an article I just posted on Islamic Architectural Style. I actually posted it after seeing your article (despite reading your blog quite often), but I think that looking at it, a lot more was similar to the twin towers… you could consider them even as minarets, true there were no domes, bright colors, or open spaces… but maybe #10 also kinda matches… as they were a wonder from the outside as well as the inside.

Click on The Top 10 Elements Of Islamic Architecture to read the article.  [Added 9/12/11]

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4 Responses to “Islamic architecture in the Twin Towers”

  1. stereo headset Says:

    You can find about a billion Muslims inside the world, and not all of them are extremists. The extremists give the rest of the Muslims a bad name, when Islam is basically a pretty peaceful and tolerant religion. It’s the exact same with Christians. You can get plenty of us that are quiet but then you can get those who shove scripture within your face and are intolerant of other individuals and preach fire and brimstone. Instead of burning the Quran, perhaps they will need to try reading it, and understanding a culture not our individual? If they did, they would see that it really is, in actuality, a beautiful religion. I am a devout Catholic, but I have respect for other people’s beliefs, and in return, I get respect for my own.


  2. Ronic Says:

    commenter stereo headset has obviously failed to study the Kuran.

    Lots of limb removal and taxation of non believers.


  3. Maris Says:

    15 years this month the dustification of WTC is still resonating deep contradictions interesting , the strange metaphors of design, and the endless anomalies at the site itself, still have secrets that , with time will be laid bare.


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