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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Two Tales of the Twin Towers

It should come as no surprise that two books on the history of the World Trade Center have been selling briskly since the terrorist attack. There is an instant nostalgia in the air, a yearning to hold onto a landmark suddenly transformed from a symbol of New York's commercial vibrancy into a mass of rubble and bodies. It happens that the two books -- Twin Towers, by Angus Kress Gillespie and Divided We Stand, by Eric Darton -- offer valuable and differing accounts of the trade center, of how it came into being and what it represented in the larger narrative of 20th-century history.

Gillespie's book, published in 1999, is a straightforward history, well researched and plainly written. A professor of American studies at Rutgers University, Gillespie provides the facts about the center that many of us, who have taken the twin towers as part of the landscape without knowing much about their origins or purposes, will find riveting. His story includes a good deal of politics, especially the politics that led New York and New Jersey, after years of paralyzing disagreement, to allow the project to go ahead, with the Ajax Wrecking and Lumber Corp. demolishing the existing buildings on the site in 1966.

Gillespie writes a gripping chapter on the construction of the towers, showing in detail how the monumental problems of engineering and design were solved. And he surveys the towers as objects of cultural history, the way in which they were first loved by critics and then hated by them, even as the buildings won acceptance by ordinary people.

Darton's book, also published in 1999, is a more complex undertaking, more polemical and, while an interesting contribution, less accessible. Darton, a New York journalist and the author of a novel, "Free City," is less interested in the chronological history of the towers than in what he calls their "hidden anatomy." By this he means their role in illustrating the unseen forces that mold the history of a city like New York: commercial and banking interests, behind-the-scenes maneuverings of captains of industry and politicians, and the way in which publicly stated purposes masked a hidden agenda: real estate speculation.

Whereas Gillespie clearly likes the World Trade Center and has written a generally happy history of it, Darton's account has a sinister, muckraking cast to it. For him the center was the product of a kind of robber-baron ruthlessness, or what he calls "the 20th century's most spectacular act of full-frontal real estate." His book is cogently argued and impressively informed, but it is also needlessly convoluted, stuffed with pretentious shards of language and therefore annoyingly difficult to follow.

Both books tell the essential story, which includes the creation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 1921, its history of building bridges and tunnels and the agreement, reached in the mid-60s, to build the World Trade Center. It was to be a place where, essentially, the paperwork of the Port of New York could be concentrated, but eventually it became more or less ordinary, high-end office space, available to anybody willing to pay the rent, a transformation that was a major factor in control of the towers being placed in private hands a few months ago.

The compromise that led to the towers' construction included the Port Authority's agreement to take over an obsolete and money-losing underground rail connection between Manhattan and New Jersey, now the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, or PATH, line. It also generated revenue for New York City by creating 11 hectares of land on the Hudson, where the World Financial Center and Battery Park City now stand.

Battery Park City is a state project; the city has the option to regain ownership but so far has not. Gillespie gives the more balanced history here, showing ways in which the compromise benefited New York, while Darton's story is, as always, darker, focused on the machinations of figures like David and Nelson Rockefeller in promoting a public project that, he avers, enhanced their own interests.

Both writers provide a brief biography of the chief architect of the towers, Minoru Yamasaki, and they ground him in 20th-century architectural history. The construction required, in Gillespie's version, three major innovations, including a structural system in which the steel supporting columns were placed on the outer rim of the buildings rather than in their cores, yielding more usable and column-free space. To build the towers, cranes were imported from Australia (and therefore called kangaroo cranes) equipped with hydraulic systems that enabled them to hoist themselves up the towers as they rose.

Darton provides a deeper account of the architectural background of the towers, whose design was inspired by the work and theories of the great Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (whom, typically, he calls a "shadowy presence, part Mephisto, part Faust").

Darton is more concerned than Gillespie with the battles fought and lost by the merchants who occupied several of the streets that would be incorporated into the giant complex, especially the owners of discount electronics shops that used to occupy the streets of Lower Manhattan.

Both writers also provide fascinating accounts of the towers' public reception, particularly how the most influential architectural critics, Wolf von Eckardt of The Washington Post and Ada Louise Huxtable of The New York Times, soured on it after first praising it. "The World's Tallest Fiasco," was the headline on an article by von Eckardt in Harper's. "This fearful instrument of urbicide," he wrote, "will be not only the tallest, but unquestionably one of the ugliest buildings in the world."

Darton, in agreeing with the unfavorable assessments of the trade center as a piece of architecture, introduces a note of higher silliness into his analysis, finding common ground between the builders of the towers and terrorists who might want to destroy them. Both the builders of something so immense and terrorists, he writes, "must undertake a radical distancing of themselves from the flesh and blood experience of mundane existence 'on the ground.'"

That is what might be called a resemblance without a similarity. Still, it is worth noting that though both Gillespie and Darton understood the World Trade Center's value as a terrorist target, they assumed in writing their books that it was a permanent part of the life of New York. And while they were wrong, like everybody else, their books give us a sense of the historical richness and complexity of what we have lost.

"Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center," by Angus Kress Gillespie, is published by Rutgers University Press. 263 pages, $26. "Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York's World Trade Center," by Eric Darton, is published by Basic Books. 241 pages, $15.