Architecture after September 11th

When thinking of ways in which popular culture has been affected by September 11th, people do not immediately think of architecture. Despite the fact that an architectural structure is at the center of the attack, people’s minds gravitate towards art and music as ways in which people expressed what 9/11 meant for America. Although these are both excellent outlets to convey this topic, architects and engineers have a much more challenging task than artists and musicians. Architects and engineers, they must be able to show that we as a country feel safe and secure working and living in skyscrapers. In order to express that people should no longer view these massive buildings should no longer be viewed as a potential target for future attacks, architects and engineers had to completely rethink how they were constructed and how to ensure all safety features would work, no matter the situation. Nicholas Holt, director of technical architecture at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, points out that eEven though it has taken a long time, the construction of 1 World Trade Center proves that the American people haves moved past the time when “the press was saying high-rises were the product of a bygone era,” and into and era of progress and creativity (Tischler, 2012).

The initial question that needs to be asked when discussing how architecture has been affected by 9/11 is: why did the towers collapse? Although there are many different possible factors that played a role in the collapse, the two most prominent are the failure of the sprinkler systems and the weakening of the buildings structural frames. According to Zdeněk Bazˇant in the Journal of Engineering Mechanics: “the analysis shows that if prolonged heating caused the majority of columns of a single floor to lose their load carrying capacity, the whole tower was doomed” (Bažant, 2002, p. 1). While observing the planes crashing into the towers, many professionals in the field believed the towers would never fall because the sprinkler system would kick in and put the fires out. This included Nicholas Holt, director of technical architecture at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the company who that was called to design the building that would stand in the place of the Twin Towers. After analyzing what happened we have learned that the impact of the plane alone was not enough to make the towers fall. Instead Linda Tischler shows in her article about 9/11 changing the way skyscrapers are designed that it was a combination of the “planes knock[ing] out parts of the buildings’ structural frames,” as well as “sever[ing] and disable[ing] the sprinkler systems’ supply pipes” (Tischler, 2012). With the structurale integrity of the building already being impaired by the impact and the sprinkler system disabled, the fires were able to damage the already weakened supports to the point of collapse.

In order to solve this problem in future skyscraper projects, architects began to rethink how to construct a new sprinkler system that was immune to high impacts from planes as well as design the building to disperse weight in a more efficient manner. In order to prevent the sprinkler system from failing, new buildings are constructed with water supply lines “located within an impact-resistant core — a major difference from the Twin Towers,” points out Tischler (Tischler, 2012). Buildings are now also constructed with specific steel connections that allow for the weight of higher level floors to be redirected downward in the case that one connection should fail (Tischler, 2012). These two changes in building construction are so helpful in ensuring a building does not fall that they have both become part of the New York City building codes.

Although trying to stop future buildings from collapsing in the case of another terrorist attack is the most prominent priority, a close second is finding a more efficient way to evacuate a mass of people from hundreds of floors. There are three main ways that architects have begun to solve this issue; wider staircases, implementing an elevator assisted exit system, and separate staircases for firefighters. Wider staircases are not a complex concept to understand. Expanding the amount of space available allows for people to evacuate at a faster rate. Where this does not help is on the higher floors that would take forever to climb all the way down from. In order to help this, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is inventing an elevator assisted exit system. It goes against everything we have previously been taught about never using an elevator during a fire and to only take the stairs. After the World Trade Center fell it became obvious that architects and engineers would have to take a new approach when designing escape systems for skyscrapers. To do this, occupants will be able to take the stairs to designated safety floors where they can then take an elevator to the bottom that is being operated by an emergency responder (Tischler, 2012). Implementing specific staircases for firefighters has been an idea used by the British for a long time and is a very simple one. By separating civilians who are moving downward and fireman who are going up, then friction will be minimized and the evacuation process then becomes much smoother.

Very few people would think that changes in architecture would evoke some form of emotional response, much less a patriotic one from Americans. Contrary to this belief, people expressed both of these feelings. Reaching 1,776 feet into the air, the same number as the year that the United States declared its independence, 1 World Trade was opened in 2014. Conde Nast, the company that owns Vogue, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker became the largest tenant by leasing 1 million square feet to host its 3,000 employees. Some Tischler finishes her article by reminding us that have said that the big issue facing this company isn’t, “how can a flock of stiletto-wearing fashionistas get down 102 stories safely?” (Tischler, 2012). Instead they are wondering, “Where, in a busy downtown streetscape, can we park our armada of town cars?” (Tischler, 2012). Although a humorous way to describe people’s view of working in the tower that has replaced the buildings that hosted the largest terrorist attack on American soil, it still shows the progress we have made as a country. People are no longer quivering in fear, wondering how they can construct impenetrable structures that will be safe from any form of attack big or small. The new conversation is “more about [incorporating] quality of life and responsible development,” into future construction projects (Tischler, 2012).


Bažant, Z. P. (2002). Why Did the World Trade Center Collapse? Journal of Engineering Mechanics, 128(1).

Tischler, L. (2012, January 25). How 9/11 Changed The Way Skyscrapers Are Designed. Retrieved September 19, 2016, from Fast Co Design website: