Dipping Into Toxins, May 1975

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Forty-five years ago this month, work began on Dubai’s World Trade Centre. Even before final decisions had been made on what it would look like, the tower’s location was secured with reinforced-concrete piling.

Today, the World Trade Centre is a go-to favorite for any architect forced to name their favorite building in the UAE. That’s often because its design is interpreted as exhibiting restraint. Its rise from 25 m below ground to 150 m above coincided with a plummeting real estate market. Today’s propriety is yesterday’s indulgence.

The creators of the World Trade Centre tower projected an air of confidence and ease. Really, though, there were grave doubts and fears.

In May 1975, the first piles were driven into land ruled by mosquitoes. One needed to dig less than a meter below ground to make contact with a viscous

earth teeming with toxins. The noxious wetness could easily seep through concrete and corrode the steel of the piles’ spines. A devastating result elsewhere had been called “concrete cancer.” At the scale of a skyscraper, it could have led to spectacular collapse.

The engineers designed a solution, a tank they called it. Even at its deepest visible levels, the World Trade Centre was designed closed off from its environment portrayed as hostile and encroaching. Modern architecture is a layering of defenses, blankets of specified and manufactured elements that promise new residents that life goes on as it should. One can underestimate just how much effort went into making something that today can seem so simple, quaint even.

Photo: Construction workers at World Trade Center once sub-surface work had been completed, 31 December 1975.