As for the Empire State Building, that’s been an iconic landmark of New York City since just about when it was built. It was the tallest skyscraper in the entire world for four decades (a fact which served as a point of pride and prestige for New York City through that time), and even after it was surpassed in height it remained an iconic and beloved building due to its storied history and art deco styling.
Even today it’s one of the most well-regarded buildings in the world and an incredibly popular tourist attraction. It helps that in its location in midtown Manhattan it has not since been crowded out by taller or equally tall buildings and over the years it has maintained a consistently stunning view of the rest of New York City from its observation deck (ironically, one that has gotten better as tall buildings were built in lower Manhattan).
And, of course, the building has featured heavily in many depictions of New York City, from the films King Kong in 1933 (when the building was brand new) to Sleepless in Seattle 60 years later (when the building wasn’t even the tallest in New York City anymore).
Anyway, we’re not here to defend the Empire State building’s status as an architectural icon, per se, we mention these things mainly as a means of contrast. The twin WTC towers were erected in the early 1970s and they had all the architectural panache and grandeur typical of that era: namely very little. They were not quite giant brutalist chunks of featureless concrete, but they were not far different.
Both before and after they were built they were criticized for their appearance, and for their sheer size as well. Termed “gigantism” or “giantism” the new style of super-tall buildings being constructed in the early 1970s (including the Sears Tower, now Willis Tower, which had been finished just shortly after the WTC) met with its fair share of criticism. The Twin Towers in particular were regarded as too boxy, too drab, and just too big.
Here’s a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Ada Louis Huxtable (1966):
Who’s afraid of the big, bad buildings? Everyone, because there are so many things about gigantism that we just don’t know. The gamble of triumph or tragedy at this scale – and ultimately it is a gamble – demands an extraordinary payoff. The trade center towers could be the start of a new skyscraper age or the biggest tombstones in the world.
Feelings towards the appearance of the towers softened into a kind of grudging acceptance after they were built, and once they became part of the city’s structure and its iconic skyline they were at least seen as belonging. Following in the footsteps of the 1933 version the 1976 King Kong film had the titular character climb the then newly built WTC towers instead of the Empire State building, with the climactic final scene occurring on the roofs of the towers.
In 1974 high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked a wire between the towers in a daring and illegal stunt (though all charges were dropped afterward) which gained incredible news media coverage worldwide, elevating both his popularity and that of the towers. In 1983 Dan Goodwin added the North Tower to the list of skyscrapers he climbed when he scaled it using suction cups and a safety device placed in the window washing track.
Also in 1983, the WTC towers featured in the blockbuster film Trading Places, with the climactic scene taking place on the trading floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange. Even though this scene technically occurs within the 4 World Trade building the introducing scene includes a dramatic shot of the Twin Towers and a walk through the plaza with the lower floors of the towers in the background.
And in the summer of 2001, a live-action “teaser” commercial for Sony’s flagship Spider-Man game coming out in 2002 was played in theaters which featured a helicopter getting caught in a giant spider-web spun between the towers (which, after 9/11 was quickly pulled from circulation). (There are, of course, countless other examples of the Twin Towers in popular media, these are just a sampling.)
The towers’ sheer size and presence made them iconic fixtures of lower Manhattan and well known through the lens of popular culture throughout the world. In some ways, the Twin Towers often served as a kind of synecdoche for New York City or Manhattan, just as the Eiffel Tower does for Paris or the Space Needle does for Seattle.
Their appearance in the skyline unmistakably and unambiguously tags the location as Manhattan, as does any establishing shot featuring the towers themselves. They were never as well-loved or even as well-liked as the art deco masterpiece of the Empire State Building (or as either the Eiffel Tower or the Space Needle, though interestingly both those were decried as potential eyesores prior to and immediately after their construction), but they were seen as inextricably part of New York City and thus attained some degree of love and appreciation as spillover from the love and appreciation people felt for the city as a whole.