As you loop along a curve on Interstate 244, downtown Tulsa drifts across the windshield, floating atop the fringe of lollipop trees that otherwise form the city’s skyline. The scene resembles a dusty little storage yard for surplus mid-height skyscrapers, a scattered handful of twentieth-century styles, with one particularly recognizable model. The Bank of Oklahoma (BOK) Tower looks startlingly like a lone, shrunken World Trade Center tower—which is what it is. It was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the Twin Towers’ architect, for the Williams Center, an urban renewal project planned in imitation of the World Trade Center and completed three years after it, in 1976. The BOK Tower rises at the end of South Boston Avenue, an address that is also borrowed: Tulsa undercuts its civic pride as the self-proclaimed “Oil Capital of the World” by naming its north-south streets after other, often equally minor, cities, in an alphabetical cycle—Rockford, St. Louis, Trenton, Utica.
For the BOK building, Yamasaki reprised the scheme of a Twin Tower at almost exactly half the scale: 52 stories and 667 feet tall, to the Twin Towers’ 110 floors (1,362 and 1,368 feet). It has 31 steel perimeter columns per side, to the Twin Towers’ 59, producing the same eye-boggling vertical lines on each face. (As Jean Baudrillard noted of the more famous pair, well before its destruction, it is “blind,” with no side presenting a facade.) The BOK, too, has a bi-level lobby, whose height is matched by arched windows. But the arches are big and round, like a child’s plain wooden building blocks, rather than the Venetian Gothic ogees that, in the World Trade Center, flowed directly into the perimeter columns.
I am surprised that the Tulsa tower is not better known as a surviving relation of the World Trade Center, that it hasn’t turned into a site of folk devotion to 9/11. Although I grew up in Tulsa, I discovered the link belatedly, just a couple of years ago. As a child, despite being fascinated by famous tall buildings, I don’t think I ever noticed the likeness. To me, they were both just what big buildings looked like.
Yamasaki proposed for the Williams Center a small pair of towers, each just twenty-five stories; John Williams, the corporate chieftain who wanted to revitalize downtown Tulsa, reportedly altered the plan by picking up Yamasaki’s model and placing one building atop the other. The resulting single building fails to be a “third twin” because, by itself, it lacks what Baudrillard identified as the World Trade Center’s only real characteristic: doubleness. But it is a manifestation of that characteristic, a tower blindly reproduced yet again, sized down and ordered up as if from a catalog of urban design, in interchangeable units to be manipulated and stacked.
Tulsa’s tower mimics its model in function as well as form, a monument to commercial real estate and grandiose plans for reviving moribund downtowns. It seems only to have entombed Tulsa’s, creating a landmark that, like its predecessor, was known from afar, but rarely seen up close except by those who would cross a windy plain every day to their jobs inside. For most of its worldwide audience, the World Trade Center’s simple silhouette, in the distance or in a picture, was the only thing to remember about it firsthand. The void in lower Manhattan that the mind’s eye can still fill with that thin image will one day be occupied by a new spectacle that will hasten the memory’s decay. But hiding in plain sight, Yamasaki’s building in Tulsa is another image of the disappeared towers—itself incomplete but physically persisting. The tower takes on an unexpected value as time carries us away from the event that made the World Trade Center more unique than it really was.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2008 issue of The Believer.
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