Test Room

[Image: The World Trade Center towers, photographer unknown].

Amongst many other interesting moments in Siobhan Roberts’s new biography of Alan Davenport, the “father of modern wind engineering,” is the incredible story of a room in Eugene, Oregon.

In August 1965, Roberts explains, “ads in the local newspaper… promised complimentary checkups at the new Oregon Research Institute Vision Research Center.” But these promised eye exams were not all that they seemed.

The office was, in fact, a model—a disguised simulation—including a “stereotypical waiting room” where respondents to the ad would be “greeted by a receptionist” who could escort them into a fake “examination room” that turned out to be examining something else entirely.

While members of the public were led through a series of eye tests, looking at “some triangles,” in Roberts words, that had been projected onto the wall, they were, in fact, being jostled back and forth, silently and unannounced, by motors installed on tracks below the floor. The room swayed, rocking side to side, shifting imperceptibly—or so the experiment was testing—beneath the feet of the volunteers and the actor-nurses who, without breaking character, took care of them.

It turns out that the whole thing was actually a wind-condition simulator for a pair of buildings that had not yet been publicly announced, let alone constructed: the future twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center. This quiet office in Oregon, paid for by the Port Authority, was an unpublicized test-run for the high winds and other complicated atmospheric effects that would soon rock the two towers back and forth at their unprecedented height in southern Manhattan.

The room, “mounted on a wheeled platform driven by hydraulic actuators,” thus tested unsuspecting members of the public for their physiological reaction to the swaying of the floor—testing whether “conflicting brain inputs” from the moving architecture “would cause synaptic confusion, or motion sickness—nausea, dizziness, fatigue,” as Roberts writes.

Unbeknownst to them, then, people in Eugene, Oregon, in 1965, were helping to test the aerodynamic flexibility of two buildings that had not yet been announced and that would soon come to dominate the skyline of New York City—leaving at least me to wonder if some room today somewhere, some doctor’s office or other nondescript chamber, whether a classroom or a restaurant, is actually a testing ground for as-yet unrealized architectures to come, be it in New York City, Dubai, Mexico City, or, who knows, even for future travelers to the moon.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for giving me a copy of Roberts’s book).