Michael Bierut | Essays

There is No Why

Man on Wire
Philippe Petit, New York City, August 7, 1974 

The best design movie of 2008 is not about a typeface. It's about a tightrope walker. 

Man on Wire, a thrilling new documentary directed by James Marsh, tells the story of Philippe Petit's 1974 high wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. As a 50-year-old designer who spends more time in meetings than at my (imaginary) drawing board, I find it conveniently reassuring to value concept over execution. Man on Wire shows how easy it is to have an idea, and how hard — and sometimes even miraculous — it is to see it realized.

Petit was a teenager in Paris browsing magazines in a dentist's office when he saw a rendering of the then-unbuilt World Trade Center. He was electrified. He was already an obsessed magician, juggler, and high wire artist. To an aspiring tightrope walker, the idea of two 110-story towers, side by side, suggested only one thing. Petit drew a line between the image of the two towers. All that remained now was the execution.

Making the walk happen took years of planning. Petit sums up his own attitude with characteristic aplomb: "It's impossible, that's for sure. So let's start working." He moved to New York and began visiting the construction site, at one point obtaining access to the top of the towers by posing as a French journalist. He made drawings and took photographs. Returning home, he built a full sized model of the WTC roofs in the French countryside to practice the walk. Getting all the necessary equipment up to the tops of the towers was not a one-man job. He recruited a group of confederates, a colorful multinational troupe who offer conflicting present-day memories throughout the film, and who each played a different role in what they privately called the coup. The plan was not just bold but actually rather insane: their solution for the hardest part of the whole scheme, for instance, getting the wire from one tower to the other, a span of nearly 200 feet, was to use a bow and arrow. It worked. Amazingly, it all worked. 

Man on Wire
's biggest, most satisfying surprise is seeing what Petit actually did when the moment of truth finally arrived and he stepped out into the void. I have to admit, I'd always assumed that he simply edged his way inch by inch across the expanse between the towers, teeth gritted and knuckles white, finally making it with relief to the other side. Was this is what I expected from past exposure to "death defying" circus acts, where the danger is always exaggerated while the crowd holds its collective breath? Or, more likely, was I simply projecting how I — and, admit it, you — would have attacked the challenge? 

What happened was quite different. Philippe Petit was out on the wire for more than 45 minutes, crossing back and forth between the towers eight times. One of my favorite characters in the film, Port Authority Police Department Sergeant Charles Daniels, a mustachioed New York 70s cop straight out of Dog Day Afternoon, later described to news cameras what he saw when he was sent up to persuade Petit to surrender: 

I observed the tightrope "dancer" — because you couldn't call him a "walker" — approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire. And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle. He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again. Unbelievable, really. 

It had taken six years of work and planning to get to that moment, and Philippe Petit never wanted it to end. His greatest dream, unbelievably, had come true.  He was 24 years old.

He finally surrendered to the police. In the film he remembers that the only moment he actually feared for his safety was when he was being hustled down the WTC stairs. Back on earth, he was mobbed by reporters, all with the same question: why?

"There is no why, " he said. "When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk."

Like many in the theater, I was crying at this point. It was all so senselessly brave and beautiful. And, of course, there was another reason: although it's never mentioned in the film, you are constantly reminded — especially as you watch Petit and his accomplices plan their audacious but benevolent "crime" — that the World Trade Center towers no longer exist. 

When my wife and I first moved to New York in 1980, Dorothy's first job was in World Trade Center Tower Two. Alas, only the twelfth floor. I visited her after she started and we went up to check out the view from the Observation Deck. We never saw Petit there, although in the face of public acclaim after his coup, Petit had been given a lifetime pass. But we saw something else, a little hard to see but clearly visible once you knew what to look for: Petit's autograph, the date of his triumph, and a little drawing of two towers connected by a single line, a replica of the idea that started it all. 

Along with so much else, that autograph is gone now. But Philippe Petit is still with us, living in Woodstock, New York, and serving as artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. And, thanks to Man on Wire, so is the timeless lesson of the power of a simple idea, beautifully realized.

Posted in: Media, Social Good

Comments [33]

Nice one! Can't wait to see this.

Many thanks.
This sentence contains the mystery and the facination:
"It was all so senselessly brave and beautiful."
The thought of something being senselessly brave. Senslessly beautiful.

I look forward to seeing the film.

I like the photograph of Petit’s autograph by Brian Rose. How did you find it?
Carl W. Smith

I can imagine seeing the film and quite look forward to it. What I can't get my head around is standing in the same place that it happened, and having had that place be a part of my life experience.

For me, Design Observer is at its best, when the contributors share not only observation, not only critical analysis, but intermingle these
with accounts of your personal and professional past.

At risk of being yet another cheerleader "good one!" comment, I sincerely enjoyed this. Mr. Beirut, Thank you.
Randy J. Hunt

i just saw this movie at the traverse city film festival,
and it is probably one of my favorite movies ever.

in total agreement with your post michael.
carl bean-larson

"When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk."

What a wonderful quote. Sometimes things are, and should be, as simple as that.
Jon Dascola

it all started with a little drawing...

I read Petit's fascinating account of this in his book To Reach the Clouds some years back and was completely taken. The most beautiful work of art. Of course there is a why; it's in "when I see two towers...".
Fredrik Jönsson

For my money, the best retelling of Petit's story is in The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein, a marvelous picture book for children.

I've lived in NYC my entire life and I've never heard about this until now. Thank you for writing about this amazing event. I feel like an idiot though but at the same time I love learning about new events in history that happened before I was born.

As I watched (or rather, witnessed) this documentary, I felt the sense of absolute purity in the idea alone. The idea becomes an unexplainable experience. Ultimately, powerful ideas are sentient and self-sufficient.

There's a mountain. Let's climb it!
Eddie Jacobson

cool links, thanks!,

Mind blowing. 24 years old!!! What a mad man.
Ian Shimkoviak

I haven't yet seen the film, but a colleague of mine at The Paley Center for Media has noted that there is very little film documentation of the walk/dance itself: "The time is 1974, just before the videocassette revolution, which ushered in a new consciousness of media documentation."

However, the act is so miraculous, it may have been best captured by still photography. Will that ever again be the case?

You can see his whole post here

This article was written beautifully. What a great story. Thanks.

I bought The Man Who Walked Between the Towers for my own kids and soon after decided the only civilized thing to do was to keep passing it on at the American-Girl-and-Power-Ranger-packed birthday parties we attend. Disbelieving kids and adults alike are always - always - mesmerized, including myself, no matter how many times I read it (and then, inevitably, Google it.) Glad to see Petit get a nod here. We can't afford to lose him to history.

cool links, thanks!,

Great movie. And I loved the source of its no-article title.

"Petit drew a line between the image of the two towers. "

... All it takes is the courage to dream and make it happen.

This just looks amazing. I can't wait to see it.

On January 11, 2002, at a NYFA benefit for artists affected by September 11, I sat underneath Philippe Petit as he walked a tightrope that was strung up in the Hammerstein Ballroom. It was the end of an often-tedious, hastily-arranged evening of celebrity art-world figures where the only bright (and chilling) spot was Fran Leibowitz reading the introduction of E.B. White's "This is New York" (from 1949):

The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.

The wire -- strung between the stage and balcony -- was at what seemed to be too steep an angle. Petit started at the stage, and slowly, slowly, made his way up, and out of sight.
m. kingsley

Great movie. And I loved the source of its no-article title.

Scott, I didn't want to have to post a spoiler alert, but I too wondered about why it wasn't "Man on a Wire" or "The Man on the Wire." So it's a really charming moment when you see, towards the end of the movie, the source of the title's peculiar construction. (You'll have to see for yourself!)
Michael Bierut

Wonderful film, wonderful post. Thank you, Michael.
debbie millman

I can wait to see this film. Thanks for sharing this with us.
Julio Ramos

He still hangs out in Summer in washington square park - I had the pleasure of meeting him last year in NYC - Real Cool guy
And for anyone interested in design, your blog is a reference that I have the pleasure to come back to
French wedding Photographer

In the WTC episode of Ric Burns' documentary on New York City, Petit has a big role; it was the first time I'd heard him talk about it all. I wrote a rambling post about it in 2006.
Virtual Memories

Michael, I heartily agree it's a great little film. Naturally after having walked all the cables of the cable bridges in New York (in the 80's) I have the most tremendous respect for this accomplishment and the romance of the idea. Years ago Paul Binder, the founder of the Big Apple Circus introduced us to Phillipe over drinks and when it came time to pay he had taken my partner's wallet without any of us seeing it and put it on the table to pay.

My only reservation about the film was the use of contemporary images of downtown New York, which are so different than those of the WTC in the 70's with the abandoned elevated highway and the beaches on the water.

A good tribute to a great artist.
Nicholas Goldsmith

There is a why. It's called Bat. Sh*t. Insane.

Saw Man on Wire flying home from Ethiopia in January. Just put it on my NetFlix list to watch again at home on the big (13") screen TV. Loved the movie, even more so because of the more recent implications of the now-gone towers. That they had such an artistic statement imposed upon them in their day is a nice way to remember them.
Christopher Brown

A joy. Sweet spot in the film is a close-up of the summons issued to Petit by the police.
It says reason for summons. ”MAN ON WIRE”.

Thank you for this review. You bring up one of the most remarkable elements of this film: its relationship to 9/11. Man on Wire manages to say everything important about it without saying a word. It's so odd that civilization's most elegant response to that tragedy actually occurred well before it.
May we all find our towers and have the courage to dance across them smiling.


Saw the film. Mesmerizing. Then had the chance to meet Philippe Petit after the question and answer that followed the movie. I thanked him for his gift to us. So beautiful.
Chris Dina

This is such a cool story, I believe that the proof is all around us, and modern science and the massive increase in knowledge shows even more proof of a higher being!
Ann futz

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