On the morning of August 7, 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit balanced across a wire that was a quarter mile above the ground between the roofs of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Not only was this a dangerous and risky performance, but it was also highly illegal in the eyes of state law. Petit’s unauthorized feat, usually referred to as “le coup,” captured the attention of thousands of people not only from the city but also from the world. The duration of his performance lasted for forty-five minutes, during which he showcased his impressive balancing skills through dance and acrobatics. As office workers, pedestrians, and policemen cheered him on, Petit would lay down on the wire and salute soldiers from a kneeling position.
The performance that was referred to as the “artistic crime of the century” took Petit approximately six years of planning. After reading about the construction of the Twin Towers in 1968, Petit was captivated by the idea of performing there. During this time, he began researching the construction and design of the buildings through various articles in magazines. Petit also began practicing high-wire performances at other famous places including the towers of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris and the two north pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia.
The walk across the wire between the Two Towers was not an easy or simple execution. In planning the performance, Petit had to learn how to factor in such issues as the swaying of the towers due to wind and the potential effects led by unforeseen weather changes. In addition, his team had to find a way to set-up of a steel cable across the 200 feet gap between the towers at a height of 1,368 feet. On several occasions, Petit traveled to New York to observe potential entry points and to scope out the conditions for the staged project. With the help from New York-based photographer Jim Moore, Petit constructed a scale model of the towers in order to design the needed rigging to prepare for the wire walk. Several other of Petit’s friends also assisted in the execution of the project. Francis Brunn, a German juggler, provided financial support for the project and its planning while Jean-Francois and Jean-Louis helped Petit practice high-wire in France. To gain access to the buildings, Petit made fake identification cards for himself and his collaborators. They disguised themselves as contractors who were installing an electrified fence on the roof in order to discreetly gain access into the building. On the night before the scheduled performance, Petit and his crew stored their equipment just nineteen steps below the roof and began setting up the cable across the void.
During the forty-five minute performance, Petit could hear the shouts of support from the crowds below as he walked across a wire 1,350 feet high. On several occasions, the NYPD and PAPD officers tried to persuade him to give up his efforts and return safely to level ground. However, the performance did not come to an end until it started raining and Petit was forced to return to the roof. Consequently, he was immediately arrested for his efforts. However, instead of jail time or the payment of excessive fines, Petit was ordered to give a performance in Central Park as his sentence.
According to Petit, his performances were never designed to be stunts. They were theatrical performances carried out by the “poet of the high wire.” Since his famous New York City act, Petit has continued to impress the nation with his dangerous feats. In September 1982, he wire-walked 150 feet over Amsterdam Avenue to the cathedral’s west face. And in 1999, he completed a 1,200 feet walk over a Little Colorado River branch of the Grand Canyon. While most of us only dream of such courage, Petit has continuously challenged the restrictions of gravity. Furthermore, he has inspired other artists to defy the limits of society, which have hindered the creative state of the art world.