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Castles in the Air

02.12.2003 | SOCIETY

Architecture, as both its proponents and critics like to point out, is the visual arbiter of history. It lays claim, through our buildings, to the manner in which we present ourselves to future generations. A population with no interest in the past can read it on the walls of the city, from structure to structure, and so in choosing what to build and preserve we also choose what to forget and destroy. The city is a seared record of time, fragmented and provisional, an open but disjointed book.

Sometimes the book is altered by a cataclysm. It has been almost eighteen months since the towers of the World Trade Center telescoped into the ground, but we are only now beginning to see what sort of impact--architecturally and otherwise--this will have on the city. There was reason, for a while, to think that big changes were in order. After the bombing a number of people were stricken by a fear of tall buildings, and more than one prominent observer predicted the end of high-rise buildings in general. This was, in retrospect, a very strange thing to predict. Many of us were afraid of flying after September 11, but no one predicted the end of jet travel, or wrote anything remotely like what urban theorists James Howard Kunstler and Nikos Salingaros did in an October 2001 op-ed piece: "The age of skyscrapers is at an end. It must now be considered an experimental building typology that has failed. We predict that no new megatowers will be built, and existing ones are destined to be dismantled."

If this is true, someone forgot to tell the Lower Manhattan Development Commission. This February, after a prolonged and often clumsy winnowing-out process, the LMDC chose two designs as finalists for what will be rebuilt on Ground Zero, and both of them include the world's tallest building. One proposal, by an architectural team called THINK, has two shimmering latticework towers that soar to 1,665 feet, while the other, designed by Berliner Daniel Libeskind, envisions a cluster of geometric buildings that are centered by a 1, 776 foot tall spire. Both of these would easily dwarf the world's current tallest buildings, Malaysia's 1,483-foot Petronas Twin Towers.

On the other hand, it's not so easy to claim the title. Among skyscraper boosters, there is a protocol for measuring height, and no structure can qualify for "tallest building" unless it has "habitable floors." Thus Toronto's CN Tower, which rises to over 1,800 feet but which also has only viewing platforms, and no office or living space, does not get counted in the competition. The THINK entry for the World Trade Center, which resembles a set of futuristic Eiffel Towers, would probably be similarly disqualified, for they are not habitable. And even if the new World Trade Center does become the world's tallest building, it is not likely to remain so for long. In Katangi, India, a 2,200 foot tall pyramid is being planned for 2008, and Shanghi, China, is currently building its own heaven-bound spire. For these countries, the skyscraper obsession is somewhat understandable. It is an assertion of nationalism, and of emergence into the global economy. The building rises with the nation--the Petronas Towers burst into the air just as Malaysia was making its swashbuckling entrance into the world economy, riding a torrent of hot capital and the fiery oratory of its Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. In India and China, with their exploding economies and new free trade zones, skyscrapers can similarly be explained.

New York is somewhat more difficult to explain. The psychology at work may just be dogged determination: you knock something of mine down, and I'll build it back not just bigger than before but bigger than anything ever seen. Also at work may be a resurgent patriotism--the skyscraper is an American invention, and we will reclaim it--and a desire to have a certain amount of grandeur in order to properly honor September 11th's victims. All of this is understandable, and some of it is commendable. The danger is that it fuels an already-large desire to build away from the city rather than into it, to climb, in the city's name, away from where the city really is.

* * *

The skyscraper, like any aspect of the built environment, is representative of what we consider a city to be, and in America our understanding of cities has always been ambiguous. We have vacillated between the metropolis as the highest form of human achievement, and as an ungovernable and dehumanizing system, the physical manifestation of an economy that has reduced life itself to a commodity. The tilting power of the modern city--its chaos, its poverty, its capacity for secrets and its suffocating ability to depersonalize those who live within it--has always frightened and fascinated those who observe it. Those who find it a source for optimism, like Jane Jacobs and Daniel Lazare, see the city as vital to cultural, social and entrepreneurial life. The city, they point out, is where people from countless ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds collide and interact, where knowledge is created and stored, where the past is physically preserved in buildings, and the future is molded. The canyons of tall buildings give the city a sense of enclosure, and make it container for progress where ideas percolate and boil over. The city maximizes personal interaction, the face to face contact that is both the most efficient form of communication and that is needed to build trust. Trust in turn is essential to new development, in business or culture or civic life, and so it is the density of the city from which progress springs. In this interpretation the city is the pinnacle of human endeavor, our greatest creation, and so the violent destruction of cities is particularly hurtful. If war can safely be called humanity's foulest endeavor, then the fall of a city in wartime--be it Tokyo, London, New York or Baghdad--is humanity at its best succumbing to humanity at its worst. It is an attack on both our collective memory and our collective future.

But this is only one interpretation of the metropolis. Darker visions of the city exist as well, and from them unfold a crashing narrative of alienation and decay. The city here is the physical expression of exploitation--a "dismal accumulation of capital," as Marx put it--that erects towering monuments to itself to distract and terrify those whose labor it plunders. American cities, unlike those of almost every other culture on earth, did not begin as centers of religion. Absent from the American city is the opulence of pre-Enlightenment religion: we have no St. Paul's, no Sacre Couer, no rooflines bedecked with steeples and minarets. The American city was from its inception a center of commerce, and commerce builds idols to itself and no other gods. But the purpose of the great buildings and the great churches is the same, and that is induce awe and apathy, and to hide the engines of inequality that power the metropolis. Between the gleaming skyscrapers lie neglected spaces that the spectacular buildings cloak from view. By drawing the eye upward, the skyscraper moves attention away from the city's parade of social disease: from the homeless and the criminal and the working poor. It calls attention to the city's achievements to distract from every problem that it has created and cannot solve. It is an opiate of steel, a bone thrown, as Lewis Mumford observed almost eighty years ago, "to minds that are starved for something to worship, and will worship a skyscraper, provided it be big enough."

Before we get carried away with Mumford, however, it's worth pointing out that he was about as good as Marx at making predictions. Aside from his oft-repeated assertions in the 1920s that the car would rescue the city (whoops) he, too, predicted the end of tall buildings. "I think it is now becoming plain," he wrote, "that the more intelligent and sensitive part of the population is becoming a little bored by ?greatness', and they are beginning to feel toward skyscrapers the way an Egyptian slave perhaps felt toward the pyramids."

Whoops again. One can only imagine Mumford's discomfiture as Manhattan exploded upward around him. But Mumford, the dean of American city planning, is emblematic of the odd American relationship with cities; he lived in the city, credited it with his education and culture, and yet railed against it, longed constantly to escape it, and reviled the economic structure that made it necessary. In this way he inherited the intellectual mantle of Thomas Jefferson--Jefferson who placed no faith in the urban, and saw in America no hope outside its rural and agrarian ethic, its physical ties to the land. Jefferson was himself influenced by John Locke, who in Two Treatises of Government had set forth a fundamental philosophy of property, which said that a man could call his own any land on which he "mixed his labor." Locke's idea was premised on an agrarian age, when land was the symbol and vehicle of wealth. As industrialism overtook agriculture, however, money became wealth, and what was important was no longer land itself, but how to turn land into money. Thus we divorced ourselves from the land in the name of the economy, left the farm for the city, and along the way gave birth to the nostalgic tradition in American intellectual thought. Even as we moved forward into urban, part of us would always be looking back at the rural.

But the forces that created the city would also undo it. The economy always accelerates beyond its physical presence; what we build to capture opportunity today is predicated on its eventual obsolescence--it is in the nature of capitalism to destroy its foundations in order to grow. Thus the economy that had slipped loose from the rural did not cease to move, and soon slipped loose of the urban as well. After a period where cities where horribly dense, in the postwar years they began to decompose. Middle class residents, often encouraged by government housing policies, fled for the space and safety of the suburbs, and corporations also began to relocate, as breakthroughs in communications and transportation allowed them to take advantage of lower real estate costs on the urban fringe. Left behind in the cities were the poor, and left behind to provide for them were city governments whose tax base was rapidly eroding from the flight of business and wealth. And so the spiral began.

But as the city slid down, its buildings continued to climb up. In the 1960s and 1970s, as manufacturing vanished first into the hinterlands and then overseas, cities changed gears, and began trying to lure corporate headquarters into their downtowns. The skyscraper became a new symbol of inter-city competition. The already-astonishing skylines of New York and Chicago were garnished with yet more tall buildings, and in other cities entire pedestrian downtowns were cleared to make way for new high-rises. Los Angeles had already demolished the immigrant community of Bunker Hill, dislocating 7,000 people, and constructed what is today its soaring financial district. A similar pattern was followed elsewhere, as room was made for companies whose employees would not live in urban areas. And so as our nation prospered our cities collapsed. The capstone of this was the Twin Towers themselves, which soared into the sky above Manhattan a few years before New York City plummeted toward bankruptcy. They towered over the city, dull testaments to the urban crisis, seeking to dominate the city rather than be part of it, symbols of private affluence in an age of public squalor.

And this is as a good a time as any to say what many people have chosen not to since the towers were knocked down, which is that they were not terribly impressive buildings, and that they did New York little credit. Architects, for the most part, did not care for them, and while one can disagree with architects about many things, I think in this instance they are correct. The World Trade Center towers were tall. That's it. And being tall was to their advantage far more than it was to the advantage of the city, for in their tallness they disrupted the scale and proportion of New York's skyline, which without them was the most impressive on earth. With them, however counterintuitively, it was less so. The towers trivialized the skyline, and in their studied plainness they insulted the more artistic buildings beneath them. They lacked the artistry of their nearest competitors, the Chrysler and the Empire State buildings, and yet they belittled them all the same. They were detached from the city, and they were inward-looking. Their purpose was commerce, and they owed nothing to the city itself, only to the business that was conducted inside them. They looked, as the architectural critic Robert Campbell observed, less like magnificent towers and more like the boxes magnificent towers might have come in. Plonked awkwardly in Manhattan as though someone had forgot to unpack them, the World Trade Center buildings sent a disheartening message of urban reductionism: it has come to this. Just business. No culture, no society, no grandeur or enchantment, no dream of a public city. The city was something far below, far behind. We move too fast for it now, although it is always just over our shoulders. Of course, what is behind us sometimes catches up, though not always in ways we want.

* * *

There is no precise word for the fear of tall buildings. Acrophobia is the fear of heights, and ironically Minoru Yamasaki, the World Trade Center's architect, was himself an acrophobe, which is one reason why the towers' windows were so narrow. But there is a difference between the fear of heights and the fear of tall buildings, because one can be afraid of tall buildings even on the ground. They are imposing and forbidding, and stare gloomily out from sight line in the city, blocking the sun and obscuring the sky. What seems grand at the top can be profoundly disaffecting on the ground. The areas at the bases of tall buildings are often windswept and harsh, and rarely graced with sunlight.

A postmodernist might offer that the fear of tall buildings is a stage in pyschasthenia, the obscure condition that is defined as a disturbance between the self and its surrounding territory. In pyscasthenia the borders of the body and the city blur, and the mind, in struggling to reconcile itself to the vastness and diversity of the city, actually feeds it by surrendering a portion of its individual identity, giving the city a part of itself in order to retain the rest. Thus we appropriate the city even as it appropriates us, and this allows both to survive in a dehumanized and rapidly-changing landscape.

Then again, perhaps not. Postmodernism is always an iffy proposition, alluring but eminently unproveable. History may be a better guide. Central to our founding myths is the frontier thesis, the idea that we as Americans can, when all else fails, roam away from problems and toward opportunity. The American ethos is a frontier ethos, and the city is an affront to the frontier. The city is the antithesis of the pioneering need to spread out; it is agglomeration and density. It is the reminder that some problems cannot be walked away from, that our culture and economy is not based on ceaseless movement, and that what we have married is not, in fact, what we love.? The skyscraper is the ultimate expression of this. The densest of buildings, and the most associated with the city, it stands in testament to all we have accomplished and all we have abandoned. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, our journeys into the city end with a longing for the country, and for the redemptory power of the rural. We do not search for our dreams in the city, but like Gatsby gaze past its lights and off into the past and blackness, imagining that America is somewhere else, "somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic roll on under the night."

America, unfortunately, is not somewhere else, and we will not, as Henry Ford said, "solve the problems of the city by leaving the city." The city may be any number of things--it may be, as the Marxists say, a decaying container of capitalism, or it may be the frontier spirit improperly bottled up. Whatever it is, we view it with dysfunction. When, in 1986, Christine Boyer looked back at the history of American urban planning, she found its underlying motivation to be fear. Planners, she said, saw their job as the management of a seething and potentially violent working class, and their mission as one of discipline and control: to impose a rational order on this beast known as urbanism, which our economy had thrust on our country.

This does not have to be the way we look at cities. But as long as we evaluate them from the sky, we cannot hope reconcile ourselves with out urban centers. The power of the city, and its promise, is and has always been on the street. Being taller than everything else is not being urban; a castle in the air, impressive though it may be, does little for those on the ground. On some level we need to return to earth, and concentrate anew on building cities for citizens.

About the Author
Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
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