issue 202 - December 1989
Towers of the new gods
Ever since the pyramids in ancient Egypt humankind has built
structures that soar to the heavens. Today our impulse to build upwards
threatens to block out the sun with reinforced concrete. Jeremiah
Creedon wonders what it is we are trying to rise above.
I once fled the American Midwest for New York City, thinking life in the big town would be more suited to my sophisticated character. I survived this illusion; my exalted self'-image did not. A few months later I returned home in defeat, having spent all I owned on pizza-by-the-slice. with the unpleasant truth that my role on earth was a minor one.
My conversion to realism happened in the course of a single night, just before Manhattan spat me out into the heartland. I was living in a room on the Lower East Side which had nothing going for it except a decent view. The sudden awareness that I had been living in the clouds all my life made it hard to sleep, and after cursing myself for several hours I got up and went to the window. A few miles away the twin towers of the World Trade Center were materializing through the grey light before dawn.
As I stared, their tops began to shimmer with a blue-pink iridescence, lit by a new sun that for the rest of the city had yet to rise. The beauty of these towers struck me. They lorded with an ethereal purity over the grime and tensions of the jumbled cityscape below. Now, I can see the irony of a penniless, distraught young man finding a moment's peace in the sight of those upended silver ingots, the ultimate monuments to global commerce. Then, it was all I could do to break my gaze and rejoin what I had come to dread as the ferocious ecology of capital in the streets below.
The World Trade Center, completed in 1977, has been faulted by some architecture critics for its 'contrived elegance'. Others are more blunt, deriding the 110-storey towers for pushing modernity's most prominent emblem - the skyscraper - to 'banal' heights. As one who has stood at their bases and felt dwarfed by their inhuman scale, I can appreciate this learned disdain; but I also recall my pleasure in looking on those massive objects from a distance - an idealized view similar to the architect's when admiring the model of a new design.
These conflicting responses make the Trade Center a good place to begin looking at the psychological ties between human culture and inhumanly big buildings. It is a bond that harks back to the earliest civilization. The twin towers are also an eloquent comment on present civilization, whose two most salient traits - technological hubris and spiritual insecurity - yearn upward, equally desperate, toward a now godless firmament.
Joan Roth / CAMERA PRESS
'Architecture,' wrote Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 'is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms.' Mies, one of this century's most influential architects, was stating an ancient truth: what a society chooses to build is often a consciously designed model of what it thinks. Mies intended his steel-framed, glass-curtained office buildings and apartment high-rises to be symbols of a 'new social order'. For him, the will of the age implied a particular ideology - the left-wing European collectivism he took to the US after leaving Nazi Germany in 1937.
In the past, the manifestoes that could be read from architecture were just as specific. The Egyptian pyramids, the Babylonian ziggurats, the Parthenon, the Gothic cathedrals and the Eiffel Tower are also statements, inseparable from the social and geographic circumstances that gave rise to them. Even the materials used to build them and their alignment to the surrounding landscape reflect different visions of the world - and different ideas about the realms and power beyond it.
All these examples share one thing, however: the American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan calls it 'the vertical aspiration'. The urge to defy gravity is only one aspect of a wider human tendency to overlay nature with abstracted, often religious ideas of order. 'At the world's primary centers of urbanism,' Tuan writes, 'cities arose not only in response to economic and commercial forces but also to the call for the establishment of sacred space, modelled after the cosmos.' Cities in ancient China thus tended to be square, while those in the Islamic lands were often circular, Both embodied the effort to impose 'sacred' geometry on the apparent chaos of the 'profane' wilderness,
In Tuan's view, Washington DC is a modern example of the 'ideal city'. So is Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, which planners and architects set about building from scratch in the 1950s. Its cruciform shape is said to suggest a bird or a plane, poised for takeoff on what otherwise is an empty expanse far from Brazil's populated coast. Tuan sees the futuristic Brasilia as a symbol both of modern Brazil's collective ego and of an enduring primal desire to bridge the distance between the human earth and the superhuman sky.1
The art historian Robert Hughes looks more harshly on Brasilia as a 'vast' example of what happens when people design for an imagined future, rather than for a real world, He calls it 'an expensive and ugly testimony' to what gets built 'when men think in terms of abstract space rather than real space, of single rather than multiple meanings, and of political aspirations instead of human needs.' He traces this failure back through Brasilia's principal architects, Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, to their mentor Le Corbusier, who is perhaps the only figure to surpass Mies van der Rohe in his influence on twentieth-century architecture. Both were prominent in the so-called International Style, which gave the world the now ubiquitous glass 'box' skyscraper and Le Corbusier's dubious ideals for urban planning, known as 'The Functional City'.
Hughes argues that modernist architecture, like much of modernist art in general, was 'value-free and could serve almost any ideological interest'. The same could be said of the age-old desire to build up and to build big. Thus the Russian constructivist Vladimir Tatlin could design, in 1920, a giant revolving monument taller than the Eiffel Tower to honor the socialist utopia that supposedly began with the Russian Revolution, It was never built, Nazi architect Albert Speer envisioned a mammoth dome in Berlin to honor Hitler's Thousand Year Reich. It was never built either. Whenever such plans are realized - as in Brasilia - the results tend to be the same. Hughes calls it 'an architecture of coercion' that physically reiterates the individual's symbolic nothingness compared to the looming power of the state.2
Brasilia marks the end of an era. What lies beyond Brasilia - some call it post-modernism - is a transitional period in which the builder-heroes like Mies, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier no longer dominate the architectural imagination. Meanwhile, the architects, like artists in many other fields, wait for the new paradigms and manifestoes that will energize them.
The World Trade Center, designed by Minoru Yamasaki (with help from Emery Roth and Sons), belongs to this interim. While obviously related to the modernist 'box', the towers also recall earlier technical and aesthetic strategies. Their weight, for one thing, is carried by their aluminum skins rather than 'hung' in Miesian fashion from a steel skeleton. In appearance, these high-tech surfaces echo the tracery that adorns the Gothic cathedrals - a conscious borrowing from the past that a high modernist would no doubt have resisted.
What do these changes in architecture reveal about changes in society? What can they say about an age whose 'will' is otherwise still a mystery to itself? A clue can be found inside the Trade Center by riding its innovative elevator system to the observation deck.
An exhibit on display there illustrates the history of trade by arranging various artefacts - ancient coins, wampum beads, old paper bills, whatever - along a time line. Turning to the windows, one can see beyond the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to the Atlantic Ocean, the maritime highway that first gave New York access to the world's markets. Looking up the length of Manhattan, high above the great metropolis, one can also envision the Trade Center itself as an artefact: a giant symbolic antenna in the electronic global economy, sending and receiving great sums of money the new-fangled way - at the speed of light.
Another clue to the role of big buildings in social change can be found in a catalogue of the world's paper money. Such bills offer a glimpse into a country's self-image, which makes it curious that only a few nations decorate their money with the symbol of the modern skyscraper. Other buildings are well-represented: Pharaonic monuments, Buddhist temples, Himalayan monasteries, government complexes, national banks. The preference for state architecture or for ancient sites of national glory is clear.
The dozen or so bills (out of 9,600) that do feature modern high-rises tell particular stories, Kenya's 100-shilling note, for example, displays the 28-storey Kenyatta Conference Center in Nairobi, an object of national pride because it was financed entirely from domestic sources.
Hong Kong and Singapore also feature high-rises on their currency, but to different effect. In these cases, the buildings become symbols of a global order beyond the modern, in which nationalism as a force of social cohesion is equalled or surpassed by corporate allegiances. These are the postmodern city-states. Their geographic and political circumstances have allowed the new order to emerge more fully, unconstrained by the social forces and the burdens of history that still partly shackle a city like New York to the old ways. Singapore, especially, appears to identify with tall modern buildings taken together as a single entity - the so-called 'skycity'. Singapore may also be the only place in the world to decorate its currency with the image of high-rise housing.3
The traditional powers seem universally wary of adopting this skyscraper imagery, let alone the apartment complex, as a national symbol. This stands to reason: they've got too much invested in the old notion of statehood as a function of military and geographic might. The very name 'International Style' justifies this wariness. The allegiance of the modernist architect was to the client who had hired him. That might be the Indian state of Punjab for whom Le Corbusier designed a new capital complex. Or a whisky manufacturer like Seagram's for whom Mies built a corporate headquarters in Manhattan that most critics consider the modern era's 'impeccable image of power and prestige'.
The only other allegiance these architects knew was to themselves. That is why their giant creations are also often monumental paradoxes, at once glorifying the cult of the individual and dehumanizing the real individuals who must live and work in their shadows. Since the waning of modernism, architects may no longer be the cultural heroes they once were, but the paradox endures - under new ownership. Thus financier Donald Trump has a glittering tower soaring over midtown Manhattan that any bygone potentate would envy. Meanwhile, on the streets below, thousands sleep under newspapers and in cardboard boxes.
My own experience in New York proved to be more about falling than rising. Never again would I view the city and its tall buildings as a projection of my character and destiny. And so I will end with a descent, a search for whatever it is that human beings with their 'vertical aspiration' are so desperate to climb above.
The entry to the tenement where I lived formed a sort of cave in which homeless men would gather at night. In the morning some would be lying in heaps on the urinous tile, while others sat propped against the wall looking dumbstruck, as if astonished beyond words by a shocking vision that had come to them while the others slept. A few had swollen feet that had burst their shoes. revealing toes that had gone necrotic and black. One man with a shrunken head was forever mumbling angrily and swatting at bugs that were not really there. Invariably someone would extend a hand for money.
In the ancient world a single tall structure might have dominated an entire city. It drew all eyes to a common point, symbolizing a political order whose authority was just as concentrated. Our own age, in contrast, has no center. The tall buildings in New York spring upward like so many giant trees, each vying for a share of the available resources. Together, they form the equivalent of the jungle's canopy, whose pure energy is transformed into capital. They may thrive; but the system is a selfish one that dooms the lowest realms to perpetual dusk. There, the most abject beings wait with open palms to catch whatever sustenance filters through, in beggarly denominations.
The metaphor of the urban jungle portrays what is least flattering in the contemporary age. It also points to a strange reversal in the way people view the world now that human hands have largely redesigned it. The ancient city with its monumental pinnacle was that rare place where human beings found haven from the profane wilderness. Today, the wilderness is all but gone, which can only increase the impulse to build upward, beyond the new profanities of our own creation.
Jeremiah Creedon is a writer living in Minneapolis.
1 Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values, (Prentice-Hall, 1974).
2 Robert Hughes, Shock of the New, (Alfred A Knopf, 1981).
3 Albert Pick, Standard Catalogue of World Paper Money - General Issues, (Krause Publications).