INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN - THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE AND UNDENIABLE SIGNIFICANCE OF SKYSCRAPERS IN OUR CULTURE
"Each stands as the pinnacle symbol of its respective society-Capitalist Culture, as espoused by the West; Fundamentalist Culture, as espoused by Islam; and Communist Culture, as espoused by China. Like the three Nation-States of Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia from Orwell's 1984, our three Superpowers each posses economic and nuclear might, each competes for control of global markets, each is engaged in a war of both resources and ideology. And, of course, each has a Tower which proclaims the might and wherewithal of it's particular Superstate."
By Charles Shaw
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
Orwell and Architects
The Archetypal Connection
TO UNDERSTAND THE TRUE SIGNIFICANCE OF SKYSCRAPERS we need to approach them from the point of view of their two defining factors: Their symbolic value to a particular city or country; and the economic importance they hold for the present and future of commerce.
If you've never seen a Supertall building in person you can't possibly understand what I am talking about, even if you have seen endless footage of the 9/11 attacks. You'll pardon the cliché, but they truly are majestic and awe-inspiring. Here in Chicago, we are spoiled, but still we never cease to be amazed. They are more than just tall buildings to us; they are archetypal symbols of our power and prosperity, defying the very gravity that binds us to this earth. They are the most important and direct symbol of our advancement as a race, of our intellectual and practical evolution, and of our ability to think outside the constraints of our natural environment. And in one way or another we have been building them in our dreams, on paper, and on our soil for thousands of years.
We need to make an important distinction. Skyscrapers can be broken into two distinct categories: The "high-rise" is considered anything over 10 stories that possesses an elevator system; "Supertall" buildings are generally considered to be trophy structures over 1000 feet tall, of which currently there are 24 in the world and 6 in the US (3 in Chicago; 1 in NYC, LA, Houston, and Atlanta) with an additional 8 in the US within a few feet of 1000.
In today's world, Supertall buildings are not built because they are especially practical. Most "monuments to our innovation" do not fall into this category, because they are built as extensions of the Human Ego (or perhaps, depending on your particular school of psychology, an extension of another prominent human organ). Some consider this idea hackneyed now, overplayed. But really, the condemnation towards "ego buildings" is only a recent phenomenon brought about by the September 11th attacks, as many decided to shame the skyscraper along with the enemies who attacked them. But nothing stands as a greater symbol to a society's might than the structures they build as paeans to mankind's power and ingenuity. Whether they be the Pyramids of Giza built to exalt the majesty of the Pharaohs, or the Lighthouse at Alexandria built at the forefront of a new age in sea travel, the Eiffel Tower, built as a testament to steel, or the Jin Mao Tower, built as a testament to the fact that a Communist nation can compete in a global economy, man will continue to build upward if for no other reason than to defy gravity. Like I said, we don't build them to be practical.
Ultimately, they will become practical and commonplace to meet our ever-growing need for workable space. But before anyone really needed the space we still had the idea to build them. And despite what appeared at the time to be prohibitive factors, we got out there and built them anyway, and the world followed suit. So, despite the fact that Supertall buildings are predominantly phenomenal spectacles, they are becoming ever more beautiful, and ever more necessary to our modern existence.
Take for instance our "big three" listed above. Each stands as the pinnacle symbol of its respective society-Capitalist Culture, as espoused by the West; Fundamentalist Culture, as espoused by Islam; and Communist Culture, as espoused by China. Like the three Nation-States of Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia from Orwell's 1984, our three Superpowers each posses economic and nuclear might, each competes for control of global markets, each is engaged in a war of both resources and ideology. And, of course, each has a Tower which proclaims the might and wherewithal of it's particular Superstate.
When the Petronas Towers were completed in 1997, their main function was to herald the arrival of the Islamic-Fundamentalist state as a world economic power; China had similar intentions with the Jin Mao Tower. This power attained by Islam was achieved by the spread of the religion to the former Buddhist enclaves of the Indonesian/Malaysian/Philippine corridor, known, along with Taiwan, as the world's manufacturing and assembly center. And it is no coincidence that the rise of the new Islamic "cell-based" terrorism, such as the two bombings of US Embassies in Africa, coincided with the completion of their Byzantine behemoth.
Of course, there was one structure that rose above even those three, standing proud for the whole world to see just how rich and powerful it could become. It transcended the notion of the Superstate and stood as the most recognized symbol of both the city and ideology of the world's most powerful nation. And when it was attacked, not only did it announce the end of the brief age that saw the USA as the world's only superpower, but it also took a part of our soul down with it. The World Trade Center was deeply rooted in our collective psychology and culture. Destroying the towers also decimated any notion of our being invincible. The gaping wounds from which the people and smoke poured was a visual metaphor not even Dostoyevsky could have conjured.
Our souls collapsed along with it…
Ultimately, the birth of a skyscraper needs two essential ingredients: a favorable economic climate, and either the tacit or direct need for vertical space. In the 1990's, there were two places on earth where the word "redevelopment" caused everyone to redefine their terms.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is a fourth generation Chicagoan. In the 1920's and 30's his paternal great-grandfather was Alderman of the 37th Ward (Austin District) and West Chicago Park Commissioner before the new Chicago Park District was formed in 1934. He is Politics and Non-Fiction Editor for 3am Magazine
, and writes a daily sociopolitical column, SIGNS OF THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION - A Daily Dose of Doltry
. 2003 will see the release of his debut novel, Unfinished Portraits
, and in 2004 he will release The Politics of Recreation: Ten Political Battles that Shaped Chicago Public Land
through Lake Claremont Press