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Phil-osophically Speaking: May 17, 2012

New York State of Mind

They must soar into the clouds, they must be exalting, they must exude power, and they must, from their summit, lord over the earth. I’m talking about skyscrapers, a feature as identifiable to a major city as the red barn is to rural America. Exactly how tall a building has to be to qualify as a skyscraper is an academic question. There is no threshold, no line in the sky that has to be crossed and no metric yardstick to measure it by. But like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, you may not be able to define it but you know it when you see it. How true: A skyscraper is axis-mundi —- a pillar that connects the terrestrial world with the heavens above.

Just the other week, One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower, surpassed the 1,250-foot height of the Empire State Building, ending its 11-year reign as the tallest building in New York subsequent to the destruction of the Twin Towers. Before the completion of the North Tower in 1972, the Empire State had held the record of not only the tallest building in New York, but for 41 years, the entire world.

The first time I saw the Empire State Building I was 7 years old. I was awe-struck, having just seen on television that past Thanksgiving, King Kong scaling its heights while holding a shrieking Fay Wray in the palm of one of his gigantic mitts. The Freudian psychosexual themes of the Empire State Building as the ultimate phallic symbol are unmistakable. But, of course, I was ignorant of such things. What I remember is my father lifting me over the railing of the observatory deck to look down at the people scurrying over the sidewalks of New York like an army of ants. It seemed, for the moment, the center of the world. It wasn’t always so. Built in the early days of the Great Depression, most of the offices in the Empire State Building remained vacant throughout the 1930s and so its critics dubbed it “The Empty State Building.” My visit began a lifelong habit of gazing with wonder at very tall buildings. Upon seeing the Bank of America building for the first time, I thought that’s got to be pretty close to being the Big Apple’s tallest building. I went online and discovered it was the second tallest (now the third), falling just 50 feet short of the Empire State Building.

The etymological derivation of skyscraper is self-evident: A structure so tall it literally scrapes the sky. Altitude has always been synonymous with power and greatness. In ancient Egypt, the Great Pyramid of Giza stood 479 ft. high, the highest man-made structure of the ancient world. That is even more impressive when you consider that throughout most of the 19th century, buildings of more than six stories high were rarer than a good hair day for Donald Trump. Elevators did not exist, so climbing that many stairs was impractical. Moreover, water pressure was too weak to supply water to heights greater than 164 ft.   

Necessity, as it often does, became the mother of invention. Municipalities were increasingly land strapped and building vertically instead of horizontally was unavoidable. In 1852, Elisha Otis perfected the safety elevator and just over a decade later the use of steel frame construction instead of stone and brick made it feasible to build higher. The building credited as the first skyscraper was the 10-story Home Insurance building in Chicago. Using a steel framework rather than the old method of load-bearing walls was liberating and the echo was like the sounding of a starting gun in the race to go ever higher.

This technique was key in the construction of the 792 ft. Woolworth building in 1913. True, compared to the behemoths of today it looks like a midget. Yet it succeeds admirably in contrast to many of its prodigious descendants because altitude bereft of artistry is barren and soulless. With its pyramidal crown giving the building its upward thrust, I marvel at its resemblance to a gothic cathedral (in fact, it was christened the Cathedral of Commerce) every time I walk down Broadway.

Sixteen years later, the Chrysler Building became the paradigm of blending stature with aesthetic grace. Although it only held the title as the “World’s Tallest Building” for one year, it’s my favorite. With its triangular windows on the north side, its gargoyles molded after the Plymouth’s automobile hood ornaments and its eagles on the corners of the 31st floor, it has a heterogeneity rich in nuance and detail. Its linear symmetry, asymmetrical curves and art deco spire trumpets elegance, glamour and modernism.

Not surprisingly, the most controversial thing about skyscrapers is their purported heights. Since there are many different types of buildings, the definition of what constitutes a building’s summit is problematical. For example, spires are usually counted toward a building’s height but not antennas. Sometimes the difference between a spire and a showy antenna gets conflated because of sly and ambiguous interpretations by self-interested parties. There is, however, no argument about the tallest building in the world. It’s in Burj Khalifa, Dubai, and it measures an astounding 2,717 feet. That’s well over twice the height of the Empire State Building. Why would Dubai need a building that high? The answer, of course, is prestige.

The development of ultra-strength concrete and computer software allowing engineers to build taller structures able to withstand high winds and earthquakes portends that even taller buildings will be built. The higher and higher scenario, however, strikes me as a hubristic act, (like the Tower of Babel), where people have too much freedom to do what they wish rather than what they ought. There is a difference between a structure rich in symbolism and showboating.

In the District of Columbia, there’s a law that no structure can be built higher than the Washington Monument, in deference to the sacred memory of the Father of our Country. That’s a fitting gesture of filial piety. After the 9-11 attacks destroyed the World Trade Center, plans to build another tower even higher for no other purpose than to signify an uplifted middle finger directed at America’s enemies. That’s a little too raw and provocative for me. But making the Freedom Tower 1,776 feet high, mirroring the nation’s most iconic year, was an inspiration. There is something exalting and poetically moving in fusing together substance and spirit by wedding America’s lofty ideals with an enduring physical symbol ascending to the very heavens.