A Spire for Greatness

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about the connections between symbols, information and the progress of human kind, scientific and otherwise. I’d like to share an essay I wrote a while back about skyscrapers.  In a very naive sense, the heights of our tallest buildings reflect the progress of civilization. In reality however, our advancement is more closely linked to the  depths of our abstractions than the heights of our concrete constructs.

Without further ado, here is my (abridged) essay, entitled “A Spire for Greatness”

A Spire for Greatness

A few weeks ago, I found myself in John F. Kennedy International airport on my way to meet my grandparents for the Thanksgiving Holiday. The flight attendant at the gate scanned my ticket and wished me a safe flight as I walked through the gate. Just past the gate was a short declining passageway connecting the plane to the terminal. The passageway only had one full plaster wall, and on the center of that wall was a single poster. The poster, which featured a slew of skyscrapers peaking through the clouds, read: “This is the story of human ambition”. At the time I didn’t know why I did it, but I snapped a picture of the poster before boarding the plane. It was only later that I realized why the poster had such a strong effect on me: it was precisely because I was in an airport – one of the largest and most advanced in the world. I was about to soar above the clouds in a giant metal cylinder with wings.

Fig 1. Poster at JFK that reads “this is the story of human ambition”.

Airplanes and skyscrapers are alike in a superficial, as well as in a fundamental way – they are both metal boxes, which take humans up into the sky. But airplanes fly higher than even the most imaginative designs for skyscrapers. As a child I remember learning that the Wright brothers epitomized dreaming and innovation. Amelia Earhart, who fearlessly flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean, seemed to embody the intrepid. And yet, in this air-transportation hub, where it would be most apt to revere plane and pilot, it is the skyscraper that symbolizes human ambition.

What is it about the skyscraper that screams to us of human achievement? And why, instead of using a word accepted as positive like progress, did the poster highlight ambition, a word riddled with connotations both good and bad? On the one hand, ambition is often viewed as a negative quality, an inimical mixture of Greed and Pride, two of the seven deadly sins. On the other hand, ambition is in our modern society somewhat synonymous with a desire and a will to succeed. The ambitious are vigorous, and take their own initiative – these are the type of mates parents plead with their children to find and latch on to. As I later found out, the poster was just one in a series of such posters in airports all over the world. The posters were created and financed by the bank HSBC to promote human ambition – a thinly veiled ploy to improve their global image. By shining a positive light on ambition, the company could shift its associations from the avarice of banks to the aspiration to contribute positively to society.

Although we usually think of skyscrapers as epitomizing negative ambition, they can, and should represent the positive type. For skyscrapers to add to their urban environments, and the world as a whole, they must embrace the horizontal along with the vertical.In such a world, skyscrapers no longer ‘scrape’ or ‘pierce’ the skyline. Instead, they create it.

The word “skyscraper” traces back to the late 1700s, when it was introduced as the name of a racehorse, and subsequently used to describe a light sail at the top of a mast. “Skyscraper” was first applied to tall buildings in 1888, four years after the construction of the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, which, at ten stories tall and metal-framed, is regarded as having been the first modern skyscraper. Architect Leroy Buffington proposed building a “stratosphere-scraper” with the same metal frame and almost three times as many floors. Perhaps “stratosphere-scraper” was too long or unwieldy, or “stratosphere” sounded too scientific for the common vernacular, but “skyscraper” caught on. A century later and “skyscraper” has maintained its context.

A compound word, “skyscraper” conjures images of literally “scraping the sky”, clawing at some impenetrable boundary above. This paints a picture of human curiosity, wherein the skyscraper enables man to pull back the curtains of the clouds and view the space beyond. But this tale of exploration and inquiry might be better suited to a “stratosphere-scraper” than a “skyscraper”. Unlike the physicality of “stratosphere”, “sky” carries with it a spiritual significance, pointing toward the divinity and immortality of Heaven above. “Scrape” implies a level of violence and disrespect toward the object of its scraping – in this case the sky. However, “scrape” seems unfit to describe the action of the spired, towering buildings in modern metropoles. A better verb might be “puncture”, conveying the violence of a spire shooting up into the sky.

Nonetheless, the precise definition of “skyscraper” differs from source to source. Some impose cutoffs based on height or number of floors; some count spires while others don’t; and some require that the building rise above the rest of its urban environment. There are even designations of “supertall” and “megatall” reserved for the exceptionally tall skyscrapers. For the purposes of this paper, we do not need such measures. Instead, we satisfy ourselves with the following:

Def: A skyscraper is a tall structure built by humans 
     and in which humans live or conduct daily 

We don’t need to specify exactly how tall. What is important is that it is tall in the sense of our experience. Moreover, the second clause excludes structures such as the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, and the Pyramids of Giza. This definition does apply, however, to tall buildings that were constructed before the word “skyscraper” came into being.

In this general sense, the tower of Babel can be considered a skyscraper. In the Book of Genesis, the people say, “come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the Heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth”. Taken literally, the people hope to avoid being “scattered”, or spread outward over the face of the earth. To these people, the tower represents the vertical, whereas, relative to their body matrix – their natural coordinate system  – this scattering threatens to spread them horizontally. The vertical then, is supposed to fend off the scattering, instead bringing them together. The tower of Babel can be seen as an axis mundi. But the “Heavens” here refers to more than just that which is physically above them; it implicates God. “Reaching to the Heavens” is paramount to equaling God, and through the tower of Babel, their skyscraper, the people hope to equal the Divine Creator. “So that we may make a name for ourselves” only further illustrates this human pride. Moreover, it acknowledges that the tower of Babel is a product of self-serving ambition.

As the infamous tale concludes, God reasons that if the people build the tower, “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them”. As a result, he “confuses their language”, scattering them over the earth. God’s rationale further situates the primitive skyscraper as the ultimate symbol of ambition.

With the tower of Babel in mind, it seems fitting that the language that we use to describe tall buildings perpetuates this association of the skyscraper with self-serving ambition. In English, a set of stairs, taking you from one floor to another is commonly referred to as a ‘flight’. Obviously, people don’t fly up stairs; they walk on two feet. But “flight” makes us ever conscious of our ascending and descending. In particular, it reminds us of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, in which Icarus flew too close to the Sun, melting the wax that held his wings together, and falling precipitously to his death. In Greek mythology, the Titan Helios personifies the Sun, imbuing it with divine significance. Just like the Heavens in the story of Babel, the Sun represents something that humans should not attempt to equal, and Icarus’ flight is often interpreted as a story of personal ambition.

In a skyscraper, the alternative to a flight of stairs is an elevator. Indeed, the elevator was technologically a precondition for the modern skyscraper. Being tall, these buildings often have tens of floors, and it is inconvenient and even impractical for people to climb all of those stairs. The name “elevator” is apt, as it does elevate people. However, in its earliest use, the verb “to elevate” means “to raise in rank or status”. This etymology suggests a literal hierarchy of height; the higher up one is physically, the higher their status in society.

The skyscraper embraces this hierarchical structure in two ways: within a single skyscraper, and between competing skyscrapers. Inside high-rise apartments, the more luxurious, expensive rooms tend to be on the upper floors, with quality (and cost) increasing with height. Some buildings even have separate elevators reserved for occupants of the upper floors. The highest rank one can have is to own the penthouse – the most grand apartment in the entire building. The penthouse suite is almost always on the top floor of the apartment complex, often taking up the entire floor. A similar hierarchy ensues in office buildings, where penthouse is replaced by oh-so-coveted corner office with a view on the top floor. The skyscraper thus fosters an atmosphere of competitiveness.

The hierarchy between skyscrapers is perhaps even more evident. With the completion of the Home Insurance Building and the arrival of the modern skyscraper has come the quest to construct the tallest building. This competition was on display in the volatile skyline of New York City in the mid 20th century. In early 1928, the Woolworth Building stood as the tallest building in New York after eclipsing Trinity Church in 1913. But that summer saw Manhattan host the “race for the sky” between the Chrysler Building and the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building. During the construction of these two buildings, the height advantage shifted back and forth before topping out at similar levels. After the Chrysler’s groundbreaking ceremony, the architect of its competitor at 40 Wall Street “increased the height of his project by two feet and claimed the title of the world’s tallest building”. In response to this, William Van Allen, the architect of the Chrysler Building added a 125-foot spire to the top of the building, reclaiming the title.

Today, there is even an “official” title of the “world’s tallest building”, bestowed by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). Every year or so, it seems, this title is handed down (or up if you will) to the next champion of the sky. The CTBUH’s database, The Skyscraper Center, confirms that the five tallest buildings in the world were all completed after 2010.

What about skyscrapers in particular fosters this competition? Among skyscrapers, one simple answer seems evident: taller buildings command more attention. A tall building brings its architect into the public eye. The company asserts its presence in the community, and the architect, as a creator, “makes a name for himself” as attempted those constructing the tower of Babel. It’s no surprise that many skyscrapers of this period in the late 19th to mid 20th century were named after the companies and wealthy individuals who purchased them: “Woolworth”, “Chrysler”, “Home Insurance” and “Manhattan Company” are just a few examples.

What is surprising is that many of these structures emphasize their “building-ness”. The fact that the Chrysler Building is a building – that it contains a roof and walls and stands of its own accord – is self-evident, and the word “Building” is unnecessary in conveying that. Taking “building” as part of a building’s name, and consequently its written and spoken identity, however, gives us pause to think. In the English language, the suffix “ing” is predominantly used in gerunds – verbs constructed from nouns. For example, in the sentence “Computing is fun”, “ing” transforms the verb “to compute” into the noun “computing”. Yet we don’t speak of this new noun as an entity of its own – “A computing” is unnatural. “Building” is similarly a gerund, in this case formed from the verb “to build”. Nonetheless, we speak of “A building” when we speak of the “Chrysler Building”. The presence of the word “building” thus implicates the verb “to build”, insinuating that the process of constructing and building is ongoing. By so doing, these skyscrapers implicitly claim to be building on top of the other members of their urban environment, asserting their place above the city. A similar story applies to the word “tower”, which appears in “Trump Tower”, the “Eiffel Tower” and “Burj Khalifa” (Burj meaning tower in Arabic). Although “tower” can function as a noun, its original usage was as a verb. The presence of “tower” in the names of these skyscrapers then speaks to their “towering over” their built environments.

Inside the skyscraper, it is the ambition of the occupants, not its architect and sponsor that is promoted. As extensions of these buildings, balconies provide a window through which to understand intra-skyscraper self-assertion. Balconies have a long and rich history that begins centuries before the construction of modern skyscrapers. A quick online search of “balcony” returns images of exquisitely decorated balustrades with artful railings. A search for “city balcony”, however, reveals images not of the structure and artistry of the balcony itself, but of the view from that balcony. Some of these pictures capture the edge of a railing in the frame, while others ignore the balcony entirely, with camera tilted slightly downward, giving an air of superiority in which the on-looker is literally “looking down on” the rest of the city. The higher one is, the more removed from the turmoil below. He who stands out on the balcony peering out upon the city rises above the city and its mortality. After all, he is literally in rarefied air, and rarefied company.

The complementary “looking up” of people below at the balconies adds to this sentiment. According to Schopenhauer, the balance of load and support is fundamental to architecture. In his treatise On the Aesthetics of Architecture, Schopenhauer writes that because balconies protrude from a building without any obvious support, “they appear suspended, and disturb the mind”. The higher up one is, the less apparent lack of support plagues their eyes and minds. He who rests on the highest perch is immune to these worries. In contrast, those on the street below see the undersides of every balcony, and must fear that such unsupported load will come crashing down upon them.

And while for the most part skyscrapers do not physically crash down upon us, dystopian science fiction films cultivate the association of skyscrapers with our fear of the collapse of humanity. Skyscrapers are conflated with human pride through the frequent use of darkened cityscape and skyline as a setting for artificial intelligence. By trying to create something intelligent – and in their own image, humans raise themselves to the level of the Divine Creator, God, “reaching toward the Heavens”. One example of this that I find particularly poignant – and which was received with great success internationally, speaking to its thematic universal appeal – is the Wachowski siblings’ Matrix. In the Matrix, humans create thinking machines in an attempt to take away the AIs’ source of energy. This backfires, as the machines realize that they can use humans as batteries, and they begin “harvesting” human beings in gigantic sky-scraping towers referred to as “power plants”. The machines hold the humans in these towers in an unconscious state by hooking their brains up to “the Matrix”, effectively feeding them a false reality. While the few humans outside the Matrix live underground, the skyscrapers are the domain of the machines. They are portrayed as dark, formulaic, and inhuman, and we see the “humans” in the tower as somehow less human. This speaks to our fear that skyscrapers will somehow detract from that which makes us human.

Fig 2. Image of two “skyscrapers” used to house humans
as batteries in the Matrix.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. There is nothing inherent to tall buildings that necessitates that they promote greed or pride. Nor is it necessary that they figure as symbols of negative ambition in our society. In her famed novel The Fountainhead, philosopher Ayn Rand espouses her view through character Gail Wynand that skyscrapers are “the will of man made visible”. Of course, this will can, and has been turned toward personal gain. But “will”extends beyond the will to succeed; human resolve and determination also manifest themselves as the will to live and the will to love. By the same token, skyscrapers can outgrow the literal connotations associated with scraping the sky and come to reflect the positive side of human ambition.

In fact, there are instances of skyscrapers contributing to their communities going back all the way to the dawn of the modern skyscraper. In 1889, the Eiffel Tower became the first such structure to weave its way into the fabric of an entire nation. While the Eiffel Tower is not generally considered to be a skyscraper in the conventional sense, it satisfies the definition given in this paper. The height of an 81-story building, the tower was the tallest structure in the world for more than four decades. It is a monument, but unlike the Washington Monument, the Eiffel Tower – at least initially – satisfied the final constraint: its architect Gustav Eiffel lived in the penthouse apartment at the top of the tower. Now the apartment is open to public tours, so the tower’s designation as a skyscraper no longer holds.

As a skyscraper, the Eiffel Tower did succumb to many of the obvious signs of self-promotion. Not only does the tower bear Eiffel’s eponym, the architect signed the contract for the tower in his own name instead of that of his firm, ensuring himself all profits from the deal. Moreover, the so-called “tower” was an entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, making the implications of the word “tower” even more significant. However, the tower was able to transcend these ambitions as a symbol of France’s 100th anniversary celebration of its Revolution. Eiffel said that the tower would reflect “a century of Industry and Science… prepared for by the great scientific movement of the eighteenth century and the Revolution of 1789”. Indeed, the tower certainly paid its respects to science by memorializing 72 French scientists and engineers. In addition, it aided in the contribution to scientific discovery: the Eiffel Tower was instrumental in the discovery of cosmic rays, and to experiments in meteorology and air resistance. Just as importantly, the tower came to be a symbol of French patriotism – of national pride.

Over the past few years, America has been similarly united by skyscraper-induced patriotism. On September 11th 2001, coordinated terrorist attacks sent hijacked airplanes crashing into the North and South Twin Towers, collapsing the structures and taking the lives of thousands of people working inside. Debris from the towers rained down upon and destroyed the World Trade Center. In addition to causing the United States an estimated loss of three trillion dollars, the attacks sent a wave of fright and uncertainty across the nation, wiping away the feeling of American security.

Shortly after the catastrophic events of 9-11, plans were proposed for the construction of a new building at Ground Zero, and by 2004, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of its predecessor, One World Trade Center was born. Even the building’s name speaks to its purpose: While “one” technically refers to its address, it combines with “world” to suggest togetherness and advocate for one universal community. The building’s designer Daniel Libeskind sought to create “a monolithic glass structure which reflects the sky”. As simple as it seems, this statement speaks to a truly different mindset toward the construction of skyscrapers. Instead of piercing or even reaching the sky, the architects hoped to reflect it. To “reflect”, or “to cast back without absorbing”, suggests an acknowledgement and acceptance of human’s inability to capture and hold onto the divine. For Icarus, tragedy took the form of melting wax unfastening his wings. Implicit in this melting is the absorption of heat from the Sun. Reflection stands in stark contrast to this demise, demonstrates a divergence from prideful ambition. In addition to its physical interpretation, “reflection” admits a second definition – “serious thought or contemplation”. This meaning is synonymous with “meditation”, and conveys deep introspection and concern for how one’s actions affect others. In the case of One World Trade Center, reflecting the sky becomes a kind of meditation on the sky, in which the building is conscious of its relation to the Heavens – that it is below the Heavens.

These initial hints of thoughtfulness are substantiated by the building’s form, which embraces other New York skyscrapers rather than eclipsing them. In his original design proposal, Libeskind intended to complement the Statue of Liberty, and to integrate One World Trade Center with the surrounding buildings. The revised plans however, do even more – paying tribute to many of New York’s most iconic structures. One World Trade Center’s façade draws inspiration from the original North Tower, and its spire closely resembles those of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.

Fig 3. Spire at the top of One World Trade Center,
paying homage to the spire on the Chrysler Building.

Just as this spire helped join together the staples of the New York skyline, it helped unite the American people by transforming One World Trade Center into a symbol of resilience and renewed national faith. In the “race for the sky”, Van Allen threaded a spire through the top of the Chrysler building to edge out the Manhattan Company Building. This “race” was fueled by competition, and the spire was added for the purpose of claiming the title of tallest building in New York (and in the world). Upon its completion, One World Trade Center did reach higher than had any previous building in New York. However, its spire was introduced to raise the building to a height of precisely 1776 feet to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The purpose was to “restore the skyline with a tall and dramatic new symbol for New York”; it needed to be tall to make a statement, but the resulting designation as tallest in New York was an afterthought. In other words, while it did reach up into the sky, its ambition was to reach out toward the rest of the skyline, and to the people of America. In this ambition it has certainly succeeded.

And One World Trade Center is not alone. Over the past few years, architects across the world have begun to integrate skyscrapers into their urban communities. In London, this movement from domination toward contribution has manifested itself in high-tech buildings that pay respect to the history surrounding them. One such building, the Cheesegrater is the product of massive commercial backing, yet is not named after the financing company. Rather, along with other newly constructed London skyscrapers like the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie, and the Scalpel, it is endearingly known for the object it resembles. This catchy nickname and association with an everyday object make it easier for people to grow accustomed to the building, facilitating its assimilation into the city’s architectural framework. While the Cheesegrater is recognizable by its distinct wedge shape, it is for the most part unobtrusive. In fact, the building’s architects chose the wedge-shaped form precisely so as to not inhibit views of other London landmarks such as St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Palace. According to architect and art historian Bethan Morgan, for the Cheesegrater, “the structure…determined the aesthetics of the building, and the form was deciphered from the needs of London as a historical context”. The building’s designers, Rogers Stirk Harbourn and Partners, applied technological advances and state of the art architectural techniques in order to add to London’s architectural story while preserving its history. If architecture is, as Ayn Rand asserts, “the will of man made visible”, then the Cheesegrater is a testament to that will. The Cheesegrater illustrates ambition to punctuate instead of puncture the skyline.

Fig 4. The “Cheese grater”, one of
several iconic skyscrapers in London.

Indeed, the idea that a skyscraper can assert itself through accenting and adding to the other buildings in its urban habitat has made its way into the common architectural discourse. In 2012, the CTBUH hosted a design competition on the topic of “Reimagining Tall”. The competition’s chair William Penderson motivated the event: “There has been a major transition in the sense of the value of the tall building and what it can contribute to the urban realm, and society in general”. Hundreds of students across the globe submitted original designs for skyscrapers that added to their environments. One of the winning solutions, entitled “Urban Forest”, proposes a new model for the skyscraper, in which one tall building can “grow” out of another, extending it in any direction. In this way, a single building cannot exist as a whole on its own; each building is a part of those around it. Like trees in one connected forest, these buildings form a cohesive urban environment. Any one building not only adds to the urban environment, it takes part in creating it. As the proposal’s authors describe the forest, “it looks not just to fit within the city, but to extend new fits to nearby buildings and public spaces”. These extensions connect one tall building to another, opening the skyscraper up to the horizontal. Just as a tree must spread its roots laterally to grow upward, so must the skyscraper connect to those around it as it rises vertically.

Fig 5. Artistic rendering of “Urban Forest”

Of course, “Urban Forest” is only one possible model for skyscrapers. But it does point to a deeper truth about tall buildings: If tall buildings are to represent the positive type of ambition – the aspiration to add to their urban habitats in a meaningful way – then they must embrace the horizontal as well as the vertical. Like One World Trade Center’s spire, skyscrapers should reach outward as well as upward.