By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In New York's last Dark Agethe late '70sDavid Byrne sang as a Talking Head that he had to "find a city, find myself a city to live in." He was a Manhattanite then; he's a Manhattanite now. There probably was never a question. But today, as this city struggles to find itself after a terrorist attack, the future of the ultimate 20th-century declaration of placethe skyscraperhas fallen into doubt. Fear has hushed giddy chatter of record-setting skyscrapers from Chicago to India, and revered buildings like the Empire State have begun hollowing out as nervous tenants flee themand some the city itselfbefore the other shoe drops.
Though the music, poetry, painting, discourse, and dance in which cultured New Yorkers take justified pride are rarely born in skyscrapers, we're forced to ask again what these steel, glass, and stone behemoths contribute to the life of this city. The atrocities committed by Al Qaeda magnified our awareness of the precious contents of what might appear at first as mere mountains starkly rising from the landscape. Look hard at the Chrysler Building with new eyes, and you can almost pick up the heat signatures of beating heartsjanitors from the Bronx and executives from the Upper East Side, secretaries from Staten Island and grad student temps from Elmhurst. It hits you that the spire isn't the pointskyscrapers are our most profound ingathering of human beings, the mission of the city.
Tokyos proposed Millennium Tower
"I think proposals for cities within a single building that seem outlandish at the moment are definitely going to come to pass within the next 25 or 30 years," says architect William Pedersen, designer of the anticipated next tallest building in the world, the World Financial Center in Shanghai. Pedersen tells the Voicethat the challenge "is if you can bring the street up into the sky."
The biggest dreamers are looking amazingly far through the fog of fear.
"I'm a bit worried about my Orbital Towers after September 11! However, multiple redundancy will enable them to survivethey will need that anyway to cope with the occasional asteroid," says Arthur C. Clarke of the kilometer-wide skyscrapers reaching from Earth into space, a project he envisions in his 3001 installment of the Space Odysseyseries. Sir Arthur is perhaps the most colorful living futurist, having foreseen in 1945 the communications satellite and, later, notepad computers. NASA's on board with the rough concept, as it plans elevators to space to succeed dangerous rocket launches. Researchers developing robots, radically new materials, and nanotechnologies say they might foment a skyscraper revolution to blow our minds.
Right. Every artist has an opus in his head, and Sir Arthur's misfired predictions have included a few doozies. Meanwhile, Byrne isn't pining for a taller skyline. "Skyscrapers are the temples in the American religion. It is a religion that has found converts as far away as Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur, but it is a pretty empty religion at heart. Needless to say, there's a generous amount of male sexual anxiety involved as well, but don't tell that to the architects," Byrne says today, invoking the cliché of skyscrapers as cathedrals of capitalism.
But who looks at the Chrysler Building and thinks of a car company? The twin towers reflected off the night-darkened lower Hudson as the comet tail of Manhattan. "From 40 miles out at sea they would come up like spires over the horizon before you could even see the coastline. They were phenomenal," remembers F. James Wilson, chief boatswain's mate with the U.S. Coast Guard in New York. The great ones surpass their origins in a glance.
Yes, skyscrapers are loudly American. Yes, skyscrapers are arrogant. Yes, skyscrapers have the charged sexuality of blatant totemic phallicism. That's why we love them. They are architectural swing, disciplined but exuberant. The two art forms fruited in the same citiesNew York and Chicagoat the same moment; Cab Calloway came to New York from Chicago in time to unleash the jitterbug in the shadow of the newly minted Chrysler and Empire State buildings. America announced a new culture to the Old World, one that couldn't be dismissed as derivative, and for decades New York and Chicago relished the spectacle as they volleyed between themselves the title of the World's Tallest Building.