Douglas Bell: Tall Buildings, Tall Targets, Tall Ambitions

Roundup: Talking About History

In the days leading up to and following 9/11, I found myself reporting from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. ... As it happened, I was staying on the highest floor in the tallest building in the Arab world, the Emirates Tower. As the horror unfolded throughout the late afternoon, I sat with a British engineer living in Oman taking a shaky drink in a bar on one of the hotel's upper floors. "You know where we are, don't you?" he asked rhetorically while surveying the city below. "It's the Hypocrite Hilton."

He was referring to the fact that the Emirates Tower was a showpiece of the Emirates royal family members, who, along with the Saudi royals, were quintessential sinners in the eyes of Bin Laden and his death-cult followers (four of the 19 hijackers held Emirates passports). In their radical Islamic vernacular, the two most despicable entities in their hierarchy of venality are infidels (non-believers) and hypocrites (believers who've fallen to the vile temptations of the infidel), hence "Hypocrite Hilton."
As frightened as my thinking was that night, it shadows the motivation behind the current zeal among infidel and hypocrite alike to build higher and higher above the earth.

Among the tallest dozen or so projects either under way or nearing their groundbreaking is the Freedom Tower in New York, which, at precisely 1,776 patriotic feet tall, is a sort of freestanding symbol of America's repudiation of her attackers.

Potentially dwarfing even that is the 2,300-foot Burj Dubai already under way and scheduled for topping off by the end of 2008, a year before its New York counterpart.

While there is little doubt that the usual commercial considerations apply in both cases, it is equally clear that at least part of the impetus for these two projects is the brute desire to re-establish the pre-eminence of progress and modernity in the guise of humanity's most visible expression of material ambition, the skyscraper.

The architectural bent toward constructing taller and taller buildings was born in the United States at the turn of the last century, more or less simultaneously in Chicago and New York. There were, of course, a complex web of technological and demographic factors that allowed the race the sky to begin. "For that to happen," writes the eminent urban historian Peter Hall in his majestic urban study Cities in Civilization, "electric railroads had to marry with another set of technologies: the steel-framed skyscraper building served by the electric lift... and incorporating also the technologies that made the modern office possible: the telephone, the typewriter, the dictation machine, and ubiquitous electrical power which lit the office and served... this first generation of office machinery. From then on it was a race..."

And like so many American novelties - movies, rock 'n' roll, television - what was born of commercial ambition was shortly to be identified with the broader palette of American cultural imperialism and mythmaking. "The skyscraper," writes Hall, "like so many innovations of the last thirty years of the 19th century, was an American invention, the most distinctively American thing in the world. Europeans soon began to notice it as something exotic: arriving in New York Harbour in 1876, T.H. Huxley commented on two towers on the skyline: 'Ah, that is interesting; this is America. In the Old World the first thing you see as you approach a great city are steeples; here you see, first, centres of intelligence.'"

Cass Gilbert, the architect of the Woolworth Building in New York, wrote in the early part of the century that "a skyscraper by its height... is a monument whose masses must become more and more inspired the higher it rises. The Gothic style gave us the possibility of expressing the greatest degree of aspiration... the ultimate note of the mass gradually gaining in spirituality the higher it mounts."

As America grew to be the pre-eminent power on Earth, those centres of intelligence became the symbols of the extension and reach of American military/industrial might throughout the world.

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