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James Carroll

Our edifice complex

The urge to build taller and taller belies one basic fact: we belong on the ground

A worker rappeled from the top of the Washington Monument as inspections began last week. A worker rappeled from the top of the Washington Monument as inspections began last week. (Reuters)
By James Carroll
Globe Columnist / October 3, 2011

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THE WASHINGTON Monument is made of granite and marble, and was once the tallest structure in the world, but it shook like a house of cards during the earthquake that struck on Aug. 23. Last week, the National Park Service released film from an interior surveillance camera atop the obelisk, showing rattled tourists scrambling down the narrow staircase, desperate to escape. The building swayed unevenly, and chunks of debris could be seen falling. Some of the tourists later reported worrying that a terrorist attack had hit the monument. But did a far more ancient dread seize them - not just acrophobia, but a sense of moral vertigo?

When I visited the top of the monument as a child, a gut feeling of unnatural trespass in the domain of birds always collided with exhilaration at the view. The primitive fear of falling was overcome by an equally primal quest for ever higher vantage points. The earthquake left the Washington Monument with cracks, and it is closed for now. But are there cracks, also, in the idea of ever-taller structures as a rational mode of human progress? As a Bible-believing boy, I once associated the monument with the Tower of Babel, but that parable of hubris seemed not really to apply to my beloved country.

When the Washington Monument opened in 1884 at 550 feet, it surpassed in height the Cologne cathedral, which dated to the 13th century, even if its record-setting spires had been completed only a few years before. The modern race skyward was on, as industrialized construction took hold - steel beams and the electric elevator. The monument yielded pride of place in 1889 to the Eiffel Tower (1,063 feet), but the record came back to the United States in time for the American century, with the 1930 Chrysler Building (1,047 feet), which was quickly left behind a year later by the Empire State Building (1,250 feet). The World Trade Center (1971, at 1,368 feet) seemed a pinnacle, but was promptly looked down upon by the Sears Tower in Chicago (1973, at 1,451 feet, now called the Willis Tower). Chicago, New York, and other cities found important solutions to challenges of urban density in skyscrapers, but by then the super building seemed a made-in-America emblem of supremacy.

Yet US dominance proved fleeting in many ways, skyscrapers included. Developing nations have joined the race for tallest building, with competitors recently being built in Kuala Lumpur (1,483), Shanghai (1,598), and Taipei (1,671). The record holder today, at more than half a mile high (2,717 feet), is in Dubai, but more super-tall buildings are coming in Mumbai, Shenzhen, Tokyo, and Mecca. New York’s One World Trade Center, when complete, will punch in at a relatively modest 1,776 (a patriotic number for what was first conceived as the “Freedom Tower’’). That America has apparently opted out of this contest seems a surrender to some. That the Dubai record holder makes no rational planning sense - it stands in a wide-open city free from the upward pressure of urban density - is itself an epiphany. The urge to construct the tallest building may imply an anxious sense of inferiority as much as any mark of supremacy.

Our prehistoric ancestors found a survival advantage in high places from which to see enemies approach, and this may account for an innate urge to build tall. The wish to lord it over rivals has been satisfied with such construction. (Freemasons were staking a cultural claim with the Washington Monument, as were secularists of the Third Republic with the Eiffel Tower. Walter Chrysler was sticking it to Henry Ford back in Detroit). But the creation myth of skyscrapers remains the Tower of Babel, a cautionary tale, warning of moral chaos when precious creativity is channeled into blatant erections of vanity.

Enter the earthquake, an aptly named phenomenon of nature - and a wake-up call. Humans were made for Earth, not heaven. The wish to escape limits, live like angels, soar like Icarus - or dominate from on high - has been reckoned a deadly temptation precisely because it leads to neglect of obligations on the ground. The urge to build tall teased the imagination, but tricked the will. What if, instead, humans sought to surpass themselves and one another in building structures of justice, equality, and basic needs for all? It’s not too late.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.