The Hubris of Skyscrapers

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Sometimes cities build really tall buildings because they want to house a lot people, sometimes because they want to increase the city's profile, and sometimes just because it makes more sense than constructing a bunch of smaller buildings. But could there be a hidden, psychological factor driving the construction of skyscrapers? Say, hubris? Magazine writers certainly think so!

  • Nationalistic Pride  The New Yorker's Paul Goldberger calls building skyscrapers "a pursuit both pointless and exhilarating." He surveys the giant buildings of developing nations such as Dubai and Malaysia.
Buildings put up to garner titles like “the world’s tallest” or “the world’s second-tallest” are usually erected in cities that have reached a critical juncture in their maturity, and which want to assert their position for the first time on the world stage. The Woolworth Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building, each of which was the world’s tallest for a time, were all put up to announce the primacy of their city to the world, and they succeeded. That’s just what Asian and Middle Eastern countries are trying to do now. You don’t build this kind of skyscraper to house people, or to give tourists a view, or even, necessarily, to make a profit. You do it to make sure the world knows who you are.
  • Phallic Symbolism  The New York Review of Books's Ingrid Rowland probes deep into the human desires that make us build skyscrapers. "If the Earth has never been shy about proclaiming the instability of its surface, the creature misnamed Homo sapiens has never been shy about ignoring the message," she writes, arguing that female architects will do it differently.
The phallic nature of towers has never been subject to much doubt. Medieval Italian cities bristled with them, each one symbolizing, with what the Greek poet Pindar called (in another phallic context) “upright hubris,”* a powerful family or clan. Bologna at the time of Dante in the early fourteenth century was as full of skyscrapers as New York. [...]

Why, then, do we keep building to such heights? To be sure, it is in the nature of phallic things (symbols included) to try, try, and try again, just as it is in the nature of primates, among other artists, to imitate all that they admire, including marvelous tall majesties like mountains and trees. ... As more and more women join the ranks of practicing architects, as well as the ranks of those who commission architecture, perhaps we will see a change in the ideal form of buildings and cities.
  • Post-9/11 Defiance  National Review's Rod Dreher balks at the plan to replace the World Trade Center with even taller building in a post titled 'Hubris':
I know I'm in a minority here at NR when I say this, but I think this is a mistake. Yes, it's satisfying to defy the S.O.B.'s who destroyed the WTC by building something taller than before, but it can't be denied that doing so would present irresistible targets to future terrorists. Everybody knows that, so who is going to want to work in those buildings, especially in the upper floors? Some would, but many wouldn't. And who is going to want to insure them? Has anybody estimated the costs of insurance? Furthermore, does it really make economic sense to concentrate offices in skyscrapers in the Internet age (e.g., telecommuting)?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.