The first time I went to Chicago, I made the required pilgrimage up the Sears Tower— back then, it was the tallest building in the world, a distinction it would hold for just a couple more years after that visit. The lines were long, I remember, and the guidebook offered trivia about the length of elevator cables and why it was necessary to change elevators midway up the building.
To call the view from the top “impressive” might sound like faint praise, but is there any other word for the fact that the memory of that featureless viewdeck stays with me throughout the decades? I remember milling about with the other tourists, pressing my forehead against the glass so I could look down through the surprising distance between me and the tiny highway below. I went to the restroom, all the while thinking at how amazing it was to do one’s business on toilet seats higher than any other in the Western hemisphere.
As a child, I was obsessed with the lost Wonders of the Ancient World: I pictured the ships dwarfed by the Colossus of Rhodes, the awestruck worshippers at the foot of the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the ancient version of tourists gaping at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. If there is a kind of existential awe inspired by being in the midst of nature at its most grand, there’s another kind that comes from witnessing man-made structures at their most ambitious. The former is often described as a religious experience, and the latter, I think, is its opposite—it’s a somewhat illicit rush that comes from participating in blasphemy.
The idea that the grandest of our structures are often monuments to the builders themselves (and by “builders,” I unfortunately mean the rich and the powerful, hardly ever the workers who built them) is neither new nor temporary. See: the pyramids of Egypt, the last of the Ancient Wonders still standing. See: the Trump Tower. See: the government’s Build Build Build program for infrastructure development, which is about as hyperactive as its name suggests.
But see also: the Tower of Babel. And Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”. And Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s Law of Buildings, which cheekily says that “a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse…Perfection of planning is a symptom of decay.” (Parkinson goes on to explain that “During a period of exciting discovery or progress, there is not time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done.”)
And yet, for all its futility, we build. We build grand structures that reach to the sky and defy credulity. We build beyond our grasp; we build even beyond our reach. We make impossible plans and build impossible structures, because it is all we can do to make ourselves believe that we leave anything but dust behind.