OZYMANDIAS

Esquire (Philippines) - - THIS WAY IN - Kris­tine FONACIER

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.

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