What the American culture was admired for was not its culture but the absence of it.
Thomas van Leeuwen
In America, the absence of culture proved to be a good basis for typical American inventions. So in 1852, Otis invented the elevator which in reverse lead to the invention and construction of skyscrapers in Chicago and New York. Even in the early days of the American skyscrapers, architects like Louis Sullivan or Charles Morgan were very much inspired by the past. They tried to achieve the timelessness and the magnitude of great old buildings like churches, temples, palaces a.s.o.
So from their beginning, skyscrapers bear the myth of eternity and the supernatural. Likewise, a comparison to the myth of the Tower of Babel was made, with humans trying to reach heaven but failing to built a bridge to infinity. In addition, fundamental American myths influence the building of skyscrapers. First we have the myth of agriculture, imagining an extremely wide country where brave pioneers are seeking for new land (this myth serves as the basis for the Western-movie). Then we have the corresponding anti-urban myth, rejecting a big city like New York as a place of sin and corruption. Accordingly, the vertical structures of skyscrapers become symbols for a sudden rise of a dirty business in a dangerous city (this myth inspires the Gangster-movie). When we look at these myths, we notice a double bind: that of utopia and destruction as well as the double bind of technique and nature. This takes us to the central point: skyscrapers bear an inner logic, and this is the logic of the paradox. A paradox is implying that any aspect does also point to its opposite. In the context of skyscrapers, the paradox shows that any statement on a skyscrapers' function, appeal a.s.o. does have a correlating opponent. For example, the spirit and glamour of a skyscraper is grounded on mass production and profit orientation. Or the feeling of pride about a skyscrapers' maximum size bears the fear for collapse. Strikingly, the inner paradoxes of skyscrapers are rarely mentioned by architects, journalists or others. That is why I want to have a deeper look now on the different paradoxes of skyscrapers as well as on the recent events in New York later on. For a demonstration, I chose one videoclip and three netart-works showing Manhattans' skyscrapers. These four pieces of media-art play with cinematic codes and present hybrid images of skyscrapers that reveal their multiple paradoxes.
Alex Gopher: THE CHILD
In 1999, the videoclip The Child is released. The music is arranged by Alex Gopher, who sampled the singing of the jazz-legend Billie Holliday. A The French graphic designer Antoine Bardout-Jacquet transferred it into the visual and animated the city of New York, where all its traffic and people consist of letters. The plot of The Child is very simple: a pregnant woman and her husband have to reach a hospital and take a speedy taxi trip through New York.
The Child's three-dimensional graphics present a new experience within the well-known. Therefore, it is interesting to see how the digital video The Child changes our cinematic perception and plays with the connotations of skyscrapers. The clip starts with an establishing shot from above, flying from the sky towards the gloomy skyline of Manhattan, a shot we have seen a million times before in films and TV-series. Starting a journey into New York by entering the golden skyline of Manhattan is an urban cliché. Like no other city, New York is characterized by its skyline as a symbol of New Yorks everlasting energy (the city that never sleeps). The skyline of Manhattan serves as the most famous signature of a proud and wealthy America, it has become a kind of "national trademark". In the American land of glory, New Yorks' skyline was described as a vertical Jerusalem out of pure gold, offering asylum and a million opportunities. This praised city also has an entrance door which is always opened: that is the magic skyline, approached from the water. So as The Child demonstrates, Manhattan`s skyline serves as the glamourous front and the urban face of New York.
From afar, this skyline is an overwhelming and yet clear ensemble. It seems to be a static location. Only a few unique skyscrapers spread out as fixing-points for our orientation. Therefore, the remote skyline of Manhattan can be called a closed system of signs.
But when we move closer into the city, orientation is turned into confusion. Advancing the different shapes and levels of skyscrapers, it gets difficult to keep our orientation. At this point, the cinematic setting of The Child switches into the graphic texture. We realize that New York is not only a digital city, but also completely consisting of letters. These letters are not easy to be read: sometimes they overlap or are shown from their reverse side. In addition, the letters follow the construction of each building. Only for a short moment, we are able to read words like building, block, lift or window.
Those simple slogans point at the mere function of architecture. As well, the video reveals the construction of the urban texture. However, The Child is not a semiotical "city as text". It is not a metaphor of a city having a language of its own rules and codes. Instead, The Child is a literal index of Manhattan, transforming the closed system of signs into a transparent index. This index looks like a users' manual of Manhattan or like a huge 3D-book.
So, The Child unfolds an important paradox of skyscrapers: the contrast between the remote and the close reception.
The remote skyline of Manhattan looks like a fixed pattern, spreading out urban authority. From the distance, we are able to see the skyline as an arrangement of formal abstraction. But the closer we come, the more we are confronted with the plain material. The skyscrapers appear more massive, different levels of information overlap and some form of confusion is starting.
The Child combines this with a vital approach. It presents a highly dynamic New York, offering two technical tools for moving around: the helicopter and the car. The helicopter-flight from above is like a trip between digital mountains. It allows extreme views into narrow streets that look like deep and dark canyons. Here The Child keeps being playful: we watch New Yorks' extreme spaces while we try to read its huge letter-buildings.
The trip with the taxi leads us down to the feet of skyscrapers. At ground level, endless rows of skyscrapers are causing narrow and crowded streets. In The Child, Manhattan's skyscrapers nearly all have the same shape. Even though they have different colours, they basically form the limits of New Yorks' streets and traffic jam. We get the impression, that living in a city of skyscrapers means having trouble with the traffic. The taxi-trip shows us an urban life that is much faster. Being involved into troubles, the speedy taxi-drive gives us the impression that all skyscrapers are big obstacles in our way.
So the skyscrapers' paradox of the remote and the close reception becomes more extreme.
Looking from above, we are very touched by the skyscrapers' power and multitude of shapes. We are offered an urban vertigo of height as well as an insight into hidden spheres. Changing perspectives give an inspiring view into the cluster of Manhattan.
Down in the streets, this visionary dimension gets lost. We are no longer able to see the magnificent top of the skyscrapers. Instead, we see their bottoms which nearly all look alike. We realize, that skyscrapers are not built for human measures. They are overtowering our sight and get limiting urban buildings, making our trip through the traffic more dangerous. So down on the streets, skyscrapers become an urban reality which merely produces traffic. Finally, The Child nearly ends like it has begun. The helicopter-flight starts again, and we can read at least a few names of skyscrapers, such as Rockefeller-Center or Four-Seasons Hotel. From above, we experience the volume and the density of Manhattan's skyscrapers.
In addition, this setting is also transparent and consisting of graphical letters, so that we notice the artificial shape of Manhattan. At that point, The Child reveals another paradox: The extreme density of Manhattan's skyscrapers looks natural given, but this setting is absolutely artificial.
Manhattan used an artificial shortening of urban space to build its skyscrapers on. The blockbusters in the central business district of Lower Manhattan form an extreme artificial density, giving the impression that New York lies in a country which is running short of land. According to the American myth of agriculture, cheap land has to be developed in a totally wide country. Then the chosen land undergoes an artificial shorting, which is combined with an extreme concentration of high rise buildings. Therefore, Manhattan's shape is less the result of geographical conditions rather than of economical speculation.
To all these paradoxes, The Child is hinting with a sense of humour and easyness that is hard to find within the context of skyscrapers.
Brian McGrath: MANHATTAN TIMEFORMATIONS
In 2000, the architect Brian McGrath and the designer Mark Watkins present the netart project Manhattan Timeformations, curated by the Skyscraper Museum of New York. Manhattan Timeformations uses maps and animations to visualize the history of New Yorks skyscrapers. The data of about 700 of New Yorks' largest skyscrapers are transferred into a computer model presenting computer-animated maps of Midtown and Downtown Manhattan.
Manhattan Timeformations combines urban layers like landfill, infrastructure a.s.o. with a time-line of New Yorks skyscraper development. So we can relate the over one-hundred years of Manhattans evolution to the booms and the flops of real estate speculation. Besides, we can watch each layer of information separately or just stroll through Manhattan from different perspectives.
The hybrid computer-artwork Manhattan Timeformations wants to show the history of Manhattan's economic struggle and its consequences for the city. By comparing Manhattan's complex urban cluster with each single layer that builds it, the hidden processes of New York become more transparent. Only a few comments are offered in the short texts that accompany the main levels.
For example, on the level "Manhattan Timetable", some cynical comments can be found about the different periods of skyscrapers. So the skyscrapers built after the Second World War are called "Airconditioned Nightmare", characterizing the bad style of skyscrapers caused by the recession. The decade starting in the mid-sixties is called "Men in the Grey Flannel Suit." In this time up to the seventies, New York was a city on the rise with a sudden boom of skyscrapers. So "Men in the Grey Flannel Suit" ressemble the men from the Port Authorities in New York who built the World Trade Center. They had a strong confidence in High Rise Buildings and gave out the slogan "bigger is better" or "size matters".
The building-period in the eighties is called "Bonfire of the Vanities," which seems to be a comment on the pure celebration character of some of the postmodern skyscrapers.
Finally, the recent plannings from 1999 up to the year 2005 are called "Irrational Exurberance," pointing at New Yorks uncompromising struggle for urban height and international dominance. Manhattan Timeformations confronts us with a skyscrapers' general approach for profit which did not change during the decades. The computer-project is presenting facts we either take as normal or prefer to ignore.
So, with all those maps and comments, Manhattan Timeformations reveals an inner paradox of skyscrapers. This paradox deals with the gap between the obvious and the overseen. Although the skyscrapers of New York are called cathedrals of commerce, their economical forces seem to melt into a kind of "natural given history". Speculation is regarded as a normal effect within the context of skyscrapers. So we know about the high rate of speculation and maximum profit, but in everyday life we meet an act of forgetting about these facts. In addition, we are often not aware of the manipulation on spaces and objects that surrounding us everyday. So in everyday life, the historical and political circumstances of each period of skyscrapers are rarely put into account. Close to these observations, a second paradox occurs: There is always a certain changing public behaviour towards skyscrapers, although the economical patterns remain the same.
This public behaviour is always starting with complaints about the economical aspects of a skyscraper. So in the time of its construction and opening, strong complaints about the appearance, the costs and the profit of a skyscraper can be heard.
This is followed by the acceptance of a skyscraper, in the time when the public is getting used to its shape and function. The acceptance is growing stronger, when the building managed to establish an urban prestige.
The last step within the public process is reserved for only a "happy few": now the skyscraper serves as a symbol of the city and is praised for its spirit and uniqueness. Sometimes, this ends in admiration, accompanied by a complete silence on the economical side. So, paradoxically, once a skyscraper has become a star that enriches his neighbourhood and the whole city, the historical and economical facts are no longer taken into account.
Manhattan Timeformations final level of the "perspectival fly-through" pays tribute and the size of a skyscrapers' size, which functions as a basic attribute. Therefore, we can either move step by step or fly in a speedy loop through big 3D-models of skyscrapers, becoming transparent.
So, in Manhattan Timeformations, the art of mapping the urban meets the adventure of a virtual voyage through New York. Bill McGrath comments on his piece of art:
"Following Gilles Deleuze and Friedrich Nietzsche, I believe
that ìt is never at the beginning that something new, a new art, is
able to reveal its essence. What it is from the outset it can reveal
only after a detour in its evolution. Manhattan Timeformations is such
a detour in the evolution of computer modeling and urban
Wolfgang Staehle: EMPIRE 24/7 + Andy Warhol: EMPIRE
In 2000, the pioneer of netart, Wolfgang Staehle, shows his installation and internet project Empire 24/7. Staehle presents a live image of the upper part of the Empire State Building, screened by a webcam out of his bureau in Manhattan. 24/7 indicates that 24 hours each day live webcam-pictures are transmitted. So in Empire 24/7, the technological means are reduced to the minimum of a webcam, whose pictures are put into the context of art.
Empire 24/7 is an homage to Andy Warhols black-and-white-film Empire from 1964. Warhol's outsized film has a screening time of nearly 9 hours, presenting the upper half of the Empire State Building. Without any cut and sound, Warhol's film shows the skyscraper from sunset until dawn.
Although the artworks of Warhol and of Staehle both present the Empire State Building, they, however, reveal different paradoxes of skyscrapers.
Since Warhol uses extreme time extension, the film gives an impression of the massive character of the Empire State Building. At the same time, the cinematic tour de force of 9 hours screening time can get penetrating. The audience can become exhausted or annoyed and leave the cinema.
With this all-mighty presence of the Empire State Building on a big screen, Warhol demonstrates the skyscrapers' paradox of the tension between fascination and penetration.
Skyscrapers like the Empire State Building have a spirit of eternity which is combined with creative energy. It is a unique point of urban reference, with its top looking exactly the same from all directions. This strong appeal makes it function as a status symbol and as an eye-catcher of a powerful city.
But this urban authority produces measures that are superhuman. It always favours the oversize and the outrageous. This focus on the excess might be penetrating, because there is little chance to escape its urban dominance.
Warhol presents the Empire State Building as well as a sculpture of light. The natural light of sunset and dawn joins the artificial lightening of switching on and off the electric lights in the skyscraper. In addition, Warhol stresses the contrast of light and darkness by using a high sensitive film-material.
In 1964, the screening year of the film, the Empire State Building still was the world's tallest building. The movie Empire presents the great icon of New York like a star. Warhol pays tribute to the aura of the Empire State Building and shows its magnificent upper part. With his static camera, Warhol frames a fallen Diva, an erratic thing with a symbolic appeal.
Here we come to an important paradox: The unique aura of a skyscraper needs to be accompanied by an act of declaration.
In order to put forth the aura or spirit of a skyscraper, a certain glamour must be added. An act of declaration is necessary to increase the human imagination. Therefore, a famous movie like King Kong or a famous artist like Andy Warhol has to put the skyscraper into a context of intense imagination. They have to claim that a certain skyscraper owns a unique aura. This works perfectly well with skyscrapers, because their height, appeal and power have a strong influence on human desires.
At this point, we realize to what degree a skyscraper can be uploaded with meaning. It can become an urban icon, enabling a strong identification with the city.
So, it is no wonder that in the present days after the terrorist attack, Warhol's Empire enjoys a revival: in New York as well as in other cities like Berlin the movie is shown, because people want to see pictures from skyscrapers loaded with an aura that will not be destroyed.
Wolfgang Staehles net-project also puts the Empire State Building into the context of a sculpture, shown on a big screen at the exhibition. Empire 24/7 looks like a coloured sculpture within changing moods of light, supported by the global access of the internet. By that, the Empire State Building becomes a instant work of electronic architecture, based on endless or indefinite time.
But of course the visual display of Empire 24/7 totally depends on the access of the internet. Whenever the net access is interrupted, we watch big dropouts on the transmitted images. Sometimes the transmission breaks down completely and netart is vanishing.
This unstable structure embodies the actual paradox of skyscrapers: They serve as an impressing monument we can watch whenever we like, but their oversize and dependence on technology keeps them fundamentally fragile.
The speed of changes and the global network create a system that is much more vulnerable. Every skyscraper includes this conflict: the joy about the superhuman fusion of high tech and art is always accompanied by the fear of collapse and disaster.
Wolfgang Staehle: 2001
The next artwork of Staehle is called 2001 and leads us into the center of the present disaster of skyscrapers. We come to the first artwork that was affected by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
Five days before September 11th, Staehle starts his internet installation entitled 2001 in the Postmasters Gallery in New York. On three opposed large screens, live webcam images of three different monuments are presented: A medieval monastery in Bavaria, the TV-Tower of Berlin and the skyline of Lower Manhattan.
Staehle uses the internet as a data pipeline to synchronize three different places, compressing it in time and space. For this, Staehle choses seemingly static and stable monuments. His installation should offer a meditative piece of art in contrast to the information overload in the internet. So instead of using the internet as an information source, the huge webcam pictures of 2001 should really affect their audience.
Based on Martin Heideggers' thoughts of the nature of modern society, Staehle explores the implications of net-connectivity and at the same time transcends technology. The intent is to stream an unedited reality and to evoke the idea of landscape painting with recent technical tools.
Showing the monumental skyline of Manhattan, two webcams are combined in two large screens. The audience faces an impressive panorama of Manhattan with slow changes of natural light. This Manhattan scene is composed like a landscape painting, where New Yorks' friendly skyline is framed by the peaceful Hudson river and nice old dockland-buildings. A feeling of smoothness arises from the slowly passing boats or the pleasant dawns and sunsets.
Five days after the opening of the exhibition, on the morning of September 11th, Staehle watches the airplane attack from the roof of his apartment and immediately calls the Postmasters Gallery to turn on all the webcams of his installation.
So the curator of Postmasters as well as some visitors see the attack and the collapse of the World Trade Center through the eyes of the live webcams.
The curator Magdalena Sawon comments: Tuesday morning it looked like our world ended as the projection captured all stages of the catastrophe. Now, the smoke has settled and it's back to the transformed skyline with a disorientating gap where the towers stood before.
To my knowledge, Staehles piece is the only artwork for which not only the context but also the content was affected directly by the attack on the World Trade Center.
So Staehle's webcam-art suddenly loses all its contemplation and unwillingly gets a witness of a tragedy. It becomes a testament of destruction. This shocking event is even stressed by the big size of Staehles presentation, therefore the artist Douglas Kelly comments after his visit at Postmasters Gallery: Some museums with multiple broadband connections should get this piece set up immediately, it is monumental. And it was recorded, too.
Until now, no other gallery or museum showed Staehles installation 2001. But like numerous other artists, Staehle is posting images of the attack on the internet. He choses a series of still pictures of his installation, so that at least some images leave the gallery context.
Due to the aspect of contemplation, the stills show beautiful images, but this time loaded with sublime terror. Staehle's beautiful and yet frightening still-pictures look like panorama-paintings, a mass-medium of the eighteenth century. Both share the same topic: the presentation of war and destruction.
The linkage of Staehles webcam-art with the collapse of the World Trade Center opens up many debates on art as well as on skyscrapers. The fact, that electronic art is far beyond the artists' control equals the fact that skyscrapers are far beyond full control or protection.
Caused by the terrorist attack, the role of Staehles art changes from contemplation into testimony. The intention of an unedited and unaltered reality of the art-piece is cut and modified by terrorists.
Also caused by the terrorist attacks, the public opinion on skyscrapers is changing from affirmation into warning. The recent discussion on skyscrapers rejects the previously accepted slogan size matters, which now is associated with giantism and megalomania.
So let us finally have a closer look on the events around the World Trade Center.
The World Trade Center was a complex of seven buildings with the Tower One and Two rising at the heart of the complex, finally opened in 1973. Following a public relation campaign, the Twin Towers were constructed as the world's tallest buildings.
At the opening of the Twin Towers, their architect Yamasaki gave out his marketing-strategy:
World trade means world peace. Therefore the World Trade Center in New York means something we all need and that is important for us all: world peace.
But Yamasaki's act of declaration did not set forth human imagination, and the Twin Towers were not at all regarded as spiritual icons. Instead, the opening of the Twin Towers faced the usual public behaviour of a broad rejection. Focusing on the high degree of speculation, the extreme oversize of the Twin Towers was condemned. Their presence dramatically changed the scale of Manhattan's skyline. In addition, their hollow-tube-construction was considered as an uninspired copy of Mies van der Rohe's International Style, and the Twin Towers were even called "slim gravestones."
Then during the eighties, when the World Trade Center was more and more representing Americas strong economy, the Twin Towers became a national sign of prestige. This lead to the building of an amount of other tall skyscrapers in Manhattan, so the visual dominance of the Twin Towers was reduced. This broad public acceptance of the Twin Towers grew even stronger after the bombing attack at the bottom of the skyscraper in 1993.
On September 11th, all seven buildings of the World Trade Center collapsed at least partially after the terrorist attack. As an effect of this tragic event, the vanishing Twin Towers are not only admired, but also glorified by the public. In the times of this national trauma, the Twin Towers have become icons with a maximum symbolic uploading.
For example, the architect Peter Eisenman sees the Twin Towers as a symbol far beyond architecture. Eisenman votes for the sudden rebuilding of the skyscrapers, so that Manhattan could get an even stronger symbol of New Yorks' uncompromising will and unbroken vitality.
There seems to be a kind of hysteria to rebuilt the World Trade Center as quickly as possible. A huge debate on the future of New Yorks' tragic icons is still going on.
The patriots like New Yorks' former major Guliani prefer the rebuilding of the Twin Towers as a memorial, built out of the ruins of the collapsed towers. The developers of the New Economy like David Letterman prefer the sudden construction of four new towers in half size of the Twin Towers, trying to combine profit with safety.
But whatever decisions will be made on the rebuilding of the Twin Towers, we have to recognize that none of Americas iconic structures can really be protected from terrorist attacks. We have to be aware of the skyscrapers' double bind of High Tech and nature which leads to the threat of the destruction of both.
So already in 1928, the constructor of the Empire State Building, William Starrett, wrote: Building skyscrapers is the nearest peace-time equivalent of war. The analogy to war is the strife against the elements.
Therefore, any discussion on skyscrapers should always be aware of the multiple paradoxes they obviously include. In my opinion, there is rather a time now for modesty to the forthcoming developments and for asking questions rather than giving hasty answers.
Once again, it is Rem Koolhaas who raises important questions. In general, he points out that the skyscraper is the only type of building that managed its leap into the 21st century. At least in the Asian and African continent, where people are living in urban micro-systems which are far less organized, skyscrapers are an ideal form for flexible and vital living conditions.
In contrast to that, Koolhaas considers New York a victorian invention that had boomed during the 19th century. Therefore it has got very fixed structures and an outdated technology like the transporting system or the subway. Considering these fixed urban structures as well as old fashioned ideas of urban planning, Koolhaas raises the question, if skyscrapers are still up-to-date for Europe and the USA.
lecture by Jutta Zaremba, 2002.