Will Self on the meaning of skyscrapers – from the Tower of Babel to the Shard

Will self on the meaning of skyscrapers – from the tower of babel to the shard
The opening sequence of Mad Men brings to mind images of 9/11

When it comes to skyscrapers I am, in the proper sense of the word, ambivalent: I hate them for all the obvious reasons – sometimes a cigar may be just a cigar, but a skyscraper is always a big swaying dick vaunting the ambitions of late capitalism to reduce the human individual to the status and the proportions of a submissive worker ant. Architecturally skyscrapers are the most meretricious of structures; predicated not on the possible realisation of any aesthetic ideal, but on the actualisation of specific construction technologies. In syllogistic lock-step with Mount Everest – which was climbed simply “because it was there” – they are there … simply because. And following on from the cast-iron frame method that allowed for the first skyscrapers to be raised in the late 19th century, each successive wave of innovation has been incorporated into further erectile capability. The current architectural zeitgeist, whereby form invariably follows finance, finds its purest expression in the skyscrapers de nos jours, with their parametrically designed waveforms that positively billow with opportunism.

Yet I also love them – truly, I do. I love their Promethean swagger; I love their ability to transform our perception of the city by proposing a new parallax around which we instantly reorient as we tunnel along at ground level. And I love the way that they are seemingly purpose-built to accompany what Marshall McLuhan described as the “instantaneous medium” of electricity. By day, Renzo Piano’s Shard is an almost frantically undistinguished building; far from being the mirrored sliver thrust into the skyline its designer envisaged, its dirt-dappled haunches hunker down on top of London Bridge station, surely straining even the notable credulity of the City commuters who, morning and evening, gaze up at its exposed giant bolts. But by night, through the window of the bedroom where I sleep – a room into which I have moved to enjoy it – I thrill to the sight of this Orion’s dagger, dropped from the jet-howling darkness to quiver and wink in the sodium-lit belly of the urban beast; and I hearken – like the good global tribalist that I am – to the message of this medium: to look upon the Shard is, perforce, to worship it. ….

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