David Schaengold’s excellent observations about the modern skyscraper continue to draw well-deserved attention.  Rod Dreher is the latest to chime in, touting the cathedral as the superior to the “cold and forbidding beauty” of the modern skyscraper:

Still, I think Schaengold is on the mark here, in the way he writes about the skyscraper and the observation deck. It’s only that I see it as a defeat for humanity, even though it’s a triumph for science and engineering. They can’t build churches that look worth a damn anymore either, not these days. If you live in New York and want to know how alien to any human thing a modern church can be, go by the small church of St. John the Evangelist in the Archdiocese of New York headquarters and poke your head in. It belongs in a skyscraper, or in Princess Leia’s palace.

To deploy a post-modern (or better, late-modern) line of inquiry, the difference between the medieval cathedral and the modern observation deck is not only what’s observed, but the perspective of the observer.

I’m a terrible student of architecture, so I’m overstepping my limitations here.  But it strikes me that what’s at stake with the skyscraper is not the joy of observation per se, which we could gain just as easily from considering “the lilies of the field.” It’s the inherent sense of triumph of observing from 13,000 feet, and gaining a perspective on the world without effort that our ancestors only dreamed of.

For the warning about this perspective, though, I naturally turn to Chesterton, the last true medieval:

“Look at that blacksmith, for instance,” went on Father Brown calmly; “a good man, but not a Christian–hard, imperious, unforgiving. Well, his Scotch religion was made up by men who prayed on hills and high crags, and learnt to look down on the world more than to look up at heaven. Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”

Rather than the observation deck as the quintessential expression of the modern joy of observation, then, I would propose the sidewalk.  When done well, it provides a safe, clean, and social path for loitering, lingering, and generally ogling the greatness–and depravity–of the modern skyscraper.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

2 Comments

  1. If the problem with the observation deck is the unearned triumph of observation from 1,300 feet (not 13,000 right?) then would you apply the same critique to looking out airplane windows and browsing Google Earth from your desk? Or does the monumentality of skyscrapers exhibit the hubris of Babel more keenly than the necessarily mobile (and in principle transitory?) nature of planes and satellites?

    I like your proposal that the sidewalk is the antithesis of the observation deck. What gives me the most awe when I’m looking through the window of an airplane is not that I am so far above the earth but that I am so close to the clouds. The thought that until the last century every human could see only the underside of (most) clouds and never see what they look like on the top makes me feel immensely privileged to be able to see clouds only a few feet below me. The flightpath is a sidewalk in the sky.

    Presumably it is the lack of personal effort that is problematic for you, because skyscrapers, planes, and satellites are products of great collective effort. Do mountains (which are 13,000 feet) not fall in this category because they require personal effort to reach them? (Without a gondola lift of course.)

    Reply

    1. Nobody,

      Great points, those, and I love seeing the tops of clouds as well.

      I should say that it’s not necessarily the effort that’s at stake here, as much as the moral weight we place on the vantage point. There’s different phenomenological perspectives and while the view from the mountaintop can be earned by the one or the many, it seems that the vision itself has a specific content that we value. That’s what I was trying to highlight, not the actual means by which we’ve gained the ability to have that perspective….does that make sense?

      Matt

      Reply

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