The Envy of Olympus

Andre Aciman is the author of "Out of Egypt: A Memoir" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) now in paper from Riverhead Books

The word one must avoid is "timeless." "Timeless" brings bad luck. Nothing tempts the gods so much as the arrogance of a timeless skyscraper.

And yet, no one minds arrogance these days, and a bit of hubris never hurt anyone; even a lot of it--to quote Michael Douglas in his role as greedy arbitrageur--can be a good thing! The greed of big business and the arrogance of big builders have given us vistas and sky views that rival anything from Mount Olympus. Skyscrapers, after all, are about business the way Manhattan is about buildings.

The sense of danger and awe that any large structure automatically invokes to those of us who are superstitious but not afraid of heights may never have crossed the architect's mind.

You can criticize skyscrapers for their irreverent arrogance, but you can't accuse them of defying the odds. This, after all, is what skyscrapers are supposed to do; this is what they have in common with the man who threw a cable between both towers of the World Trade Center and then proceeded to walk on it. They defy the odds, look the odds in the face and stick their tongue out, as did another fearless soul, the New York Times photographer Ernie Sisto, when he asked two colleagues to hold him by the legs while he climbed out onto a ledge high on the Empire State Building and, aiming down, got the angle he wanted for his photograph of the huge hole left by a B-25 bomber that had crashed into the building.

Mention any book on skyscrapers and its pages will invariably round up the usual nouns: pride, power, glory, ambition, splendor, defiance. The vaulting arrogance of the Woolworth Building, the sleek opulence of the Flatiron Building, the guarded splendor of the Chrysler, the garish plenitude of the Ansonia. The adjectives trickle down with the two-bit eloquence of someone trying to avoid the obvious word: "timeless."

Timeless, however, is an irrelevant concept--and for totally modern reasons. We have grown wiser with the centuries and no longer build skyscrapers the way people used to build pyramids. We build for the long haul, but not for eternity.

The most cursory glance at Sarah Bradford Landau and Carl W. Condit's spectacular Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865-1913, tells the sad tale plainly enough: The Washington Life Building (demolished), Commercial Cable Building (demolished), Gillender Building (demolished), St. Paul Building (demolished)--and the list goes on. The long haul, it turns out, is not long enough. And here-to-stay is really here-today.

Gone-tomorrow! And this, in the end, is the untold tale that the builders of the Parthenon, of the Lighthouse, of the Circus Maximus or of Versailles would never have understood. We don't quite understand it ourselves: not that all things come down in the end, but that the end must come so soon.

There is after all something even more arrogant than building the Tower of Babel. It is building it and then, on second thought, tearing the whole thing down again. Our arrogance may be more circumspect that King Nimrod's, but it is also tackier. It lacks what our buildings try so hard to convey: grandeur.

But then, perhaps, there lies the magic of a skyscraper: that it exists, that it still holds, that its lease on land may be renewed another 10 years. When we stand aloft and see the rest of mankind turn to ants or fear that we might slip and fall, though we know we can't, it is the vulnerability of adjoining skyscrapers that mystifies us, not ours.

In Gordon Coster's photograph of the Chrysler Building (1929), it is its towering temerity pensively, meekly awaiting the end that sobers the viewer, just as no one can look at Karl Struss' picture of a Pennsylvania Station basking in powerful mid-afternoon light and not think that these places are, after all, quite defenseless.

Demolition is an art form itself. We see three photos: One minute the building stands, then a cloud of smoke, and then, in the third take, nothing but rubble. There are more humorous variations on the theme: the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower leaning at a 45-degree angle, toying with the idea of its own collapse. Man Ray's tilted model of a skyscraper.

Strangely enough, pictures and photographs of skyscrapers are seldom austere, cold or minatory; instead they grace the stones with almost-languorous bewilderment that is almost like love.

City of Ambition, Artists and New York, a beautiful collage of scenes from New York that does not mean to provide a comprehensive portrait of the city, toys with the contrast between massive structures and human memory. The book itself is arranged in a way that dramatizes this contrast, for it mixes poetry, paintings and photographs, some capturing the masonries, people at work, out to lunch, in an employment agency, at a Bendel's sale, at the movies, and, of course, the unavoidable el train and occasional homicide scene.

Here, the contrast between Hopper's tenement and the skyscraper is not intended to emphasize the fact that perfectly shaped tributes to affluence were being erected while people were starving during the Depression, but rather that these buildings, so austerely aloof, so unliving, and so visibly spared from the humdrum, day-to-day nonsense of daily jostling existed in a manner that Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" might have considered unthinkable.

The subway station, and the Brooklyn Bridge, and the old street vendors on Houston Street belong to the same world, the way, even today, a walk along a row of sparkling skyscrapers in Manhattan must ultimately cross the invasive earthy odor of fried bacon or shish kebab. That both can exist in so tight a strip of land is the small miracle of Manhattan. George Bellows' Pennsylvania Station Excavation and Edward Hopper Apartment Houses, Harlem River, and Alvin Langdon Coburn the Flat-Iron Building are, in this respect, part of the same city.

If there is anything timeless in this melange, it is not so much because these structures might endure for a very long time. Nor is it because we want them to endure, because in more ways than one our lives are so intimately braided into these buildings that if they were to go, part of us would go as well.

But rather if there is something timeless in this symbiosis it is because, in looking at Berenice Abbott's "The Night View," a stunning aerial photograph of speckling New York skyscrapers, one must constantly remind oneself that it was taken, not last night, but 60 years ago, that New York has not really changed since, that if it hasn't we haven't, that it is still very livable, that it is not, and might ever be, the metropolis we each fear it might suddenly become one day.


Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY

CITY OF AMBITION: Artists & New York edited by Elizabeth Sussman with John G. Hanhardt. (Whitney/Flammarion: $45, 144 pp.)

SKYSCRAPERS edited by Judith Dupre. (Black Dog & Leventhal: $45, 128 pp.)

RISE OF THE NEW YORK SKYSCRAPER: 1865-1913 by Sarah Bradford Landau and Carl W. Condit. (Yale University Press: $39.95, 348 pp.)

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