Skyscrapers -- our towering confusion?
Somewhere between the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, where fog hangs thick, the rumors are flying that New York, once again, is about to build the skyscraper to stare down all skyscrapers. Until the Sears Tower of Chicago had the impudence in 1974 to thrust 104 feet above the World Trade Center (a mere 1,350 feet high), New York had always held the ''America's tallest building'' championship, beginning in 1846 when Trinity Church pushed its spires all of 284 feet into the sky.
Like all habits, the habit of higher-and-yet-higher is hard to break.
Now (whisper, whisper) there is said to be a blueprint for a 120-story building, possibly (more whisper, whisper) to be erected at Lexington Avenue and 48th Street, just maybe by a real estate developer named Harry Helmsley who certainly doesn't whisper when he proclaims in rhetoric worthy of Muhammad Ali staging another comeback: ''We're the greatest city in the world, so we should recapture the honor in skyscrapers too.''
Why? Why must New York do it any more than any other city? And why should this vertical trick - this engineering legerdemain - be considered a civic ''honor''?
Skyscrapers seem to be one of those gestures destined to occur at the wrong moment, like a ''Bravo!'' that comes too early or too late. Two of New York's record-breakers reared themselves in 1929 when everything else was going down -- the Chase Manhattan Bank (927 feet), almost immediately followed by the Chrysler Building (1,046 feet). The year after the stock market crash the Empire State Building soared 1,250 feet above a chastened city that was distinctly not in the mood.
Still another skyscraper, asserting itself a quarter of a mile into today's sky, strikes a note of untimely extravagance. In the 1980s, as in the 1930s, we would appear to need jobs rather than monuments that have trouble paying for themselves, unless taxed by the foot, as some have suggested. At moments in history like this we become stern critics of the grand gesture, suspiciously wondering what human needs were being neglected when the pyramids went up, what social safety nets were left dangling so that the Colossus of Rhodes could be colossal.
Hubris -- the pride that inflates itself beyond the human scale - can define itself in tall buildings. It may not be totally a coincidence that World War I thrust itself upon the scene just after such power symbols as the Woolworth Building (792 feet) and the Titanic, the ocean liner as big as a skyscraper, as everybody pointed out.
Even if 1982 offered more reason to celebrate, would we want to celebrate with a 120-story building? The ''greatness'' expressed by a skyscraper seems to share its falsity with the ''greatness'' expressed by more and bigger armaments. It is not comforting to imagine the monuments of the '80s being 120-story buildings and MX missiles, as if we are capable of measuring greatness only in terms of mass and destructive power.
In the end, man-made size has a dispiriting effect on those who create it. Skyscrapers have a way of making us feel diminished, as Mt. Everest never does, while megaton bombs surely make us feel helpless rather than potent.
The world of the skyscraper race and the nuclear arms race would appear to have learned nothing from experience.
''Small is beautiful,'' we began to chant in the '70s. But that's not entirely it either. The beautiful is, of course, neither ''small'' nor ''big'' but something beyond all such computations.
It is one thing for primitives to select as leader the tallest man, or perhaps the man who can throw a spear the farthest, or kill the biggest beast - and then, in recognition, to build him the biggest thatch hut. But after all these years of alleged civilization -- after Beethoven's quartets and Shakespeare's sonnets -- shouldn't we have another idea of greatness than massive quantities massively measured? Given how aggressive size and power have become, our very survival may depend upon understanding that if the comparatively meek don't inherit the earth, nobody will.