Sunday, August 22, 2004

The fear factor

A few weeks ago I admired the promo for a MOMA exhibit on skyscrapers. Here's how Herbert Muschamp concludes his review:

No artifact in the show is more moving than a drawing of the Twin Towers' structure. Prepared by Mr. Nordenson's students at Princeton, the study is an homage to Leslie Robertson, who engineered the structure for the architect Minoru Yamasaki. The color drawing reveals the different grades of steel that were used in the towers' load-bearing walls. It has the radiant beauty of an Agnes Martin painting. And it documents the exceptional finesse that went into the making of our lost icons.

''Tall Buildings'' benefits from a polemical edge. The show was conceived in the aftermath of 9/11. At the time, some believed that the future of the skyscraper was in doubt. Amid sound concerns about the safety of tall buildings, a degree of guilt hung in the air. It's naughty of a society to crave heights, the thinking went. Remember Babel!

Americans are easily shamed these days into renouncing habits. And we are quick to thwart the desires of those who won't go along with our disapproval. Skyscrapers need no justification. But it would be worth building higher merely to disembed ourselves from fear.

Does it need to be said that arousing fear is one of the things architecture is actually good for? Every visitor to the Eiffel Tower knows this. Tall buildings transport us to the far side of dread.

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