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.