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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Blog Versus: Architecture--Do We Need Tall Buildings?

Just for fun, a debate on our site. Today's topic is architecture. You can read the Faithful Skeptic's post here.

Here is the article comparing the Shanghai skyline circa 1987 to Shanghai's skyline now, and which is the sort of topic for our little versus symposium. My co-blogger is arguing the case for taller buildings, or really mourning that while everybody else seems to be building them, we've stopped (mostly). The tallest buildings will be in China and Malaysia and the Middle East: and, much as these city skylines provide a spectacular site, I say you can keep 'em.

Yes, it is a nice transformation which Shanghai has undergone, aided by some beautiful looking new buildings which stab more than scrape the sky. It's not just Shanghai, as China is building whole new cities. And many of these new cities which China is building are more-or-less instant ghost towns: fancy looking cities in which there is no real population, and to which nobody really seems to want to move.

In another couple of decades, these may be so many Chinese Detroits (or Siberias) save that whereas Detroit once was thriving and now is depopulated, these cities have never had much population to speak of. Perhaps this will be an improvement over Detroit, since what population is there is only helping to speed the city's (and the state's) demise.

There something to be said for smaller and simpler towns, even villages or hamlets, and against the fad of "progress" in architecture which is laid out by the urban planners and developers. Many of these great skyscrapers and high rises were designed according to a pattern which Russell Kirk called "the architecture of servitude and boredom," and while some of the newer building break the utilitarian box trend, they can't quite become free of the utilitarian mindset which went with it. Hence in China we see large, gleaming, and efficiently planned cities spring into being according to their planners' designs, but few people choosing to move there. The problem is that these cities are not really made for men, though more than a few planners would prefer that men be remade for these cities.

Though I've never been to Ireland, I can sympathize with those who remember Dublin city in the rare ould times: "The Pillar & the Met have gone, the Royal long since pulled down/As the great unyielding concrete makes a city of my town..."

The Faithful Skeptic brings up the then-soaring heights of the medieval Gothic Cathedrals. He might as easily have mentioned their scale in all directions, as one feels small in general inside of them. Well and good. But that style of architecture exists not only make man feel small, but to make him feel small in the presence of God. What do the modern towers do, then? They tower above even the tallest Cathedral (Cologne's Cathedral, Our Lady of Peace Basilica, and the Protestant Ulm Minster church all top out at just over 500 feet in the spires). Do the modern skyscrapers then say that it is the corporation or the state which really lifts man to the skies? Are these so many minarets to Mammon?
"Fare thee well sweet Anna Liffey, I can no longer stay
& watch the new glass cages, that spring up along the quay
My mind's too full of memories, too old to hear new chimes
I'm part of what was Dublin in the rare ould times"

The urban planners can build their towers of Babel, their Orthancs and Barad-dur's, their monuments to progress. I'll take my small town, my countryside cottages and village villas, my steeple-dominated skylines. Such are dwellings for men, houses meant as homes. From such homes and hearths spring the families which turn a neighborhood into a community.

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