A Skyscraper (in Theory) And Its Myriad Meanings

The Empire State Building was a miracle of Depression-era America. Financed and built just after the stock-market crash of 1929, the skyscraper went up in just 18 months at a cost of $24.7 million, well under the projected budget of $43 million. The tallest building in the world until 1972, with three million square feet of rental space, a bank of 64 elevators racing upward at 700 feet per minute, and a shell fashioned from untarnishable chrome-nickel steel, the Empire State Building remains an icon of capitalism, modernity and mythic New York. Every year it’s visited by 3.5 million people and is depicted on more than a billion postcards.

And yet, Mark Kingwell suggests, like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, the building remains hidden “precisely because it is so obviously, unremarkably, and (we might say) merely there.” The Empire State Building is so tall visitors can look out from it, but not at it. The whole building cannot be seen, even from the air. Over time, through familiarity, reproduction and cultural appropriation, perceptions of the landmark have changed. The building’s meanings must be sought, Mr. Kingwell maintains, by embedding its physical existence in the “entire universe” of its uses, the representations made of it and the significances ascribed to it.

A professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, with expertise in design and architecture, Mr. Kingwell understands that Nearest Thing to Heaven is episodic, “peripatetic, maybe kaleidoscopic.” It’s also part valentine to “the best, the most perfect, the superlative skyscraper,” and part poststructuralist meditation on how the building supports “multiple frames, diverse ways of seeing.” Mr. Kingwell wants to burrow beneath the structure to uncover layers of cultural meaning. But sometimes he loses sight of the building entirely, the view blocked by his deeply personal “dream narrative.”

Mr. Kingwell insists that no single, Platonic, transcendental truth inheres in the Empire State Building, or in any object. He doesn’t deny the “reality” of buildings, but, following theorist Peter Eisenman, he makes the incomprehensible assertion that they are “self-organizing systems that use human agency as part of their projects of self-realization.” If “they have a logic, summed from all previous and future building,” it lies beyond the control of designers and users. Reproductions and representations, which wrench buildings from their original settings, rendering them spaces instead of places, generate additional meanings. The truth of the Empire State Building, then, “is me sitting here right now, thinking these thoughts, my models before me, experiencing the building …. ” Nearest Thing to Heaven, Mr. Kingwell implies, is—and must be—architectural analysis as autobiography.

But he implies as well that the “readings” of the Empire State Building in the book are not his alone, that he shares them with others who have encountered the building and its representations. And so theory and cultural history sit side by side in Nearest Thing to Heaven, not always comfortably or complementarily.

A building is “an implied hymn” to everything inside and beneath its surface, Mr. Kingwell writes, “but none more so than the implausible Empire State, erected on the very cusp of capitalism’s worst ever spasm.”

Unlike the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building houses tenants. Although only 23 percent of the available space was rented when the skyscraper opened in 1931, it soon accommodated lawyers, jewelry wholesalers and hat manufacturers. Running a “gamut of American Dreams,” the businesses provide “the blood that flows in the veins of this Colossus.” Along with the building’s functionalist design and utilitarian aspirations (former Governor Al Smith, the public face of the Empire State, expected it to assist aviation authorities investigating wind velocity and New Yorkers afflicted with hay fever and sinuses), they keep the skyscraper “solidly rooted to the workaday virtues” of Manhattan.

Clearly, the Empire State Building has been a symbol of courage, adventure and technological innovation. But is it also, as Mr. Kingwell suggests, an icon of democratic aspiration and achievement across social classes and ethnic affiliations, offering the “almost always meretricious” meritocratic myth that the wealth of the nation belongs to anyone willing to work for it? Is the Empire State “dear to the hearts of Americans” because it is not a coded sign of financial might or a “warehouse of boom-time capitalism”? Hard to say.

Mr. Kingwell asserts, without evidence, that the nickname Empty State Building “still rises to New Yorkers’ lips.” He acknowledges that few of them know about the Depression-era origins of the building and that, as they ascend to the observatories on the 86th and 102nd floors, millions of visitors bypass all 90 stories of office space without considering the daily play of hopes, dreams and unpaid bills on each of them, or caring all that much that the landmark was constructed on the backs of 3,439 workers. And he insists, enigmatically, that although the enterprises of the Empire State are invisible, “the building could not fulfill its iconic role without them.”

Nearest Thing to Heaven concludes with a bait-and-switch on the “empire” in Empire State Building. The attacks of Sept. 11, he believes, signaled a new round of “cherished visibility” and self-examination for the skyscraper. In a sense, though, the terrorists got it right: The World Trade Center’s architectural blandness telegraphed “a devotion to the business of business,” whereas the Empire State Building stands for the empire of postmodern political realism, in a nation that is now squandering its resources and citizens “in a war set in motion theoretically to protect those very commodities.”

Mr. Kingwell won’t quite say that the Empire State Building represents “freedom (the big idea).” But he’ll hug his skyscraper, built between America’s “violent engagements,” because “Real human triumph resides in a building that lasts, not in a gesture of power that destroys and alienates.” It’s a noble sentiment, and, like much of Nearest Thing to Heaven, it tells us more about Mark Kingwell than about the Empire State Building.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.