Thursday, March 30, 2006

We Built This City

Walking around Manhattan, I couldn't help but look up. I am continually amazed at architectural and engineering prowess on display in major cities. And some minor ones, too.

Due to the many years I spent in Madison and DC, I forget that buildings can be taller than a dozen or so stories. I am still awed by the sight of a downtown skyline, in Chicago, New York, San Francisco. I forget what forty- or sixty- or eighty-story buildings look like from afar, their steel and glass framework jutting into the sky. I forget the feelings those same buildings evoke close-up. How they tower over you, casting shadows that prevent the sunlight from filtering down to the sidewalk, creating a wind tunnel that lasts for blocks.

I'm a little bit of a construction junkie. I love the sight of scaffolding. I recognize the smell of oil poured in concrete forms to prevent the concrete from sticking as it cures (the same principle that leads you to grease a cake pan). I love watching a building go up. All a holdover from my civil engineering days, I guess. But I wouldn't hire me to design anything for you!

As impressive as some of the newer structures are, I'm more amazed by the old ones. For example, Grand Central Terminal. How did people figure out that if you put columns here, here, here and here, and use this kind of beam, you can support an open expanse the size of a city block? How did they craft the architectural details? How did they construct the thing? Today we have computer models to calculate the load weights and spacing of columns and fancy construction equipment and tower cranes. But in 1904??? My god, people still did math on slide rules back then!

I enjoy these buildings for reasons I can't fully explain. In addition to sheer beauty, there's something inspiring, hopeful about them. They were built to last in a way that today's buildings are not. They are a connection between the past and the future. How can you not be impressed?


At Fri Mar 31, 09:07:00 PM PST, Anonymous Clueless said...

There are significant parts of US cities which look like they were from Greek and Roman builders, too. Bass Concert Hall in Fort Worth is one. Have you ever been to Yellowstone National Park? The Old Faithful Lodge (finished in 1898, built without power tools!) is another totally amazing structure, uniquely American.

At Sun Apr 02, 05:36:00 PM PDT, Anonymous andrea said...

There is definitely something about New York City. My favorite is walking through Lowertown (especially around Wall Street) and looking up at a clear blue sky from the vaguely medieval street layout below. 25' wide caverns with old buildings towering above and sunlight peeking through...

No blog for me, but I have enough web abilities to throw up a few quick sketches I did when I was out there a few years ago. ;)


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