High Rise

September 1st, 2001

September 2001

My agent in New York tells me that when they re-build the World Trade Centre, they will make it bigger.

I like the defiance and worry about the consequences. Tall buildings are monuments to our skill, but they are also symbols of our arrogance. Renzo Piano says that tall buildings are aggressive – yet he designs them beautifully. Norman Foster argues that if we don’t build tall, we’ll go and live in bunkers and have panic attacks about nerve gas.

What do we do?

The Reverend Jerry Falwell, the man who makes Bin Laden look like a moderate, went on public radio last week, here and in the USA, talking about God’s judgement on America as peddlers of pornography, abortion, homosexuality and dead culture. He and his fellow Fundamentalists want to build an America of virtuous suburbs. Against the nuclear cells of terrorist fanatics, he sees family groups living decently in neighbourly communities – clapboard houses, porches, two-car drive, the dream of America that the Cold War invented and called history.

On the same radio show I learned that ninety five percent of Americans do not have passports. Many of them do not even visit their own major cities, let alone ours. The Americans most of us know personally – travelled, aware, and living in a world context, are not representative of America at all. The ninety five percent will buy the suburban dream because it is so easy to paint the city as nightmare.

Cities are aspirational. New York may look like Sodom and Gomorrah to Falwell and Bin Laden, but it is a place of chance, change, moral and mental freedom, and a place where human beings can look up. We need to look up. We need a view. For all the demonising of Western culture by its opponents, we have achieved extraordinary things – and the Twin Towers were part of that achievement.

What I fear more than Norman Foster’s bunker-world, is a bunker-mentality of the kind America could easily adopt. If most of them have never travelled, they have no real proof that anywhere else actually exists. Bombing a world that doesn’t exist will not be too painful. Ignoring what you don’t bomb will be simple.

Buildings express truths about ourselves. Our own vision for London as a city of tall towers is one that suggests we are ready to grow out of our typical English vertigo. Tall buildings have a rather negative image here – not a problem in America until now – but I doubt there is anything intrinsically wrong with living upwards. Of course it’s unnatural, but our whole lives are unnatural.

If this horror makes us re-think towers, let it be positive. Towers need not be dwarfing misery-making laboratory cages where people are forced to live and work – they can be open, exhilarating aerial triumphs – buildings that give us proper pride in who we are.

Yes they can be blown up, but buildings are easier to destroy than the creative energy that makes them. That creative energy is as far beyond the Taliban as it is the Fundamentalists. There is little to choose between them. Extremists prefer a world that is small and ugly because it is easier to control. Tall buildings are imaginative spaces as well as literal ones. We won’t be contained – and containment is what the forces of terror and the forces of reaction would both like to see.

If I were working on a design project now, I would make it as bold and beautiful as the brief allows. We need boldness and beauty. Such values are the proper response to terrorism.