Posts Tagged ‘Absurdity’

For a time after the 2008 financial collapse, skyscraper projects in Chicago came to a dead halt, mostly due to dried-up financing. My guess (since I don’t know with any reliability) is that much the same obtained worldwide. However, the game appears to be back on, especially in New York City, one of few cities around the globe where so-called “real money” tends to pool and collect. Visual Capitalist has an interesting infographic depicting changes to the NYC skyline every 20 years. The number of supertalls topping 1,000 feet expected by 2020 is quite striking.

Courtesy of Visual Capitalist

The accompanying text admits that NYC is left in the dust by China, specifically, the Pearl River Delta Megacity, which includes Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Macau, and others. As I’ve written before, the mad rush to build (earning ridiculous, absurd, imaginary prestige points awarded by and to exactly no one) takes no apparent notice of a slo-mo crack-up in the way modern societies organize and fund themselves. The new bear market might give one … um, pause.

Also left in the dust is Chicago, home of the original skyscraper. Since the 2008 collapse, Chicago’s most ambitious project, the ill-fated Chicago Spire (a/k/a the Fordham Spire) was abandoned despite a big hole dug in the ground and some foundation work completed. An absence of completed prestige projects since 2008 means Chicago has been lapped several times over by NYC, not that anyone is counting. The proposed site of the Chicago Spire is too enticing, however — just inside Lake Shore Drive at the mouth of the Chicago River — for it to be dormant for long. Indeed, a press release last year (escaped my attention at the time) announced redevelopment of the site, and a slick website is operating for now (linked in the past to similar sites that went abandoned along with their subject projects). Also reported late last year, Chicago appears to have rejoined the game in earnest, with multiple projects already under construction and others in the planning/approval phases.

So if hiatus was called the last time we crashed financially (a regular occurrence, I note), it seems we’ve called hiatus on the hiatus and are back in a mad, futile race to remake modernity into gleaming vertical cities dotting the globe. Such hubris and exuberance might be intoxicating to technophiles, but I’m reminded of a observation (can’t locate a quote, sorry) to the effect that civilizations’ most extravagant projects are undertaken just before their collapses. Our global civilization is no different.


For ambulatory creatures, vision is arguably the primary sense of the five (main) senses. Humans are among those species that stand upright, facilitating a portrait orientation when interacting among ourselves. The terrestrial environment on which we live, however, is in landscape (as distinguished from the more nearly 3D environments of birds and insects in flight or marine life in rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans). My suspicion is that modest visual conflict between portrait and landscape is among the dynamics that give rise to the orienting response, a step down from the startle reflex, that demands full attention when visual environments change.

I recall reading somewhere that wholesale changes in surroundings, such as when crossing a threshold, passing through a doorway, entering or exiting a tunnel, and notably, entering and exiting an elevator, trigger the orienting response. Indeed, the flush of disorientation before one gets his or her bearings is tantamount to a mind wipe, at least momentarily. This response may also help to explain why small, bounded spaces such as interiors of vehicles (large and small) in motion feel like safe, contained, hermetically sealed personal spaces. We orient visually and kinesthetically at the level of the interior, often seated and immobile, rather than at the level of the outer landscape being traversed by the vehicle. This is true, too, of elevators, a modern contraption that confounds the nervous system almost as much as revolving doors — particularly noticeable with small children and pets until they become habituated to managing such doorways with foreknowledge of what lies beyond.

The built environment has historically included transitional spaces between inner and outer environments. Churches and cathedrals include a vestibule or narthex between the exterior door and inner door leading to the church interior or nave. Additional boundaries in church architecture mark increasing levels of hierarchy and intimacy, just as entryways of domiciles give way to increasingly personal spaces: parlor or sitting room, living room, dining room, kitchen, and bedroom. (The sheer utility of the “necessary” room defies these conventions.) Commercial and entertainment spaces use lobbies, atria, and prosceniums in similar fashion.

What most interests me, however, is the transitional space outside of buildings. This came up in a recent conversation, where I observed that local school buildings from the early to middle part of the 20th century have a distinguished architecture set well back from the street where lawns, plazas, sidewalks, and porches leading to entrances function as transitional spaces and encourage social interaction. Ample window space, columnar entryways, and roof embellishments such as dormers, finials, cupolas, and cornices add style and character befitting dignified public buildings. In contrast, 21st-century school buildings in particular and public buildings in general, at least in the city where I live, tend toward porchless big-box warehouses built right up to the sidewalk, essentially robbing denizens of their social space. Blank, institutional walls forbid rather than invite. Consider, for example, how students gathered in a transitional space are unproblematic, whereas those congregated outside a school entrance abutting a narrow sidewalk suggest either a gauntlet to be run or an eruption of violence in the offing. (Or maybe they’re just smoking.) Anyone forced to climb past loiterers outside a commercial establishment experiences similar suspicions and discomforts.

Beautifully designed and constructed public spaces of yore — demonstrations of a sophisticated appreciation of both function and intent — have fallen out of fashion. Maybe they understood then how transitional spaces ease the orientation response, or maybe they only intuited it. Hard to say. Architectural designs of the past acknowledged and accommodated social functions and sophisticated aesthetics that are today actively discouraged except for pointless stunt architecture that usually turns into boondoggles for taxpayers. This has been the experience of many municipalities when replacing or upgrading schools, transit centers, sports arenas, and public parks. Efficient land use today drives toward omission of transitional space. One of my regular reads is James Howard Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month, which profiles one architectural misfire after the next. He often mocks the lack of transitional space, or when present, observes its open hostility to pedestrian use, including unnecessary obstacles and proximity to vehicular traffic (noise, noxious exhaust, and questionable safety) discouraging use. Chalk this up as another collapsed art (e.g., painting, music, literature, and poetry) so desperate to deny the past and establish new aesthetics that it has ruined itself.

Everyone knows how to play Rock, Paper, Scissors, which typically comes up as a quick means of settling some minor negotiation with the caveat that the winner is entirely arbitrary. The notion of a Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament is therefore a non sequitur, since the winner by no means possesses skill, or strategic combinations of throws devised to reliably defeat opponents. Rather, winners are the unfortunate recipients of a blind but lucky sequence, an algorithm, that produces an eventual winner yet is indifferent to the outcome. I can’t say quite why, exactly, but I’ve been puzzling over how three-way conflicts might be decided were the categories instead Strong, Stupid, and Smart, respectively.

Rock is Strong, obviously, because it’s blunt force, whereas Paper is Stupid because it’s blank, and Scissors is Smart because it’s the only one that has any design or sophistication. For reassignments to work, however, the circle of what beats what would have to be reversed: Strong beats Stupid, Stupid beats Smart, and Smart beats Strong. One could argue that Strong and Stupid are equally dense, but arguendo, let’s grant Strong supremacy in that contest. Interestingly, Stupid always beats Smart because Smart’s advantage is handily nullified by Stupid. Finally, Smart beats Strong because the David and Goliath parable has some merit. Superhero fanboys are making similar arguments with respect to the hotly anticipated Superman v. Batman (v. Wonder Woman) film to be released in 2016. The Strong argument is that Superman need land only one punch to take out Batman (a mere human with gadgets and bad-ass attitude), but the Smart argument is that Batman will outwit Superman by, say, deploying kryptonite or exploiting Superman’s inherent good guyness to defeat him.

A further puzzle is how the game Strong, Stupid, Smart works out in geopolitics. The U.S. is clearly Strong, the last remaining world superpower (though still dense as a board — new revelations keep reinforcing that judgment), and uses its strength to bully Stupids into submission. Numerous countries have shifted categories from Strong to Stupid over time — quite a few in fact if one surveys more than a few decades of world history. Stupids have also fought each other to effective stalemate in most of the world, though not without a few wins and losses chalked up. What remains, however, is for a truly Smart regime to emerge to take down Strong. The parody version of such a match-up is told in the book The Mouse That Roared (also a movie with Peter Sellars). But since Smart is vanquished by Stupid, and the world has an overabundance of Stupids, it is unlikely that Smart can ever do better than momentary victory.

Our current slate of presidential candidates is a mostly a field of Stupids with a couple Strongs thrown in (remember: still equally dense as Stupid). Then there are a couple insanely Stupids who distort the circle into an out-of-kilter bizarro obloid. As with geopolitics, a Smart candidate is yet to emerge, but such a candidate would only defeat Strongs, clearing the way for a Stupid victory. This should be obvious to any strategist, and indeed, no truly Smart candidates have declared, knowing full well that they would gain no traction with the half-literate, mouth-breathing public composed largely of Stupids who predictably fall in love with the most insanely Stupid candidate out there. An engaged Smart candidate would thus hand the victory to the insanely Stupid, who should be unelectable from the outset, but go figger. So then the deep strategy (gawd, how I hate this) would be to go with the devil you know, since a saint could never prevail against all the demons.