Skyscrapers and the Human Spirit

Okay, I admit it – I’m drawn to cities … always have been!  I was born and raised through my teenage years in Tokyo, at that the time the world’s largest city.  Ever since then, whenever I go anywhere, I always want to get to the downtown of any city.

Among many things, I especially love the skyline of huge, tall skyscrapers.  I love driving home to San Francisco across the Bay Bridge and seeing the massive skyline of downtown getting closer and closer, and then suddenly being right in the middle of it all, feeling awe, inspiration, wonder and excitement that I live here.  Is this weird?  I think I know why I love this, though.  Read on.

My interest obviously got piqued when I read about the world’s tallest skyscraper officially opening way over in Dubai last month to a spectacular fireworks, laser, and water extravaganza choreographed to music.

The characteristics are quite impressive:  The Dubai Tower’s 160-stories reach 2,716 feet.  It’s so tall that it’s visible from 60 miles away, reports say, and the temperature drops 6 degrees from base to peak. Winds at the top can reach 90 miles an hour. The highest floor offers views of Iran. Its elevators will travel the world’s longest distance, operating a speeds of up to 22 mph. Its nightclub on the 143rd floor is the world’s highest; above it, on floor 158, the world’s highest mosque.

The skyscraper is not only a testament to engineering and architectural genius but also to a bold and courageously counter-intuitive vision that gave birth to the original idea.  Phil Anderson, managing director of Economic Indicator Services, an economic forecasting service based in London, blogged recently about the beginning of this modern phenomenon:

“Bradford Lee Gilbert designed and built the very first so-called skyscraper in 1887 as a way of tackling a client’s unusually shaped six-and-a-half meter plot on Broadway in New York. The solution was to build an iron bridge truss, but stand it on end so that the real structure of the building started several stories above the curb – producing the best design to maximize occupancy and rentals.

New York’s press ridiculed the idea. Fellow architects pronounced the building unsafe. Building experts said it would blow over in the wind, if it ever got off the ground. New Yorkers themselves were aghast at the notion of a building that would tower above their side-walk to a height of 160 feet. A fellow engineer and friend begged Gilbert to abandon the idea, pointing out that if the building really did fall over, his legal bill would ruin him. Lawyers confirmed this.

But Gilbert knew better, arguing that the building’s structure, with wind bracings from top to bottom, meant that the harder the wind blew, the safer it would actually become. To put the matter to rest Gilbert requested the top two floors of the new building for his offices.  And the rest, of course, is history.”

I’m always in awe of people who have a vision to do something that is often ridiculed or thought impossible, a vision that is counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom, a vision that takes boldness and courage to live out.  When those visionaries refuse to give up, when they build their dreams based upon their best research and understanding and end up producing something transformational, the world is left a little bit better for it.  Little did Lee Gilbert know the global legacy he was leaving because of his act of courage and vision!

One of the things I love doing is walking into San Francisco’s downtown financial district, right into the middle of that urban forest of monolithic, giant trees.  I crane my neck and allow my eyes to follow the path straight up to the top of the skyscrapers.  Especially when those tall glass-encased structures, glimmering in the sunlight, stand against a dark blue sky, the feelings I get every time are a mixture of awe, wonder, and hope.  There’s an instant elevating of my inner spirit and passion for life.  Almost a sense of transcendence … in the midst of the hubbub of activity and life all around me.

Interestingly enough, ancient cathedrals were designed to evoke similar emotions – the human spirit was being led to look up toward the divine as a person’s eyes followed the upward lines toward the tops of the spires and high, vast ceilings.  A place where the divine and human meet.

That’s the way I feel when I’m in the middle of our urban glass “cathedrals” in downtown.  I realize that I’m in direct contact with the amazing human spirit of creativity and vision and skill that put these buildings first on paper and then on the streets.  It’s awe inspiring to me when I think of everything that went into making these dreams reality.  All of this helps explain why I love being right in the middle of big city downtowns.

Skyscrapers are by design symbols of the willingness to break normal limits, their peaks pointing to the limitless sky of possibility.  Their existence stands as monuments to courage and boldness in the face of ridicule and doubt.  In some ways, they’re our urban cathedrals for the elevation of the human spirit toward the divine life of creativity and possibility.

I want to challenge myself and all of us urban dwellers to embrace skyscrapers this year as one of our symbols of hope and courage.  As we each forge into new territory, I want to live a life of possibility, I want to keep dreaming and planning and working to help make the world a better place.  I want to create sanctuaries of hope, where people’s inner spirits are elevated and drawn to transcendence, where bigger dreams are dreamed, and profound transformations take place, even when others might ridicule or doubt.  And I want to be a part of a community that helps others embrace their highest possibilities, too.

Hey, here’s a great idea:  maybe we should all take a trip over to Dubai to soak up some of Brad Gilbert’s inspirational legacy.  If you book me a ticket, I’ll fly over there with you!  Or just as good for me, come on over to San Francisco and we’ll take my favorite walking tour through downtown together … and see what happens to our spirits.

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