Dmitri Orlov: “the modern skyscraper—a phallic challenge to the heavens—is an object study in failed ambition.”

Architect’s Digital Rendering of the Freedom Tower. Note the spiral-shaped spire. As of 9/11/11 it was over 100 stories, and counting.

This post resonates with today’s Krugman column. Skyscrapers (hey, what about ICBMs?), as monuments to overweening, unsustainable ego that invite collapse. Thanks to Ran Prieur for the pointer.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell used to point out that, as cathedrals symbolized the strivings of medieval culture, so do skyscrapers (usually? often? housing banks!) today.

Yuck! Which form of mind control, which failed attempt to ignore Nature and insert mind over matter — religion or materialism — is worse? I’d say “a pox on both your houses.”

Matter: etymologically: from the Latin, “mater,” “origin, source, mother.” As Earth is our mother, so we should fall to our knees, worship her soil, air, water, consciousness. At one with her, breathing with and through her, alive, our hearts swelling to the brilliant beauty of a flower, the tiny bird’s trilling song.

Down the Skyscraper

May 15, 2011

by Dmitri Orlov

A.K. This article is long, and funny, with awful implications.


Skyscrapers occur during the terminal stage in the hypertrophy of financial and other control mechanisms. They are optimized for a single function: sucking resources out of the surrounding, low-rise economy, which is actually tied to the natural world in some way, through agriculture or resource extraction or the use of physical human labor. The appearance of very large skyscrapers signals the onset of a new kind of economic vampirism, in which the parasite outgrows the host, and then begins to starve.

Although it is easy to assume that the life blood being sucked out by the vampires is money, it is actually hope. In his novel Empire “V”(“V” stands for “vampire”) Viktor Pelevin describes an entire vampiric ecosystem: the imperial vampires feed not on money but on a metaphysical substance called bablos. Bablos is generated when people, multitudes of them, work for money in pursuit of their hopes and dreams. Bablos is harvested when these hopes and dreams are then shattered. The vampires’ bag of tricks includes abstract disciplines such as Discourse and Glamor, which they use to optimize the metaphysical expropriation of the products of human greed and envy. Bablos is administered as part of a special ritual, during which bushels of worn-out currency are burned in a fireplace, but this is only done to symbolize that the money has served its purpose as a vehicle for harvesting hope via greed.

It is hardly unexpected that high belfries would be inhabited by large bats. Skyscrapers crop up when the economic vampires decisively gain the upper hand and feel exuberant about their ability to endlessly expand their numbers and their reach. But the moment at which they are at their strongest is precisely when their quarry—the base of natural resources made available by human labor—is, correspondingly, at its weakest, and can no longer support the ever-increasing load of parasites. The result is a downturn, or a crash, or a collapse.

The ascent to the top of a skyscraper is normally an exhilaratingly rapid ride in a high-speed lift, but, in an emergency, or a downturn/crash/collapse, the descent can be nothing of the sort. As John Michael Greer writes in The Long Descent:

“…as we’ve climbed from step to step on the ladder of progress, we’ve kicked out each rung under us as we’ve moved to the next. This is fine so long as the ladder keeps on going up forever. If you reach the top of the ladder unexpectedly, though, you’re likely to end up teetering on a single rung with no other means of support—and if, for one reason or another, you can’t stay on that one rung, it’s a long way down. That’s the situation we’re in right now, with the rung of high-tech, high-cost, and high-maintenance technology cracking beneath us.” [p. 168]

Lofty and proud, often endowed with a literal pinnacle of human ingenuity and industrial might, a skyscraper has but two futures: as a smoldering pit produced by a controlled demolition, or as a rusting, teetering derelict, shed of its plate glass and overgrown with vine, serving as a bird rookery, with only an occasional visitor scaling its lofty heights, swatting away the birds, to scrape up some guano, perhaps pocketing a few eggs along the way. This is the career path of the skyscraper: from the lofty seat of the captains of industry to a mighty bird-shit factory in the sky; or is it bat-shit? Let’s just call it “sky-scrapings.”

The prospect of collapse is built right into the very concept of the skyscraper. The best case scenario of a controlled demolition requires explosive charges and electronic sensors to be placed in key areas all along its steel frame. The explosions must be triggered in a specific sequence, precise to the millisecond and dynamically adjusted by a computer so as to steer the accumulating avalanche of rubble into the footprint of the skyscraper’s basement, to be excavated using heavy machinery once the entire mass stops burning and cools down. Without such precise and active control, things are guaranteed to go sideways because errors multiply rather than cancel. The idea that a skyscraper can collapse down into its own footprint by itself has been disproved by every generation of little children who played with stacking up blocks and knocking them down: the blocks don’t land on top of each other in an neat little pile; they scatter all over the living room floor. The worst case scenario is that the entire structure will eventually start to lean a bit, then a bit more, and eventually topple, forming a trench forced with twisted steel. Where the skyscrapers are packed close together, as they are in the many “downtowns” where skyscrapers are to be found, there is a chance of a domino effect, with one skyscraper knocking down others in a chain reaction.

What better metaphor is there for our entire collapse-prone, highly temporary living arrangement than a skyscraper? An update to the ancient Greek myth of Icarus who flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax holding together his wings, causing him to plummet into the sea and drown, the modern skyscraper—a phallic challenge to the heavens—is an object study in failed ambition. Perhaps most significantly, no other type of building intended for human use goes so quickly from comfortable and posh to potentially lethal. Having worked in many of them over the years, I have been forced to watch, and even to participate in, situations that have convinced me that I don’t want to spend any significant amount of time either inside or near any skyscrapers.

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0 Responses to Dmitri Orlov: “the modern skyscraper—a phallic challenge to the heavens—is an object study in failed ambition.”


    I used to work in the World Trade Center, North Tower. I remember
    the long walk through the dark and crowded shopping maze and the
    sudden emergence into a world of light. The real triumph of the building
    was that it was so incredibly massive and yet when one stood at its foot,
    awaiting transport upwards, there was a feeling of weightlessness.
    The light and space around the elevators imbued one with a sense
    of wonder. What joys were to be found at higher levels, when one felt
    so airy on the ground?

    The upwards journey came in stages, first to a landing half way up and
    then a change of elevators for the final leg. The work-a-day trip on an
    ordinary day would end on a large office, unremarkable apart from the
    view. The occasional journey to the restaurant at the very top,
    “Windows on the World” was a special treat, with the city laid out as if
    in a dream, a monopoly board of buildings stretching along gray
    roadways towards the breathing green of Central Park. People were
    dots, too small to be seen as human. Cars and the inevitable traffic
    jams in the distance were the sole connection to that mundane world
    that had been left behind. Here one was truly a master of life, with a
    god-like view of the world. The American dream realised.

    I’ve been haunted the past few nights with brief but reocurring
    nightmares. I can see myself in that old WTC office, surrounded by
    desks and files. Strangely there are no people around. A passenger
    jet appears as a speck and grows into a giant. Not surprising to see
    an aircraft with Newark airport and JFK nearby. But this one flies
    strangely. And as it grows in size it becomes a bird of prey. My
    eyes widen and a cyclone of fear spirals from my gut as I see it
    zoom into… Mercifully, it ends there. I am spared the unspeakable.

    The other image that I have seen is from a distance. That tower
    of magnificence, in a cloud of gray and black smoke. A rumbling
    sound which I feel before I hear. Then the world collapses. The walls
    undulate like a sheet in the wind and the skies rain debris of
    unimaginable variety. The tower slides slowly into the earth,
    retreating into a subterranean abode, shedding its gray reptilian
    skin as it goes.

    These visions are without people. My nightmare is sparing me the
    human tragedy, which is beyond what I can contemplate or express.
    My heart stretches into a dry throat when I try to understand the
    suffering of those gone and those left behind. I will leave that for
    others with better words and better hearts and less haunted.

    – Energyi / for GlobalEdgeInvestors dotcom

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