"Architecture is the alphabet of giants; it is the largest set of symbols ever made to meet the eyes of men. A tower stands up like a sort of simplified statue, of much more than heroic size." --G.K. Chesterton
I've always been fascinated with the gleaming sentinels that comprise America's skylines. I still stoop to peer up at the skyscrapers when I drive through midtown Atlanta, and when I'm in New York, I must perpetually remind myself to stop gazing upward as I walk the streets.
Skyscrapers have always been storytellers. Draw up next to a historic building and you'll hear tales of the time in which they were constructed. You'll learn about architecture and innovation. But today's skyscrapers speak about more than a bygone era. They tell us about a people, about ourselves.
On June 27, 2004, Barack Obama stood before the Democratic National Convention at the Boston Fleet Center to give the keynote address. "Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation, not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy," he said. "Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over 200 years ago."
The now-President's reference to skyscrapers tapped into a sentiment prevalent in American culture for some time. It's been called "American materialism" because as much as it is materialistic, it is American. As a people, our identity often sprouts from the soil of our "stuff." We are because we have. Today, we're obsessed with bigger, better, taller, shinier.
Have you ever wondered why on 9/11, the terrorists chose the World Trade Center towers as their bullseye? Why not a packed baseball stadium? Or a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon? They chose skyscrapers because they symbolized something greater than concrete and windows. The towers symbolized American opulence and braggadocio, and taking them down was intended both to kill and to humiliate.
Mason Cooley stated it most succinctly: "A skyscraper is a boast in glass and steel." As such, our city's buildings have become a statement on our prosperity spoken through the megaphone of architecture. Someone has well said, if one wants to know what America thinks of herself, look at her skylines.
Of course, that boastful sword has two edges. Even though America has claimed the tallest building since the 1800s, it no longer does. In 1998, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malasia stole bragging rights from Chicago's Sears Tower. In 2004, the honor shifted once more, but remained in Asia. Taiwan's Taipei 101 skyscraper remained the world's tallest skyscraper at 1,670 feet until 2010 when the Burj Dubai was built. Eight of 10 of the world's tallest skyscrapers are now in the East.
This shift speaks to America's new place in the global pecking order. According to Robert Hormats, the U.S. State Department's undersecretary for economics, "Asia is the fastest-growing area in the world." Their populations are growing, their people are working, and their products are selling. China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Maldives and South Korea each find themselves among the 10 fastest growing economies in the world. America does not currently make the list.
But skyscrapers tell us about more than the material realities we're facing. Spiritually, they tell us about America's changing religious landscape. City skylines were once filled with more than tall buildings. In America's early years, churches broke the rhythm of banks and businesses. As Harvard Professor Edward Glasser has pointed out, early city planners in the West took note of the Bible's "Tower of Babel" narrative, and as a result, the tallest buildings in city centers were almost always churches. They sprang up in skylines like the hand of a school child that knows the answer to the teacher's question. Like that school child, churches were once able to give salient answers to the questions of culture. (See Edward Glasser's Atlantic Monthly article, "How Skyscrapers Can Save the City.")
Today, however, most Americans are looking to science, psychology or entertainers rather than the Christian church for the answers to their deepest questions. According to Gallup, the number of Americans who said religion was "very important" in their lives fell from 61 percent in 2003 to 54 percent in 2010. In the same time span, Christian affiliation of every kind declined, and Americans who say religion is "losing its influence" swelled from 56 percent to 70 percent.
In New York City, Trinity Church was the tallest building until 1890 when a skyscraper was constructed to house Joseph Pullitzer's New York World. Harvard Professor Edward Glasser in his book, Triumph of the City, suggests perhaps that moment "should be seen as the true start of the irreligious 20th century." Just as the height and placement of these giants tells us about our global standing and self-image, the buildings they now hide and overshadow tell us about new religious realities.
When I was a child, Charles Stanley's First Baptist Church in Atlanta was the preeminent place of worship. A massive choir, concert-style orchestra and renowned pastor combined for the best Sunday show in town. The church sat in downtown on 17 acres of land and 13 buildings. The sanctuary was affixed with a white steeple that felt like a "We're #1" foam finger for area Christians.
But in 1990, the church sold its property in the city and moved to the suburbs. On top of the old location, the AT&T building now stands as one of Atlanta's tallest skyscrapers. The new location? It's a renovated warehouse, tucked away in an older town that rarely makes the news. What a powerful metaphor for Christianity in the late modern West.
Chesterton was right that skyscrapers are symbols. They stand for and speak about something else. Whether a statement of America's current materialistic obsessions or about her place in the new global economy or the shrinking role religion is playing in her wider culture, skyscrapers are speaking. They're telling us about us.
Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer whose work has been published by outlets including, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor and Beliefnet. He is author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet'.