Mark Kingwell. Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. xii + 235 pp. $26.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-10622-0.
Reviewed by Michael Shapiro (Department of History, University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
Published on H-Urban (June, 2007)
Mark Kingwell began writing Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams in the months following 9/11/2001. With the fall of the twin towers, the Empire State Building regained its dominance over Manhattan's skyline. It had been New York's tallest skyscraper from its completion in 1932 until the World Trade Center surpassed it in 1972. Designed by the firm of Richmond H. Shreve, William F. Lamb and Arthur L. Harmon, the Empire State Building has always had a symbolic power free from association with an internationally known architect like Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or Walter Gropius. It has stood on its own as a "focus of national aspiration, an icon of Americanness.... [I]t appears to offer ... the democratic fiction that the wealth of the nation, the pinnacle of its achievements, belongs to everyone" (p. 35). By the 1970s, the idealism embodied by the monumentality of the Empire State Building had given way to anti-aesthetics and the blandness of late-twentieth-century capitalism. While Kingwell is clearly troubled by the terrorist attacks, he is not dismayed that the Empire State Building has re-emerged to remind us of "a time when the language of buildings was more romantic, less brutalist and matter-of-fact" (p. 87).
Kingwell is a philosopher who deconstructs the Empire State Building's iconic status. Influenced by an essay about the Eiffel Tower by Roland Barthes, Kingwell defines an icon as a visual symbol constantly shifting within a system of signs that amplifies and obscures the clusters of meanings it supports. His aim is to get closer to the truth of the building, "its entire universe of use and meaning: the webs of relation and work that spin through its webs of plumbing and wiring; the shunting workers and tourists who find themselves here today, or tomorrow, and carry away the memories and postcards; the entire palimpsest of history, of events and moments over seventy-five years, which together embed the site, rising in layers with each passing year to a soaring height of lived reality equal to the physical span" (p. 161). A tall order, to be sure, but he makes some nice headway.
The Empire State Building is first and foremost a skyscraper, and while skyscrapers may seem like opportunities to maximize office space, Kingwell suggests that they are more accurately expressions of ideas. While the financiers of these mega-projects may not agree that "[s]kyscrapers are not office buildings, they are concrete realizations of thought," it is another way of understanding what many take for granted as purely capitalist schemes (p. 83). For instance, the World Trade Center and Empire State Building were both built as office towers, yet they expressed very different ideas. Kingwell uses art and architectural history to show how the Empire State Building embodies our desire to "scrape the sky," while Minoru Yamasaki's design for the World Trade Center (1970-77) denied "tallness in its tallness" (p. 85). He demonstrates the ways in which the designers of the Empire State Building expressed optimism about technological innovations in ways reminiscent of the Italian Futurist architect Antonio Sant'Elia's utopian plans. He also looks back to the French nineteenth-century architect Henri Labrouste's studies of ancient monuments as a student and his later classicized designs in Paris in the 1830s and 1840s to suggest that architectural history is "a procession of 'structural organisms'--not mere styles to be copied but organic responses to the linked factors of material, function, and social conditions" (p. 79). Influenced by Labrouste, the designers of the Empire State Building complicated the simple dichotomy between classicism and modernism that Kingwell finds most clearly expressed in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (1943). The twin towers, on the other hand, were more quintessentially modern: "The first tower said: I am deliberately ugly in order to reverse the standard logic of scraping the sky; I refuse to play your game. The second tower said: I am here to make sure you get the point, that this has not been done idly or by chance. Its only statement was its size" (pp. 85-86).
The Empire State Building began as what Rem Koolhaas called an "automonument." Its layers of meaning would increase over time, but it immediately asserted its monumentality. Kingwell explains that this assertion was not a claim, but a gesture, which he defines as "a normative proposition demanding rational assessment" (p. 92). Whereas the smooth surface and dark finish of Mies's Seagram Building (1957) is a gesture of negation, the Empire State Building is an optimistic "gesture about the materials themselves ... an argument about the tough, interlocked beauty of technology" (p. 94). Made of limestone and steel, it combined an earthy material with the latest technological innovations. It has art deco flourishes, but also clean lines. The Empire State Building is also a gesture about process. Conceived by the optimistic Al Smith and his finance partner John Jakob Raskob during the speculative boom preceding the Great Depression, construction had already begun when the stock market crashed. Through one of the biggest marketing blitzes to date, they quickly reframed the project as a monument that would galvanize Americans. Construction occurred at an unprecedented speed, employing 3,439 workers in an assembly line fashion. People quickly recognized that it was an "amalgamated genius of design and construction" (p. 3).
Along with process and materials, it is images of the building that have embedded the Empire State Building as an icon in the consciousness of Americans. In fact, the reproductions begin to conceal the building itself because the images are so compelling. Representations are found in such diverse places as the television show, The Simpsons, Andy Warhol's movie Empire (1964), An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957), and photographs by Lewis Hine. People appropriate the building when discussing size. For example, Scribner's Magazine claimed that if all of the copies of Gone With the Wind sold in 1933 were stacked on top of each other, they would rise 250 times taller than the Empire State Building (p. 130). People send postcards of the building "as signs of witness rather than as attempts at communication" (p. 133). People build models "to fashion, with one's own hands, a replica of something great" (p. 136). Yet "only a full-scale model of the building would be adequate to the task of representation" (p. 159). This challenge of representation brings us back to Kingwell's comparisons with the twin towers. Architect Minoru Yamasaki designed the second tower to emulate the first. The Empire State building has never been accurately reproduced and this contributes to its uniqueness. "We realize how contingent it is! There could be any number of Empire State Buildings--how wonderful that there is only this one!" (p. 159).
Nearest Thing to Heaven is a challenging book to distill because Kingwell's thoughts wander. One moment you are reading about the building, and the next you are contemplating Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893) or Kingwell's "ten-step program for the creation of a modern media icon" (p. 36). These tangents exemplify and reiterate his points, yet frustrate nonetheless. But this is his style. Toward the beginning of the book, he writes, "I have tried in these pages to replicate that experience whereby, as Roland Barthes remarks, one is 'enclosed by a monument and provisionally follows its internal meanders'" (p. 22). His goal was never to write a straightforward or technical history of the building. For that, scholars should refer to John Tauranac's The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark (1995) or Building the Empire State by Carol Willis and Donald Friedman (1998).
The book also contains a few troubling errors, including one found on page 14. When Kingwell is crediting George Washington with naming New York the Empire State, he writes, "Sources differ as to whether this alleged proclamation was made in 1778, right after the Revolutionary War, or, more probably, in December 1784, during Washington's Presidency." 1778 was toward the beginning of the war and Washington was not President until 1789. Kingwell's errors do not contradict his thesis, but diminish his credibility. My skepticism increased when I had to refer to a bibliographic essay rather than endnotes. Nevertheless, he distinguishes himself as an intellectual who masterfully conveys the role that icons play in American society while passionately celebrating this great building.
In a few years the Empire State Building will again play second fiddle to a downtown neighbor. Across the world, skyscrapers are being built that more than double its size. Thankfully, Kingwell has taken the opportunity of the Empire State Building's renewed prominence to remind us just how special it is. The book's value comes from its fresh approach. Studying cities and buildings can begin to feel dry over time if new approaches are not attempted. Kingwell makes this building come alive. It is nice to be reminded that a building can be much more than the sum of its parts.
. Roland Barthes, "The Eiffel Tower," in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach (New York: Routledge, 1997), 172-181.
. Rem Koolhaas, "Theory: The Bloke Alone." art-omma Issue 7 (Spring 2002), available online at http://www.artomma.org/NEW/pastissues/theory/07The%20Bloke%20Alone%20by%20Rem%20Koolhaas.htm (accessed April 30, 2007).
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Michael Shapiro. Review of Kingwell, Mark, Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams.
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