Three more thought experiments

November 26, 2011

I am a big fan of though experiments and in the past I have done a couple of posts about them: 1, 2. Here are three more:

Adventures in time travel

My first experiment actually comes from one of my students. Imagine you can travel back in time to the municipality of Braunau am Inn in Austria.  It is October 1889 and before you a young baby, Adolf Hitler, is sleeping peacefully. Would you pick up a pillow and quietly smother the infant. There are those who would make he case that murder is always wrong, especially if the victim is a baby. However, you would certainly save the world a lot of grief. Or would you? If we replayed Hitler’s life again would the result be exactly the same? Maybe worse things would have happened if Hitler had never been born. I will come back to Hitler soon but now I want to look at time travel itself.

Time travel presents a lot of hard questions. Indeed, it is the subject of a famous thought experiment known as The Grandfather Paradox. It was raised by René Barjavel in his 1943 book Le Voyageur Imprudent. In it Barjavel proposes that time travel is impossible. It goes like this:

Let’s say you travel back in and kill your biological grandfather before he has met your grandmother. Consequently your parents, and by extension you yourself would never been conceived. This would imply that you could not have travelled back in time after all, which means your grandfather would still be alive, and you would have been conceived allowing you to travel back in time and kill your grandfather. Each possibility seems to imply its own negation, creating a logical paradox. Despite the name this paradox is not exclusively about grandfathers. Rather it makes the case any kind of time travel is logically impossible. You could use scientific knowledge to invent a time machine, then go back in time and impede a scientist’s work that would eventually lead to the very information that you used to invent the time machine. And there is a specific variation on the Grandfather Paradox, autoinfanticide, in which you go back in time and kill yourself as a baby. This, of course, is a rather morbid, and potentially dangerous, thing to do. So please don’t try it at home.

So let’s go back to Herr Hitler because this kind of scenario is affected by the Grandfather Paradox. You actually manage to kill him. And although this is highly debateable, WWII is averted and millions of lives are saved. You are now faced with a temporal paradox: without the holocaust and the carnage of 1939-45, you will have no reason to go back in time and kill Hitler, so you don’t. This means Hitler will live, and millions will die in the world war and extermination camps. Consequently you will have to go back in time and kill Hitler… you get the idea.

Thomas Nagel’s bats

In 1974 philosopher Thomas Nagel published a famous article in Philosophical Review – What Is it Like to Be a Bat?  You may be thinking that Nagel had taken too much  LSD, but it is actually a fascinating experiment. Nagel argued that it is impossible for us to know what a bat feels. He was not referring to the sensations of being short-sighted, eating bugs, hanging upside-down in a cave with our mates. That would be describing what it would be like for US  to be bats.

Nagel was looking at how bats perceive the world. First we need to look at their   language, which consists of squeaks and cries. Nagel wasn’t interested in the public language they use to communicate with other bats. What he was interested in is their inner language. As far as we know bats do not possess an inner language that uses linguistic concepts. Secondly there is echolocation, those squeaks they emit work like radar, letting them know the location of objects. Humans have no comparable sensual experience. How can we possibly imagine what this is like?  What Nagel was arguing was that their sensory inputs give them a subjective experience that we are incapable of imagining.

The purpose of Nagel’s piece was not to look at the inner lives of bats, fascinating though that may be.  Nagel was using bats as a way of meditating on the mind-body problem. This is one of those intractable problems that philosophers love and the relationship between mind and brain has exercised them for centuries. How can something physical give rise to the subjective experiences of minds. Nagel wants to say that we may be good at describing how neurons fire off, but we are incapable of explaining consciousness itself. Science is good at describing things objectively. But Nagel believes there is something subjective that does not lend itself easily to scientific analysis. Nagel argues that consciousness has an essentially subjective character, a what it is like aspect:

It seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective.”

He is not anti-science nor is he a dualist, but he is anti-reductionist. He believes that we need to appreciate the fact that the whole is perhaps greater than the sum of its parts. I am a bit of a pessimist as to whether we’ll ever be able to understand such a fundamental question  Maybe our mind is just too limited a tool and the question too difficult.

A Picasso on the beach

This one I got from Julian Baggini’s The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten:

Roy looked down from the cliffs at the man drawing in the sand. The picture that started to emerge startled him. It was an extraordinary face, not realistically rendered, but seemingly viewed from many angles at once. In fact, it looked much like a Picasso. As soon as the thought entered his mind, his heart stopped. He lifted his binoculars to his eyes, which he then felt compelled to rub. The man on the beach was Picasso.. Roy’s pulse raced. He walked this route every day, and he knew that very soon the tide would sweep in and wash away a genuine Picasso original. Somehow, he had to try to save it. But how? Trying to hold back the sea was futile. Nor was there any way to take a cast of the sand, even if he had had the time he was actually so short of. Perhaps he could run back home for his camera. But that would at best preserve a record of the work, not the picture itself. And if he did try this, by the time he got back, the image would probably have been erased by the ocean. Perhaps then he should simply enjoy this private view as long as it lasted. As he stood watching, he didn’t know whether to smile or cry.

The basis for Baggini’s experiment was a short story by Ray Bradbury, In a Season of Calm Weather. Its main character George Smith is taking a holiday in France. Smith is captivated by the work of Pablo Picasso. When he learns that the artist is visiting friends in a small fishing town only a few miles away, he is ecstatic. He secretly dreams of meeting the great artist and talking with him. One day late in the afternoon he is alone on the beach and he goes for a final walk. He spies an old man walking along the darkening shore, all alone. The man picks up a stick from the ground and begins to draw. Smith approaches him and on seeing the drawings he realises that this old man  is Picasso and he begins to tremble and he is incapable of articulating a word. It is then that the awful truth dawns on him – the tide is about to come in, and these works of art will be lost forever. He doesn’t have time to go back to the hotel to get his camera. There is no point trying to pick up a shovel to save a chunk of the crumbling sand? And it would be futile to find a workman to make a mould with plaster of Paris. As Picasso walks away I’ll let Bradbury take up the story:

George Smith stood looking after him. After a full minute he did the only thing he could possibly do. He started at the beginning of the fantastic frieze of satyrs and fauns and wine-dipped maidens and prancing unicorns and piping youths and he walked slowly along the shore. He walked a long way, looking down at the free-running bacchanal. And when he came to the end of the animals and men he turned around and started back in the other direction, just staring down as if he had lost something and did not quite know where to find it. He kept on doing this until there was no more light in the sky or on the sand to see by.

He then goes back to the hotel, but he doesn’t tell his wife of his encounter with genius.

There are a number of themes in this story. We have the fleeting nature of beauty, sometimes we try to capture it, but the best thing is to enjoy the moment. I often think about this when looking at a work of art. This summer when we were at the Courtauld Institute in London they were filming the visitors as they looked at the paintings. It would be interesting to discover the results of the experiment.

Can a work of time last for ever? We can make a distinction between the performative and the plastic. When you see a ballet or a concert you realise that you have to accept that what you are seeing or listening has to be appreciated in the moment. You can watch a recording, but you will never recreate the exact experience. But the plastic arts are not guarantee of permanence either. I have always been intrigued by ice sculptures. Why would someone put so much time and effort into something so ephemeral? Even a painting is not immune to this as pigments age.

Baggini argues that our desire to preserve art is a form of denial about our own mortality. Artists are seeking a form of proxy immortality through their oeuvre. It reminds me of the Shelley poem Ozymandias which I featured a few weeks ago in a post about architecture. Its central theme, the inevitable decline of everything that the Egyptians thought they had created for posterity, is pertinent to this discussion. There is something very poignant about a post-human world in which works of art remain but with no one to appreciate them. If we accept that nothing is immortal, we should be able to see that the value of both art and life itself is to be found: in experiencing them.

Two philosophy thought experiment videos

November 26, 2011

Here are a couple of videos that accompany this week’s post:

The first is from the Open University. 60-Second Adventures in Thought features the voice of actor, writer and comedian David Mitchell:

The second is an animated film A Picasso on the Beach. It was made by Greg Neri with music by Chick Corea:

Return of the tech Wars

November 19, 2011

There was a time, not long ago, when you could sum up each company quite neatly: Apple made consumer electronics, Google ran a search engine, Amazon was a web store, and Facebook was a social network. How quaint that assessment seems today. The Great Tech War Of 2012, Farhad Manjoo in Fast Company Magazine


Amazon, Apple Facebook and Google: these four companies, dubbed “the gang of four” by Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, will be fighting it out for control of what has been called the post-PC era – a brave new world characterised by the emergence of smartphones, tablets, and other small, mobile, easy-to-use computers. There is potentially a lot of money to be made as these devices encourage and facilitate consumption, in just about every form

We need to put the power of the four into some kind of context. I was looking at the Fortune 500 and Apple was the first of the four to appear in the list, but at a modest 35. Even that old dinosaur IBM comes in at 18. Few of us could name the CEOs of the companies at the top of the list: Michael T. Duke (Wal-Mart), Rex W. Tillerson (Exxon Mobil), and Brian T. Moynihan (Bank of America Corp.) are hardly household names. However, something about Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and the late Steve Jobs has captured the public’s imagination.

Now we are told that these four companies will be at war with each other. Some of us are old enough to remember another tech war – the struggle between Sinclair and Acorn in the early eighties. Little did we know in those heady days how irrelevant that fight would be. Then in the eighties IBM Microsoft and Apple slugged it out with Microsoft emerging as the undisputed victor. During the late 1990s we had the browser wars as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer took over from Netscape’s Navigator as the web’s dominant browser. These battles have continued as Explorer has to deal with a series of aggressive usurpers such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Apple’s Safari. And Apple has turned the tables on         Microsoft with the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

So the tech wars between these four Titans are nothing new. This is a battle of products, but is also a battle of business models. Each company has its own way of making money. As the quote at the beginning of the article states, the four tended to specialise. But now they’re branching out into all kinds of new areas. This is going to bring them into conflict with each other, and a by-product of their rivalries will be to cause disruption in many sectors of the economy. As a consumer it will be fascinating to see how this all plays out.


What I am going to do is look at the situation of the four companies:


Google’s core business model is to provide search and advertising services. The genius of Google is their extraordinary ability to organise the information on the Internet. Their physical network has always been extremely fast and they offer consumers incredible value without charging a penny. The advertisers are their source of revenue. And the company has an unparalleled facility for monetising Internet traffic through a highly efficient targeted advertising model. They control a whopping 46% of digital advertising. Every decision Google takes has to be understood in terms of advertising; they are constantly on the lookout for new applications that can drive traffic through their search engine. Most of what Google offers is free. Among other things they have Gmail, Maps, YouTube, a bookstore, Google+ (a social networking site), a new music service and Android, a highly successful mobile phone operating system. Android gives us a clear insight into Google’s modus operandi. They don’t actually earn any money giving away their smartphone operating system to different phone manufacturers. Instead they make money by showing you ads every time you search on Google or look at your email on your Android phone. The more people use Android phones, the more advertising revenue they generate. They are now going head-to-head with Apple on smartphones and tablets.

But they do have other interests. They want to get into the cloud and they are working on a driverless car. In August this year one of these autonomous vehicles was involved in a collision – the project’s first crash.


Amazon’s propensity for losing money in their early years led to them being called They wanted to build up the business and the profits would eventually come. Amazon nearly doubled in size from 2008 to 2010, when it reached $34 billion in annual revenue. Analysts expect it to reach $100 billion in annual revenue by 2015, faster than any company ever. I remember hearing about the Kindle when it first came out. It sounded exciting, but I had no idea it would be so successful. Now Amazon has a new product, the Kindle Fire, which is not just a reader, but a tablet. It is clearly a potential rival for the iPad. The Kindle Fire is smaller than the iPad and has different specifications but there is a huge price difference. Compared to the cheapest iPad which costs $500, the Fire is a bargain at $200. The device, which is clearly linked to Amazon’s Web store, allows you to get books, movies and TV programmes downloaded directly on to your machine. So Amazon’s rationale is not about making money from sales of the device. They appear to be selling it for no profit at all. But they want you to use this device to buy a lot of stuff from their store.

In a ranking produced by Forbes Amazon was ranked as more innovative than both Google and Apple. They are particularly well positioned in cloud computing, which is surely one of the key areas in the future.


Facebook’s aspiration is to be an alternative way to organize the Web, a platform for consumers to spend their time online. What drives Zuckerberg’s strategy is the fact that Google’s search engine cannot reach Facebook content. Thus the more time people spend on Facebook, the less time they will be exposed to ads on Google. Until now people have found content by searching. Facebook is out to overturn that model. They want friends to direct other friends to content. Google has recently created a rival social network, Google Plus, but it is so far behind Facebook they need Google Maps to find it.  Facebook is not interested in supplying media products, like Apple or However, It is teaming up with companies that distribute music, films, information and games. An example of this is their deal with Spotify. They have features that allow you to see what your friends are doing online: Bill Pringle is listening to Mantovani or Norman Fletcher has installed Facebook on his HTC Wildfire. Facebook has been called a directory of human desire and is able to collect valuable data about its users’ habits and desires, which can then be used to sell highly targeted advertising.


I have already done a post about Apple: I’ll buy almost anything if it’s shiny and made by Apple. In terms of the tech wars the struggle is between Apple and the aforementioned Android operating system. Although the iPhone has lost market it is still hugely profitable given Apple’s huge profit margins. Some estimates say that Apple has half of all the profits made in smartphones. They know how to exploit the global production cycle and the enormous economies of scale. Despite this rosy picture Apple are out to get Google and their Android operating system. For Jobs it’s something very personal:

Our lawsuit is saying, “Google, you fucking ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off.” Grand theft. I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go to thermonuclear war on this. They are scared to death, because they know they are guilty. Outside of Search, Google’s products—Android, Google Docs—are shit.

How will they cope with the loss of Steve Jobs? Tim Cook the new CEO appears to be an excellent organiser, but he doesn’t have the artistry or the monstrous ego of Jobs. He has already been at the helm for long periods during Jobs’s sick leave and the company has been thriving. The long run could prove more complicated. One key relationship will be between Cook and Jonathan Ive, the Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple. Ive was the man behind iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. One area where they would like to put their distinctive stamp on is the TV. An Apple TV could prove a reality soon. However, given past history, will it be possible to watch porn on it?


The legal issues have got a bit ugly in the last few years. Everyone seems to be suing everyone else over patents. I understand the need to protect intellectual property rights, but I wouldn’t want to see further innovation stifled. And now in an ironic twist of events the government, egged on by the likes of Microsoft, is considering an antitrust suit against Google. I tend to be sceptical of this kind of lawsuit. I agree with economist Don Boudreaux who argues that the motivation behind many of these cases comes from industry players, who use antitrust to throttle more successful competitors and get relief from the rigours of competition.  Many observers have an incredible lack of imagination. They see a market outcome they regard as negative and they project it into eternity. I don’t know about you, but the anti-trust case against Microsoft seems pretty irrelevant given what has happened in the last decade or so.

Who is going to win? I have no idea. There probably won’t just be one winner- I also think other companies have a role to play and I certainly wouldn’t write off Microsoft. We are going to see another bout of creative destruction as these products and models fight it out. As we have seen these companies employ very different models. People do tend to get quite sectarian about these questions. Apple in particular seems to inspire extreme reactions. I have a piece of advice: if you don’t like a device, don’t buy it.

The best tech companies have tended to stay at their peak for a decade at most. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google will be trying to buck this trend. But right now there is probably some Californian geek plotting the downfall of the big four. The sad thing is that if and when rivals emerge it probably won’t be in Europe. Apple, Amazon and Google were al started in garages. It may be an apocryphal story, but apparently it’s illegal to run a business from a garage in Germany.  Still, have no fear in Britain we have Silicon Roundabout. I’m sure the Yanks are quaking in their boots!

The joy of translating names

November 19, 2011

Since I’ve been in Spain I’ve always enjoyed translating Spanish names into English and vice versa. What’s in a name? I have thought that if the Spanish President had been called Josef Ludwig Schumacher instead of José Luís Zapatero Spain wouldn’t be facing such a severe economic crisis. That German name is so imposing. Anyway I have decided to collect a few of my favourites here. I’ve been rather literal in my translations. I hope you enjoy them.

Here are the ones from English into Spanish:

Beatriz Alfarero   Beatrix Potter

Dani Guantero   Danny Glover

Eduardo Sementero   Edward Hopper

Esteban Cetrería    Stephen Hawking

Esteban Trabajos   Steve Jobs

Francisco Pato  Francis Drake

Hugo Beca    Hugh Grant

Jeremy Irons    Jeremias Planchas

Juanito al Contado  Johnny Cash

Judas Derecho  Jude Law

Nicolas Jáula     Nicolas Cage

Pedrito Mercurio  Freddy Mercury

Ramon Cerero   Raymond Chandler


And here are the ones from Spanish into English:

Alex from the Church   Alex de la Iglesia

Angel Grandson     Ángel Nieto

Bert Meter    Alberto Contador

Bethlehem Steven   Belen Esteban

Calm Sunday    Plácido Domingo

Danny Catwalk   Daniel Passarella

Emmanuel of Fault  Manuel de Falla

Ferdinand Towers  Fernado Torres

Jack Safe    Santiago Segura

John Kills     Juan Mata

John Looked  Joan Miró

John Sunday Big Pear  Juan Domingo Peron

July Mouth     Julio Boca

Sophie Noise  Sofía Mazagatos

Tony Flags    Antonio Banderas


I would love to hear more of these from you, especially from other languages.

Mine is bigger than yours: the rise and rise of the skyscraper

November 13, 2011

There is nothing more poetic and terrible than the skyscrapers’ battle with the heavens that cover them.    Federico Garcia Lorca

To design a building, or have a building designed, is to suggest that this is the world as I want it. This is the perfect room to run a state, a business empire, a city, a family. It is the way to create a physical version of an idea, or an emotion. It is the way to construct reality as we wish it to be, rather than as it is.    Deyan Sudjic, The Edifice Complex

And on the pedestal these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

From Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley*


The skyscraper is the latest manifestation of the human desire to ascend to the heavens. The Tower of Babel, the Egyptian pyramids and Gothic cathedrals all reflected this longing. Skyscrapers fulfil this role today and have become a cornerstone of modern culture, movie stars in their own right. The Empire State Building was famously climbed by King Kong in the 1933 movie and destroyed by an alien spaceship in Independence Day. The Petronas Twin Towers provided the spectacular backdrop for the heist in the film Entrapment. There have also been fictional towers. The Nakamoto Tower in the film version of Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun captured the zeitgeist of the 1980s – American paranoia about Japanese corporations taking over the world economy. Echoes of China today? And there was another Japanese skyscraper- the Nakatomi Plaza – in that classic action movie Die Hard. A shoeless Bruce Willis single-handedly takes out twelve ruthless armed terrorists. I love that movie!

The origin of the term skyscraper is not architectural, but nautical referring to a small triangular sail set above the skysail on a sailing ship. The term migrated to architecture at the end of the 19th century and originally applied to buildings of between ten and twenty stories. Of course now we think of buildings with fifty stories or more. Indeed there are currently ten buildings which have 100 or more floors. It was in New York and Chicago, which were America’s leading cities at the time, that the skyscraper was born. These buildings emerged due to a convergence of new technologies, the lift and the use of steel, and the constantly rising demand for offices, apartments and hotels.

The rules of architecture were rewritten by the skyscraper. These buildings no longer rested their weight on thick external walls of brick or stone; they now had an internal framework – a skeleton if you will – of steel columns and beams. In the words of the author Jim Rasenberger it was “as if buildings had evolved overnight from lumbering crustaceans into lofty vertebrates.”  Structurally walls became almost an optional extra, necessary for protection from the weather and for adornment, but not essential to actually keep the building up. Not only was this was more efficient and economical, but it also allowed humans to give full vent to their creativity and their desire to construct reality.

There are two kinds of loads that affect a skyscraper. One could imagine that the gravity load – the accumulation of floors one on top of another – would be the hard part. But in reality it is the lateral loads which present more problems. This is the effect of the wind -the taller the building the more it is affected. To counter this, the building has to be able to sway at the top. There is a maximum permitted sway, which is about one-500th of the building’s height. It’s not that that the building is going to topple, but the people inside may well begin to feel a bit queasy. And in earthquake zones they will actually be designed to be able to move a little bit on their foundations. One of the great architectural ironies is that these skyscrapers that have all glass sides, with window after window, but none them can be opened.

The first steel frame skyscraper was the Home Insurance Building, originally 10 storeys with a height of 42m in Chicago, Illinois in 1885. But it was then New York which really took centre stage. In this time the American economy was undergoing a spectacular wave of mergers. The resulting corporations overwhelmingly chose the Big Apple for their headquarters. There were obviously practical questions of needing space for their staff, but there was more at play in here. Skyscrapers became like giant advertising logos helping imprint a powerful corporate identity on the popular consciousness. These colossi captured the public imagination; they were the wonders of the modern world

In the 1920s and early 1930s three major projects fought it out to become the world’s tallest building with the Empire State Building eventually coming out on top. This building, the archetypal skyscraper, was actually started in 1930, after the Wall Street Crash. In under a year the 3,400 workers, mostly immigrants from Europe and hundreds of Mohawk ironworkers, were able to finish the building. And given the danger involved they had a spectacularly good safety record—only five people died. Alas the Depression meant that the real estate market collapsed. Its 72% vacancy rate led to it being dubbed the “empty state building.’” The outlook was so bleak that 56 floors were just left completely unfinished. However it remained the world’s tallest structure for nearly 40 years. There would not be another project of a similar prestige until the World Trade Center some four decades later.

These iconic towers had not been especially well-received when they first went up in 1973. The terrorist attack on September 11th 2001 turned them into a symbol. The terrorists certainly were aware of the huge symbolism of high-rise architecture. Mohammed Atta himself had been a student of Architecture at Cairo University. The collapse of the buildings has been a source of much debate. The first tower collapsed after less than an hour and the second thirty minutes later. Modern skyscrapers are generally designed to remain intact and escapable for two hours. But is it practical to design something to withstand this kind of impact? Of the 50,000 people in the towers 85 per cent got out alive. Some people argue that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. There is a lot of truth in this.  In 1990 there was a fire at the Empire State Building. The fire took several hours to go out, but because of the thick concrete walls and floors all the heat was contained within one floor. But it is not feasible to build like this anymore for economic and aesthetic reasons. Not only would it double the cost, but it would go against modern tastes, which demand open and airy glass spaces. Not many people would want to live, work or stay in a fortress.

Skyscrapers are no longer an American phenomenon. They have spread all over the globe. In recent years the impetus to build these superstructures has moved to Asia and the Middle East. A race paralleling New York’s has been taking place.Dubaican now lay claim to the world’s tallest building: the Burj Khalifa. It stands at 828m more than twice the height of America’s Empire State Building.  This vertical city of 160 floors is a mixed-use building, which has hotel, office and residential accommodation. However, in Dubai they don’t have a very sophisticated sewage infrastructure, so every day trucks have to come to take the sewage out of all areas within Burj Khalifa.

And if you’ve ever wondered about the problems of disposing of waste from 700m the architects and engineers have thought of that too. As the effluence gathers a lot of speed as it falls down from such a height, there are very sophisticated bends in the pipes and air is let in to slow the water as it’s moving through the system. It is also sound-proofed to make sure it’s not too noisy.

There is a theory that sees skyscrapers as a predictor of economic crisis. Andrew Lawrence, research director at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein argues that the data show that the world’s tallest buildings have risen on the eve of economic downturns. Lawrence linked the phenomenon to overinvestment, speculation and monetary expansion. His original paper, The Skyscraper Index: Faulty Towers was a bit tongue-in-cheek. He used data from the USA. After the construction of two Singer Building and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower at the beginning of the 20th century there was the panic of 1907. The race in New York was followed by the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. The next record holders, World Trade Center towers and Sears Tower, opened up in 1973, during the 1973 oil crisis. The last example he gave was the Petronas Towers opening before the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The last example cited by Lawrence was the Petronas Twin Towers, opened up in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The Burj Khalifa may well join this list; two months after the announcement of the completion of the exterior of the building, the Dubai government came close to defaulting on its loans. Stephen Bayley described the tower as a “frightening, purposeless monument to the subprime era.”

I have to admit I am ambivalent about skyscrapers. There will soon be a 1000-metre skyscraper. Indeed soon it may not be necessary to go up in a plane to join the mile high club  There is undoubtedly something rather phallic about this urge to build higher and higher – the mine is bigger than yours syndrome. It may seem absurd, but this competitiveness shows no signs of abating. It doesn’t necessarily follow any commercial logic and is often an exercise in pointlessness. However I like the hubris of soaring ambition. We may decry the attempt to show economic virility, but Cesar Pelli’s Petronas towers really did put Kuala Lumpur on the map. Nobody would have takenLondon’s docklands seriously without their signature buildings. I will finish with this quote from the architect Louis Sullivan, the father of the skyscraper. We may not always live up to his ideals but I still believe that thee are architects who can reach these heights:

“What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? It is lofty. It must be tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exaltation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.”


*Ozymandias was another name for Ramses the Great, a Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. The central theme of Shelley’s poem is the inevitable complete decline of all leaders, of their empires and the monuments they build for posterity.  

A couple of sketches about architecture

November 13, 2011

Here are a couple of famous sketches about architecture:

The first is from Monty Python.

The second is from Not the Nine O’clock News.

Poem #2 : Skyscraper Carl Sandburg

November 13, 2011

This poem by Carl Sandburg ties in with my post about skyscrapers.

By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and

has a soul.

Prairie and valley, streets of the city, pour people into

it and they mingle among its twenty floors and are

poured out again back to the streets, prairies and


It is the men and women, boys and girls so poured in and

out all day that give the building a soul of dreams

and thoughts and memories.

(Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care

for the building or speak its name or ask a policeman

the way to it?)

Elevators slide on their cables and tubes catch letters and

parcels and iron pipes carry gas and water in and

sewage out.

Wires climb with secrets, carry light and carry words,

and tell terrors and profits and loves–curses of men

grappling plans of business and questions of women

in plots of love.

Hour by hour the caissons reach down to the rock of the

earth and hold the building to a turning planet.

Hour by hour the girders play as ribs and reach out and

hold together the stone walls and floors.

Hour by hour the hand of the mason and the stuff of the

mortar clinch the pieces and parts to the shape an

architect voted.

Hour by hour the sun and the rain, the air and the rust,

and the press of time running into centuries, play

on the building inside and out and use it.

Men who sunk the pilings and mixed the mortar are laid

in graves where the wind whistles a wild song

without words

And so are men who strung the wires and fixed the pipes

and tubes and those who saw it rise floor by floor.

Souls of them all are here, even the hod carrier begging

at back doors hundreds of miles away and the brick-

layer who went to state’s prison for shooting another

man while drunk.

(One man fell from a girder and broke his neck at the

end of a straight plunge–he is here–his soul has

gone into the stones of the building.)

On the office doors from tier to tier–hundreds of names

and each name standing for a face written across

with a dead child, a passionate lover, a driving

ambition for a million dollar business or a lobster’s

ease of life.

Behind the signs on the doors they work and the walls

tell nothing from room to room.

Ten-dollar-a-week stenographers take letters from

corporation officers, lawyers, efficiency engineers,

and tons of letters go bundled from the building to all

ends of the earth.

Smiles and tears of each office girl go into the soul of

the building just the same as the master-men who

rule the building.

Hands of clocks turn to noon hours and each floor

empties its men and women who go away and eat

and come back to work.

Toward the end of the afternoon all work slackens and

all jobs go slower as the people feel day closing on


One by one the floors are emptied. . . The uniformed

elevator men are gone. Pails clang. . . Scrubbers

work, talking in foreign tongues. Broom and water

and mop clean from the floors human dust and spit,

and machine grime of the day.

Spelled in electric fire on the roof are words telling

miles of houses and people where to buy a thing for

money. The sign speaks till midnight.

Darkness on the hallways. Voices echo. Silence

holds. . . Watchmen walk slow from floor to floor

and try the doors. Revolvers bulge from their hip

pockets. . . Steel safes stand in corners. Money

is stacked in them.

A young watchman leans at a window and sees the lights

of barges butting their way across a harbor, nets of

red and white lanterns in a railroad yard, and a span

of glooms splashed with lines of white and blurs of

crosses and clusters over the sleeping city.

By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars

and has a soul.