Note: The essay below includes a number of footnotes that are not printed on this site; for the full text of the essay please email Don LePan at don.lepan@broadviewpress.com
 

Skyscraper Art

Skyscrapers are back—important in art as well as in human consciousness to a degree that they have not been since the 1970s, perhaps even since the 1930s. But they are back in new and different ways—and it’s not all to do with 9/11. 

There is no image more symbolic of the twentieth century than the skyscraper—and of course nothing marks the century’s end more indelibly than the attack on the skyscrapers of the World Trade Center in 2001. That attack prompted widespread discussion of the degree to which cities—and skyscrapers in particular—are embodiments of the Western world, and of all that engenders distrust and hatred of the Western world. We were reminded in the most horrible of ways that skyscrapers are symbols of capitalism; they are symbols of finance;  and they are symbols of ambition—more pointedly, of male ambition.  
Much as they were central to twentieth century Western culture, skyscrapers had a remarkably low profile in twentieth-century Western art. A number of important artists (among them Edward Hopper, L.S. Lowry, David Milne) focused on portraying city life at street level, and on a human scale. A number focused on the stark or brutal lines of industrial forms (among them Fernand Leger and Charles Demuth); and a number (among them Andre Derain, Raoul Dufy, Fred Varley, and James Wilson Morrice) painted cityscapes that had the feel of landscapes—views across water, for example, that for all their loveliness convey no sense of a beauty distinctive to cities, let alone to skyscrapers and other monumental city structures. Some of the finest twentieth-century city painting has been associated in one way or anther with disengagement; Edward Hopper’s paintings (which never have a vantage point sufficiently distanced to allow a skyscraper to be seen in its entirety) convey something important of the essence of the American city, and yet are eerily withdrawn from it. “I don’t think I ever tried to paint the American scene,” Hopper said; “I’m trying to paint myself.” Oskar Kokoschka, for his part, withdrew from the art world in his later years, as his painting withdrew upward, into the air; his later cityscapes of European centers, painted from a bird’s eye view, are among the finest of twentieth-century expressionist works. But they evoke the city as a place of history and of nature writ large, not the city as a site of monumental structures. The surprising fact is that the monumental structures of pre-twentieth century Western civilization—churches, for the most part —figure much more prominently in the art of the nineteenth century than do the monumental structures of the twentieth in that century’s visual art. Why should that be? The ambitions associated with twentieth century monumental structures such as skyscrapers were often aesthetic almost as much as they were economic. But the aesthetic ambitions involved were almost always those of wealthy capitalists, and of architects working under the direction of wealthy capitalists; on those grounds alone, they were likely to be felt as inherently alienating by many visual artists. Notably, that fault line in the society of skyscrapers has not always been visible to its attackers. As Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit have pointed out in discussing why skyscrapers have been a target for “occidentalist” terrorists, the attackers have seen skyscrapers as embodying “secular ambition, challenging the natural order of things.” In the minds of the occidentalists these qualities are linked as well to notions of cities as repositories of “mixed populations, artistic freedom, sexual licence.”  To the occidentalist, the secularist with his vision of human potential unconstrained by religious dogma, the capitalist with his vision of growth and profit, and the artist with her vision of challenging conventions and breaking new ground artistically, are all of a piece. Needless to say, that is not how most in the occident itself see categories being constructed. Within the Western urban world—and especially within urban artistic circles—artistic freedom and economic free enterprise are more likely to be seen as antithetical than as inextricably linked. Within the city, capitalists have rarely led the way in promoting artistic freedom, while the artistic community has been almost as mistrustful of “free enterprise” as it has been keen to defend and to exercise artistic freedom. Given that background, it is hardly surprising that artists and writers, much as they may have flocked to cities dominated by skyscrapers, have tended to look down on that which towered above them. Here, for example, are the reflections of the Canadian novelist Graeme Gibson: “Democracy could never have been developed among skyscrapers. It’s good to be in a place where you don’t feel diminished.”  Twentieth-century writers and artists have often not felt a need to be far removed physically from the world of the skyscraper—Gibson himself lived for may years just beyond the shadow of Toronto’s forest of downtown towers—but they have never tended to feel entirely comfortable with the world the skyscraper has represented to them. No doubt largely for that reason,  the skyscraper’s place in modern imagination as a whole is a good deal larger than is its place in the history of twentieth-century art. 
For perhaps twenty years, from the early teens through to the early 1930s, of course, the skyscraper did have a significant presence in American art. Photographers led the way, and the images of Edward Steichen, of Joseph Steiglitz, of Berenice Abbott and of Lewis Hine have remained popular icons ever since. It may be that subsequent twentieth-century artists—painters at least as much as photographers—were simply unable to escape the shadows cast by those great images. Certainly it is true that by the end of thirties there was little enthusiasm for skyscrapers themselves as something new and extraordinary in human history; such enthusiasm saturated New York and Chicago in the early years of the century, and persisted into the 1930s.  But the Depression continued to deepen, and disillusionment with all the icons of capitalism deepened too; it is no doubt not a coincidence that the photographic images which convey the strength, grandeur, and excitement of New York skyscrapers almost all date from the years before the Depression began to bite deepest.
When twentieth-century painters did depict skyscrapers, they largely accepted a certain set of conventions as to how to represent them. It came to be assumed that the appropriate fashion in which to represent the skyscraper was with hard, straight lines, and with purely rectangular forms. With a few important exceptions—John Marin most prominent among them —twentieth-century painters of skyscrapers stayed away from wavy lines, from soft shadings, from blurring and bleeding. (That may seem natural given the nature of the subject, but it is quite out of sync with the assumption prevalent elsewhere in twentieth-century art that there is no “natural” way to represent any subject.) Twentieth-century conventions for representing skyscrapers in painting are tightly bound up with modernism, and with the chief form in which modernism found expression in painting, cubism. Cubism retained its influence in America right through the great skyscraper era of 1910-1935; of the important American painters who depicted tall structures in this period (among them Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Georgia O’Keeffe), almost all were influenced by cubism. It can be no surprise, then, that the iconic paintings of New York tall structures—and there are few enough of them —feature sharp angles, uncompromisingly hard lines, and hard colors too. So too do later styles in which monumental structures were sometimes depicted—notably the precisionism of artists such as Sheeler and Ralston Crawford, among whom a kinship between certain sorts of art and photography seems to have been assumed when it came to the capture of the hard, straight line. 
Twentieth-century painting also developed conventions as to verticality in the representation of tall structures. As any number of postcards demonstrate, a skyscraper skyline can be conveyed as interestingly in a “landscape” format as it can in a “portrait” format. But when twentieth-century painters took such structures as their subject, they tended overwhelmingly towards images much taller than they are wide.
For the most part, though, the leading painters of the twentieth century chose not to attempt any representations of the tall structures that had transformed the modern city. The flurry of interest in painting tall structures was largely confined to New York from the teens to the early 1930s,  and the conventions that arose in that period for depicting tall structures in the urban landscape went virtually unchallenged, limiting the range of representations of skyscrapers in art through to the century’s end. 
Are there good grounds for maintaining those conventions? In a word, no. Clouds swirl among skyscrapers just as the mist swirls across the water and through the trees. Skylines and skyscrapers are as open to the impressions of color and of light as are the trees and the sky and the water. And skyscrapers are extraordinarily powerful vehicles for an expressionistic approach, embodying as they do so much of the heart of the modern world. Embodying the drive and the optimism of that world, but also its depths—its dark ambitions as much as its naïve and childlike ones.  John Marin saw all that clearly in 1913: “shall we consider the life of a great city as confined to the people and the animals on its streets and in its buildings? Are the buildings in themselves dead? …the whole city is alive—buildings, people, all are alive and the more they move me, the more I feel them to be alive. It is this “moving of me” that I try to express.” 
The world of painting was not ready for that message in 1913. But it resonates with surprising vibrancy almost a century later. In the early twenty-first century there is more work being produced depicting skyscrapers (and close cousins, such as large bridges) than there has been at any time since the 1930s. And much of it is highly interesting work, work of real quality, work that breaks new ground. In place of the hard and precise verticality that characterized so many early twentieth-century depictions of skyscrapers, painters such as Nicholas Evans-Cato and Paul Caranicas convey a soft horizontality, buildings and bridges stretching wide, without insisting on domination. The works of the one-name Manhattan painter Bascove often stretch wide too, and are filled with wavy brightness and luminous color. The paintings of Susanna Heller convey a tangled vibrancy that partakes of emotional expression as much as it does of concrete and glass. Jacqueline Gourevitch’s watercolors and soft oils of New York from on high seek to show how the skyscrapers “hang together” with “the surrounding waters, the clouds and their swiftly moving shadows.”  The bird’s eye cityscapes of John Hartman convey an immense energy that seems to come equally from land, sea, sky, and skyscrapers. That is the same sort of feel that I have tried to express in my large watercolors of skyscraper and city scenes. And many other artists are finding ways to express similar feelings.  . 
Why the change? The obvious explanation would be September 11; that horrific moment is seared in the visual memory of artists as much as in that of others, and it is surely natural to feel in its powerful wake a new interest in and appreciation for skyscrapers—as symbols of the culture, to be sure, but also as places where real people live and work. No doubt that does go some distance towards explaining things. Interestingly, though, the shift seems largely to have predated 9/11 (and interestingly too, with women artists leading the way): Bascove, for example, was painting bridges and other tall structures in the late 1980s; Heller and Gourevich began to paint skyscraper cityscapes (many of them from studio space in the twin towers) in the late 1990s. My own powerful interest in painting skyscrapers began very suddenly, with my first visit to Chicago in 1994. Something, in short, was in the cultural air well before 9/11.
Partly the change may have had to do with the weakening of the links between the skyscraper and the most powerful forces of North American capitalism. It had never been the case that all powerful corporations or titans of industry would build skyscrapers to help to shape their identity, or that all skyscrapers were intended to be corporate expressions, but the association between skyscrapers and corporate power remained very strong that from the 1920s through to the 1970s: the shape of oil money in the city was the shape of the Rockefeller Center in New York, the Amoco Building in Chicago, One Shell Square in New Orleans. Chrysler may not have bested Ford and GM in its vehicles, but the Chrysler Building was unrivalled. Sears became the country’s largest retailer, and the Sears Tower became its tallest building. In the 1970s CN soared in telecommunications as it had in railroads, and the CN Tower in Toronto became the world’s tallest free-standing structure. But then it all came to a halt. For the giants of Western business, and for Western architects, “tall, it seemed, was over,”  as Mark Kingwell has succinctly put it. WalMart became the country’s largest retailer—and kept its headquarters in Benton, Arkansas. Google and Microsoft built campuses, not towers. And with many of the old towers, too, the pattern changed. In Chicago Amoco moved out and the building was renamed. The Sears Tower is still called the Sears Tower, but Sears itself has not had its headquarters there for many years. The Empire State Building has a vacancy rate of 20% or more, even during boom times. To be sure, many skyscrapers have remained foci of high-powered corporate activity—the World Trade Center was one such, and there are many others. But the link between the skyscraper and the most powerful forces of American capitalism is far, far weaker now than it was from the 1920s through the 1970s. It is weaker in fact, and it is also weaker in our minds. Notice the sanguine tone, for example, with which Kingwell acknowledges the potential for evil among skyscraper capitalists in what may well be the most important book on any single skyscraper, his 2006 Nearest Thing to Heaven
 
Inside their sleek cladding and vertical beauty may lie a multitude of sins large and small, of evil corporations and dastardly deeds. And yet, the analogy of scraping the sky, and so getting closer to heaven, resists dismissal, renews its hold on us, every time we stop, and forget, and look up, and see the sheer wall of stone or glass and metal climbing its defiant way into heaven. 
 
A very large part of me shares in the sort of lyrical exuberance that Kingwell expresses here. But there can be little question that this sort of exuberance is bound to be constrained to the extent that one has a genuine sense of skyscrapers being inhabited and controlled by evil forces. By the twenty-first century it was becoming more difficult to harbor such feelings about a great many skyscrapers. Hated corporations such as Countrywide and Monsanto were nowhere to be found on the seventy-fifth floor—which in the Empire State Building these days is occupied by, among others, a small Japanese art publisher, another small company offering a digital library of electrical engineering literature, and an education consulting service. The evils that the large capitalist corporation often produces are anything but imaginary—but it may well be that Kingwell’s phrase “dastardly deeds”—the sort of phrase we usually associate with children’s adventure stories—is precisely the right expression to describe the worst that happens now in a great many skyscrapers.  
As the link between the skyscraper and the most powerful forces of American capitalism has steadily weakened over the past twenty years, the link between the skyscraper and the most powerful economic forces elsewhere in the world has steadily strengthened. As late as 1990 nine of the ten tallest buildings in the world were in the USA. At the end of 2007 eight of ten were in Asia; the Sears Tower and the Empire State Building are the lone American entries. In quick succession Taipei 101 passed the Petronas Towers (in 2006) and then was itself surpassed by Burj Dubai on July 21, 2007. (When completed in late 2008 Burj Dubai will be over 150 stories tall and will hold the title of world’s tallest structure as well as that of world’s tallest building.) There are plans afoot that could conceivably bring the title of “world’s tallest building” back to the US in the next decade, but clearly the US will never again dominate the list of the world’s tallest buildings as it did from the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1990s.        
It may well be that the receding of the long era in which the skyscraper was so closely associated with the strongest thrusts of corporate power may have helped to make it possible for North American culture—including the culture of visual artists—to see skyscrapers with fresh eyes. To see them as cultural artifacts more than as corporate symbols, to see them as structures both varied and vibrant. Again, the world was not ready in 1913 for John Marin’s message that such buildings “are alive,” and it was even less ready for such a message in the 1960s and 1970s—but it does seem finally to be ready for such a message today. As more and more artists are realizing, art need not shy away from the city that the skyscraper represents, with all its light and all its darkness. And no more need we shy away, in our art or in ourselves, from feeling moved by such things. 
 

Skyscrapers are back—important in art as well as in human consciousness to a degree that they have not been since the 1970s, perhaps even since the 1930s. But they are back in new and different ways—and it’s not all to do with 9/11. 

There is no image more symbolic of the twentieth century than the skyscraper—and of course nothing marks the century’s end more indelibly than the attack on the skyscrapers of the World Trade Center in 2001. That attack prompted widespread discussion of the degree to which cities—and skyscrapers in particular—are embodiments of the Western world, and of all that engenders distrust and hatred of the Western world. We were reminded in the most horrible of ways that skyscrapers are symbols of capitalism; they are symbols of finance;  and they are symbols of ambition—more pointedly, of male ambition.  
Much as they were central to twentieth century Western culture, skyscrapers had a remarkably low profile in twentieth-century Western art. A number of important artists (among them Edward Hopper, L.S. Lowry, David Milne) focused on portraying city life at street level, and on a human scale. A number focused on the stark or brutal lines of industrial forms (among them Fernand Leger and Charles Demuth); and a number (among them Andre Derain, Raoul Dufy, Fred Varley, and James Wilson Morrice) painted cityscapes that had the feel of landscapes—views across water, for example, that for all their loveliness convey no sense of a beauty distinctive to cities, let alone to skyscrapers and other monumental city structures. Some of the finest twentieth-century city painting has been associated in one way or anther with disengagement; Edward Hopper’s paintings (which never have a vantage point sufficiently distanced to allow a skyscraper to be seen in its entirety) convey something important of the essence of the American city, and yet are eerily withdrawn from it. “I don’t think I ever tried to paint the American scene,” Hopper said; “I’m trying to paint myself.” Oskar Kokoschka, for his part, withdrew from the art world in his later years, as his painting withdrew upward, into the air; his later cityscapes of European centers, painted from a bird’s eye view, are among the finest of twentieth-century expressionist works. But they evoke the city as a place of history and of nature writ large, not the city as a site of monumental structures. The surprising fact is that the monumental structures of pre-twentieth century Western civilization—churches, for the most part —figure much more prominently in the art of the nineteenth century than do the monumental structures of the twentieth in that century’s visual art. Why should that be? The ambitions associated with twentieth century monumental structures such as skyscrapers were often aesthetic almost as much as they were economic. But the aesthetic ambitions involved were almost always those of wealthy capitalists, and of architects working under the direction of wealthy capitalists; on those grounds alone, they were likely to be felt as inherently alienating by many visual artists. Notably, that fault line in the society of skyscrapers has not always been visible to its attackers. As Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit have pointed out in discussing why skyscrapers have been a target for “occidentalist” terrorists, the attackers have seen skyscrapers as embodying “secular ambition, challenging the natural order of things.” In the minds of the occidentalists these qualities are linked as well to notions of cities as repositories of “mixed populations, artistic freedom, sexual licence.”  To the occidentalist, the secularist with his vision of human potential unconstrained by religious dogma, the capitalist with his vision of growth and profit, and the artist with her vision of challenging conventions and breaking new ground artistically, are all of a piece. Needless to say, that is not how most in the occident itself see categories being constructed. Within the Western urban world—and especially within urban artistic circles—artistic freedom and economic free enterprise are more likely to be seen as antithetical than as inextricably linked. Within the city, capitalists have rarely led the way in promoting artistic freedom, while the artistic community has been almost as mistrustful of “free enterprise” as it has been keen to defend and to exercise artistic freedom. Given that background, it is hardly surprising that artists and writers, much as they may have flocked to cities dominated by skyscrapers, have tended to look down on that which towered above them. Here, for example, are the reflections of the Canadian novelist Graeme Gibson: “Democracy could never have been developed among skyscrapers. It’s good to be in a place where you don’t feel diminished.”  Twentieth-century writers and artists have often not felt a need to be far removed physically from the world of the skyscraper—Gibson himself lived for may years just beyond the shadow of Toronto’s forest of downtown towers—but they have never tended to feel entirely comfortable with the world the skyscraper has represented to them. No doubt largely for that reason,  the skyscraper’s place in modern imagination as a whole is a good deal larger than is its place in the history of twentieth-century art. 
For perhaps twenty years, from the early teens through to the early 1930s, of course, the skyscraper did have a significant presence in American art. Photographers led the way, and the images of Edward Steichen, of Joseph Steiglitz, of Berenice Abbott and of Lewis Hine have remained popular icons ever since. It may be that subsequent twentieth-century artists—painters at least as much as photographers—were simply unable to escape the shadows cast by those great images. Certainly it is true that by the end of thirties there was little enthusiasm for skyscrapers themselves as something new and extraordinary in human history; such enthusiasm saturated New York and Chicago in the early years of the century, and persisted into the 1930s.  But the Depression continued to deepen, and disillusionment with all the icons of capitalism deepened too; it is no doubt not a coincidence that the photographic images which convey the strength, grandeur, and excitement of New York skyscrapers almost all date from the years before the Depression began to bite deepest.
When twentieth-century painters did depict skyscrapers, they largely accepted a certain set of conventions as to how to represent them. It came to be assumed that the appropriate fashion in which to represent the skyscraper was with hard, straight lines, and with purely rectangular forms. With a few important exceptions—John Marin most prominent among them —twentieth-century painters of skyscrapers stayed away from wavy lines, from soft shadings, from blurring and bleeding. (That may seem natural given the nature of the subject, but it is quite out of sync with the assumption prevalent elsewhere in twentieth-century art that there is no “natural” way to represent any subject.) Twentieth-century conventions for representing skyscrapers in painting are tightly bound up with modernism, and with the chief form in which modernism found expression in painting, cubism. Cubism retained its influence in America right through the great skyscraper era of 1910-1935; of the important American painters who depicted tall structures in this period (among them Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Georgia O’Keeffe), almost all were influenced by cubism. It can be no surprise, then, that the iconic paintings of New York tall structures—and there are few enough of them —feature sharp angles, uncompromisingly hard lines, and hard colors too. So too do later styles in which monumental structures were sometimes depicted—notably the precisionism of artists such as Sheeler and Ralston Crawford, among whom a kinship between certain sorts of art and photography seems to have been assumed when it came to the capture of the hard, straight line. 
Twentieth-century painting also developed conventions as to verticality in the representation of tall structures. As any number of postcards demonstrate, a skyscraper skyline can be conveyed as interestingly in a “landscape” format as it can in a “portrait” format. But when twentieth-century painters took such structures as their subject, they tended overwhelmingly towards images much taller than they are wide.
For the most part, though, the leading painters of the twentieth century chose not to attempt any representations of the tall structures that had transformed the modern city. The flurry of interest in painting tall structures was largely confined to New York from the teens to the early 1930s,  and the conventions that arose in that period for depicting tall structures in the urban landscape went virtually unchallenged, limiting the range of representations of skyscrapers in art through to the century’s end. 
Are there good grounds for maintaining those conventions? In a word, no. Clouds swirl among skyscrapers just as the mist swirls across the water and through the trees. Skylines and skyscrapers are as open to the impressions of color and of light as are the trees and the sky and the water. And skyscrapers are extraordinarily powerful vehicles for an expressionistic approach, embodying as they do so much of the heart of the modern world. Embodying the drive and the optimism of that world, but also its depths—its dark ambitions as much as its naïve and childlike ones.  John Marin saw all that clearly in 1913: “shall we consider the life of a great city as confined to the people and the animals on its streets and in its buildings? Are the buildings in themselves dead? …the whole city is alive—buildings, people, all are alive and the more they move me, the more I feel them to be alive. It is this “moving of me” that I try to express.” 
The world of painting was not ready for that message in 1913. But it resonates with surprising vibrancy almost a century later. In the early twenty-first century there is more work being produced depicting skyscrapers (and close cousins, such as large bridges) than there has been at any time since the 1930s. And much of it is highly interesting work, work of real quality, work that breaks new ground. In place of the hard and precise verticality that characterized so many early twentieth-century depictions of skyscrapers, painters such as Nicholas Evans-Cato and Paul Caranicas convey a soft horizontality, buildings and bridges stretching wide, without insisting on domination. The works of the one-name Manhattan painter Bascove often stretch wide too, and are filled with wavy brightness and luminous color. The paintings of Susanna Heller convey a tangled vibrancy that partakes of emotional expression as much as it does of concrete and glass. Jacqueline Gourevitch’s watercolors and soft oils of New York from on high seek to show how the skyscrapers “hang together” with “the surrounding waters, the clouds and their swiftly moving shadows.”  The bird’s eye cityscapes of John Hartman convey an immense energy that seems to come equally from land, sea, sky, and skyscrapers. That is the same sort of feel that I have tried to express in my large watercolors of skyscraper and city scenes. And many other artists are finding ways to express similar feelings.  . 
Why the change? The obvious explanation would be September 11; that horrific moment is seared in the visual memory of artists as much as in that of others, and it is surely natural to feel in its powerful wake a new interest in and appreciation for skyscrapers—as symbols of the culture, to be sure, but also as places where real people live and work. No doubt that does go some distance towards explaining things. Interestingly, though, the shift seems largely to have predated 9/11 (and interestingly too, with women artists leading the way): Bascove, for example, was painting bridges and other tall structures in the late 1980s; Heller and Gourevich began to paint skyscraper cityscapes (many of them from studio space in the twin towers) in the late 1990s. My own powerful interest in painting skyscrapers began very suddenly, with my first visit to Chicago in 1994. Something, in short, was in the cultural air well before 9/11.
Partly the change may have had to do with the weakening of the links between the skyscraper and the most powerful forces of North American capitalism. It had never been the case that all powerful corporations or titans of industry would build skyscrapers to help to shape their identity, or that all skyscrapers were intended to be corporate expressions, but the association between skyscrapers and corporate power remained very strong that from the 1920s through to the 1970s: the shape of oil money in the city was the shape of the Rockefeller Center in New York, the Amoco Building in Chicago, One Shell Square in New Orleans. Chrysler may not have bested Ford and GM in its vehicles, but the Chrysler Building was unrivalled. Sears became the country’s largest retailer, and the Sears Tower became its tallest building. In the 1970s CN soared in telecommunications as it had in railroads, and the CN Tower in Toronto became the world’s tallest free-standing structure. But then it all came to a halt. For the giants of Western business, and for Western architects, “tall, it seemed, was over,”  as Mark Kingwell has succinctly put it. WalMart became the country’s largest retailer—and kept its headquarters in Benton, Arkansas. Google and Microsoft built campuses, not towers. And with many of the old towers, too, the pattern changed. In Chicago Amoco moved out and the building was renamed. The Sears Tower is still called the Sears Tower, but Sears itself has not had its headquarters there for many years. The Empire State Building has a vacancy rate of 20% or more, even during boom times. To be sure, many skyscrapers have remained foci of high-powered corporate activity—the World Trade Center was one such, and there are many others. But the link between the skyscraper and the most powerful forces of American capitalism is far, far weaker now than it was from the 1920s through the 1970s. It is weaker in fact, and it is also weaker in our minds. Notice the sanguine tone, for example, with which Kingwell acknowledges the potential for evil among skyscraper capitalists in what may well be the most important book on any single skyscraper, his 2006 Nearest Thing to Heaven
 
Inside their sleek cladding and vertical beauty may lie a multitude of sins large and small, of evil corporations and dastardly deeds. And yet, the analogy of scraping the sky, and so getting closer to heaven, resists dismissal, renews its hold on us, every time we stop, and forget, and look up, and see the sheer wall of stone or glass and metal climbing its defiant way into heaven. 
 
A very large part of me shares in the sort of lyrical exuberance that Kingwell expresses here. But there can be little question that this sort of exuberance is bound to be constrained to the extent that one has a genuine sense of skyscrapers being inhabited and controlled by evil forces. By the twenty-first century it was becoming more difficult to harbor such feelings about a great many skyscrapers. Hated corporations such as Countrywide and Monsanto were nowhere to be found on the seventy-fifth floor—which in the Empire State Building these days is occupied by, among others, a small Japanese art publisher, another small company offering a digital library of electrical engineering literature, and an education consulting service. The evils that the large capitalist corporation often produces are anything but imaginary—but it may well be that Kingwell’s phrase “dastardly deeds”—the sort of phrase we usually associate with children’s adventure stories—is precisely the right expression to describe the worst that happens now in a great many skyscrapers.  
As the link between the skyscraper and the most powerful forces of American capitalism has steadily weakened over the past twenty years, the link between the skyscraper and the most powerful economic forces elsewhere in the world has steadily strengthened. As late as 1990 nine of the ten tallest buildings in the world were in the USA. At the end of 2007 eight of ten were in Asia; the Sears Tower and the Empire State Building are the lone American entries. In quick succession Taipei 101 passed the Petronas Towers (in 2006) and then was itself surpassed by Burj Dubai on July 21, 2007. (When completed in late 2008 Burj Dubai will be over 150 stories tall and will hold the title of world’s tallest structure as well as that of world’s tallest building.) There are plans afoot that could conceivably bring the title of “world’s tallest building” back to the US in the next decade, but clearly the US will never again dominate the list of the world’s tallest buildings as it did from the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1990s.        
It may well be that the receding of the long era in which the skyscraper was so closely associated with the strongest thrusts of corporate power may have helped to make it possible for North American culture—including the culture of visual artists—to see skyscrapers with fresh eyes. To see them as cultural artifacts more than as corporate symbols, to see them as structures both varied and vibrant. Again, the world was not ready in 1913 for John Marin’s message that such buildings “are alive,” and it was even less ready for such a message in the 1960s and 1970s—but it does seem finally to be ready for such a message today. As more and more artists are realizing, art need not shy away from the city that the skyscraper represents, with all its light and all its darkness. And no more need we shy away, in our art or in ourselves, from feeling moved by such things.