[VIEWPOINT]Reaching Upward Can Bring Heartbreak

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[VIEWPOINT]Reaching Upward Can Bring Heartbreak

In Greek mythology, Icarus, ignoring his father Daedalus' advice to not fly too high, flew too near to the sun with waxen wings and fell into the sea when his wings melted. The desire to fly higher goes against the law of nature known as gravity. But human beings have always been on Icarus' side. Paying the price repeatedly, endlessly falling downward, we humans believe that we could gradually come closer to the sky.

The technological development of architecture has walked the same path. The essential part in architectural technology was the fight against gravity. To make a shelter to protect us from rain, wind or beasts, human beings needed walls and roofs. The walls had to support the weight of the roofs. Ancient people believed that religious buildings or monuments ought to stand high above land, but gravity remained one of the hardest problems to solve. In ancient times, when mud blocks or stones were the main material for construction, religious buildings often had super-thick walls to prop up gigantic roofs. Those who remembered the horror of inundation in Noah's days started to build the Tower of Babel to the highest height they could imagine. But they supposedly infuriated God, and the tower collapsed during its construction. It was the result of trying to defy the principle of gravity.

The issue of gravity was later solved by architectural technology in the Gothic era. A unique structure called the flying buttress was invented in the Gothic age. The flying buttress was a kind of pillar to prop up a building. Thanks to the innovation, roofs could be supported by only pillars, not whole walls. The new method allowed buildings to soar to the sky at an unprecedented height, and the walls, relieved of the burden to buttress the weight of roofs, now could have as big windows as possible. The advancement led to the creation of stained glass, which contributed to creating a sublime atmosphere in churches and cathedrals. The Gothic style, characterized by pointy towers, was a great architectural invention, a state-of- the-art construction at the time. The desire of human beings to be higher was finally resolved in the Gothic age. Maybe we were then trying to challenge God, who destroyed our Tower of Babel.

But Gothic architecture was built with materials such as stone, block or concrete, and succumbed natural disasters such as earthquakes. Many Gothic cathedrals collapsed as a result.

Our insatiable desire to reach high into the sky has led us to erect skyscrapers in modern days, where steel and glass came to be used as the main materials. The buildings that scrape the sky. How arrogant the name is.

The new land of the United States, with a short history, was a suitable place to erect such buildings. Skyscrapers standing vertically on a vast plain, as if ungoverned by gravity, were an appropriate way to express American ideology, whose founders sought the peak of freedom.

In 1931, the Empire State Building set a record, reaching 381 meters high. In 1973, the twin towers, named the World Trade Center, stretched higher than 415 meters, and were set up near the Hudson River in New York's Wall Street area. The Japanese-American architect, Minoru Yamasaki, designed the buildings, which became a sort of symbol for Pax Americana.

The twin towers, armed with state-of-the-art devices to fight all kinds of natural disasters, were a victory for us and for Icarus, who flew too near the sun. The World Trade Center, a monument of the 20th century, seemed like an imperishable construction. But the very symbol of the 20th century was destroyed one day by a manic act of vengeful human beings, and we witnessed an unbelievable tragedy. That might have been another Tower of Babel.

There was talk after the tragedy of rebuilding the towers. I hope it does not turn out to be another production along the lines of the arrogance of Icarus. I hope the men who want to rebuild the towers make them eternal towers that can stand even the devil's madness. After all, it's more meaningful to discuss the wisdom learned through such an event than to spend all our time harboring thoughts of revenge.


The writer is an architect.

by Seung Hyo-sang

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