Plumb Lines

February 6, 2010

The Observation Deck and the Modern Cathedral

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 7:32 pm

Should we start calling post-modern conservatives Observation Deck Republicans? Plumb Liner David Schaengold has his first post up on the League, in which he suggests that the skyscraper may be our modern cathedral:

The greatest of these forms was probably the cathedral in the high and late Middle Ages, which was simultaneously an expression of the aesthetic, economic, and political aspirations of a community as well as an act of humility before G-d, echoing the incarnation by uniting G-d and man. Nowadays we capitalist Westerners have our own entrant, which is of course the skyscraper.

I was initially skeptical. While the medieval cathedral was an expression of the ethic of a whole culture, the skyscraper is a Randian obelisk built for service to a single dominant class. David, however, insightfully discovers both democratic spirit and humility in the observation deck:

Skyscapers are like cathedrals in another way: they contain a place within the building that is natural to treat as sacred. In the cathedral this space was the center of the cross formed by the nave and the transept, and in the skyscraper it is the highest floor of the building. What we use this space for can tell us about ourselves, I think. Observation decks are therefore a symbol of modernity, and an important one. They are open to the public and serve no purpose other than to gratify the mind and the eye with the sight of the city spread out below.

In the comments, Rufus F. asks if the mall may be a similarly important symbol of our age. Another possibility is the one suggested by Barthes, who made this case for the car as cathedral:

I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.

It is obvious that the new Citroen has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object .. We must not forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance, a transformation of life into matter (matter is much more magical than life), and in a word a silence which belongs to the realm of fairy-tales. The D.S. – the “Goddess” – has all the features (or at least the public is unanimous in attributing them to it at first sight) of one of those objects from another universe which have supplied fuel for the neomania of the eighteenth century and that of our own science-fiction: the Deesse is first and foremost a new Nautilus.

One of the most suggestive things about Barthes’ view is that his cathedral is not a building. An age that finds its embodiment in a mode of transportation is one that seeks to annihilate space and distance, what Walter Benjamin called “overcoming the uniqueness of every reality.” I think the experience David describes on the skyscraper is part of this. Maybe it’s just because I’m afraid of heights, but I’m less likely to find Christian joy at the top of the skyscraper and more likely to find the demon of modernity. The view from the top of the skyscraper is so far beyond human dimension that it carries that sublime feeling of power and danger one might feel while hurtling down the freeway. Of course, looking down from the observation deck is bound to be attractive to both the masses and the elites in our modern age. I, for one, think I’ll stay planted on my front porch.

-Matthew Schmitz

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1 Comment »

  1. Rather unfair to compare my words to Barthes’. Of course his point is much more important, though I should point out that it’s somewhat different from mine. He is presenting an actual analogy, whereas I merely point out some similarities. Especially interesting is the comparison between the anonymity of the medieval artisan and the anonymity of industrial production.

    Comment by David Schaengold — February 10, 2010 @ 9:07 pm


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