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  • The Symbolic Value of Buildings

    By Mark Meshulam

    Background image: Repeated detail from Arc de Triomphe, Paris. Scroll all the way down to see the entire background. Do not view while operating heavy machinery.

      A visit to venerable European cities Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome imbues the traveler with a sense of history difficult to obtain in urban youngsters like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

      City Planning
      Here in Chicago we have only experienced our city’s destruction once – in the great fire. This destruction enabled city planners to re-draw the map into an understandable north-south grid with just a few spokes emanating from the downtown hub thrown in for good measure. This modern urban design, as unexciting as it may be, works well for traveling across town with wheeled conveyances. It symbolizes a modern, efficient environment, detached from the past.

      Map of Chicago (left) and Paris (right) show dramatically different concepts of city planning. Chicago's grid structure is efficient for transportation by wheeled conveyances. Paris' hubs, spokes and circles are conducive to closer-to-home foot traffic.

      Map of Chicago (left) and Paris (right) show dramatically different concepts of city planning. Chicago's grid structure is efficient for transportation by wheeled conveyances. Paris' hubs, spokes and circles are conducive to closer-to-home foot traffic and provides social gathering points.

      Older towns have usually seen a number of large-scale destructions, but these occurred before the mixed blessing of automobiles, and were often rebuilt in the same pattern that had previously evolved. These cities tend to look like a sprinkling of overlapping wheels, where each hub is a piazza or gathering place, and the small streets emanate in all directions, intersecting one another as they go. This pattern can look confusing on a map, but are very friendly to foot traffic. This symbolizes a richness of experience rooted in history.

      Glorious Buildings
      Emperors through history deeply understood the meaning of buildings. Buildings were much more than a place to live, work, worship or be entertained. Nearly as important as these basic functions, buildings were also symbols. Buildings symbolized the might and wealth of the emperor, their ownership and mastery of the land.

      Photo montage of the Palace of Versailles. It's hard to escape the symbolism that assails the visitor. "I am the richest dude ever", proclaims Louis XIV.

      Photo montage of the Palace of Versailles. It's hard to escape the symbolism that assails the visitor. "I am the richest dude ever", proclaims Louis XIV.

      Religious leaders understood that a glorious house of worship provides worshipers with feelings of awe, reverence and closeness with the deity. In the process of church building, religious leaders also gained control of land, wealth and power, and this power came to be expressed in the buildings too. An interesting battle of building symbolism could evolve in this environment, where government and religion competed for the minds of the target audience, the populace.

      St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, claims to be the world's largest Christian house of worship on earth. Indeed, it can house a 13 story building beneath its dome. Even with this amazing size, it still feels the need to compete. Markings on the floor (inset) show the scale of smaller buildings, even of the same faith, "Notre Dame Cathedral would end here". Take that, hunchback!

      St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, claims to be the world's largest Christian house of worship on earth. Indeed, it can house a 13 story building beneath its dome. Even with this amazing size, it still feels the need to compete. Markings on the floor (inset) show the scale of smaller buildings, even of the same faith, "Notre Dame Cathedral would end here". Take that, hunchback!

      Left: Arc de Triomphe, Paris. Right: Arch of Titus, Rome. Background: City gate, Pisa. Europe is strewn with arches. Originally utilized as the imposing frame for lockable city gates, arches evolved into statements in their own right. They tend to say, "We have prevailed, conquered and triumphed! Hooray for us!" That kind of symbol really irritates enemies.

      Left: Arc de Triomphe, Paris. Right: Arch of Titus, Rome. Background: City gate, Pisa. Europe is strewn with arches. Originally utilized as the imposing frame for lockable city gates, arches evolved into statements in their own right. They tend to say, "We have prevailed, conquered and triumphed! Hooray for us!" That kind of symbol really irritates enemies.

      Detail of the Titus Arch pictured above shows celebration of Titus' conquer and plunder of the Jew's Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE. The menorah is being carried to Rome by triumphant soldiers. This infuriated me. These are my people Titus attacked.

      Detail of the Arch of Titus pictured above shows celebration of Titus’ conquer and plunder of Jerusalem and the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE. The menorah is being carried to Rome by triumphant soldiers. This infuriated me. These are my people that Titus attacked, conquered and plundered.

      Pock-marked Colosseum, Rome, is arguably one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. Built by emperor Vespasian, then his son Titus (using funds from the plunder of Jerusalem) in only 8 years (72 thru 80), this 50,000 spectator sports complex (if you consider "sport" to be the fighting-to-the-death of gladiators and animals) was clad entirely in travertine and marble. In later years, these facade stones, along with their steel and bronze clip supports were removed and salvaged for other purposes (including 2,500 carloads of stone to be used in the 1500's for the building of St. Peter's Basilica), leaving horrific scars in the process. Who's your daddy now, Vespasian and Titus?

      Pock-marked Colosseum, Rome, is arguably one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. Built by emperor Vespasian, then his son Titus (using funds from the plunder of Jerusalem) in only 8 years (72 thru 80), this 50,000 spectator sports complex (if you consider "sport" to be the fighting-to-the-death of gladiators and animals) was clad entirely in travertine and marble. In later years, these facade stones, along with their steel and bronze clip supports were removed and salvaged for other purposes (including 2,500 carloads of stone to be used in the 1500's for the building of St. Peter's Basilica), leaving horrific scars in the process. Who's your daddy now, Vespasian and Titus?

      Destroying Building Symbols
      It is no surprise that attacking forces through history have focused not only on the subjugation of people and the plunder of their wealth, but also the domination, and even destruction, of their buildings. In the minds of attackers old and new, “I will control you by controlling your structures”. World Trade Center terrorists took the concept further, “I will destroy your people by destroying your symbolic structures.”

      One might make the argument that older cultures relate more to building symbolism than do recent cultures. We in the U.S. have the ability to relate to such obvious icons as the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Golden Gate Bridge for their symbolic value. But let’s be honest. How many of us viewed the World Trade Center for symbolic value beyond the technical expertise involved in constructing these sleek, tall towers? We may not have seen the WTC as symbols of American might or financial power, but the bad guys certainly did. They were so affected by that symbolism, they were willing to die to eradicate it.

      Buddha of Bamiyan, Afghanistan before and after destruction by the Taliban. Although the 55m tall statue is technically not a building, it is as tall as a 16 story building. The Taliban made it an early order of business to destroy this symbol of a competing faith. Image is supplied under a free-use license found here: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

      Buddha of Bamiyan, Afghanistan before and after destruction by the Taliban in 2001. Although the 55m tall statue is technically not a building, it is as tall as a 16 story building. The Taliban made it an early order of business to destroy this 1450 year old symbol of a competing faith. Image is supplied under a free-use license found here: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/


      Marketing: Shaping Building Symbolism
      Modern marketers know that, contrary to the old days, enhancing the value of an edifice requires much more than just piling on yet more statues, artwork and arches. Although these things still resonate, we look increasingly for not only basic comforts, but also “amenities”, “finishes”, efficient transportation and the newly added “high speed communications”. Just as we see convergence in our phones, radios, music players and tvs, we will see further convergence within the building itself. Form will follow an expanded function. Classical forms will fade farther in the background in favor of esthetics that don’t even exist yet. As our convergence ties us increasingly to the “cloud”, our buildings will be more and more in the cloud, too. How much of the ultimate physical entity, a building, will we be able to shove up into the cloud?

      Marketing: The new crafters of building symbolism for the X generation

      Marketing: The new crafters of building symbolism

      Size Matters
      Even in current times, we see competition on the playing field of architectural symbolism: who has the tallest building? Malaysia built the enormous Petronas Towers and immediately gained recognition as a world class economic power. The incredible feats of construction taking place in Dubai have done much the same for them. “We’re not just oil and sand dunes any more”, they are telling us.

      Emerging economies express their greatness with colossal buildings, but seven of the eight largest buildings in the world were designed in the US.

      Emerging economies express their greatness with colossal buildings, but seven of the eight largest buildings in the world were designed in the US. This image adapted from http://skyscraperpage.com/diagrams/?searchID=203

      Building symbolism is alive and well in emerging nations looking to make their mark. These places may have had the financial wherewithal to create great structures, but they needed to import the expertise.

      And what of our symbolism? Is our dearth of tower cranes sending a world-wide message? Does the exportation of our architectural and engineering expertise to distant corners, assisting others build symbols of their greatness send a message? Are we the conquerors or the conquered?

      Mark Meshulam, Chicago Window Expert, at the world's most famous and beautiful construction defect, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy

      Mark Meshulam, Chicago Window Expert, at the world's most famous and beautiful construction defect, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy

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    4 Comments

4 Responses to “The Symbolic Value of Buildings”

  1. In a related story:

    Local architects to design 119-story cloudbuster in China

    Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture won a competition to design a 1,988-foot-tall high-rise in Wuhan, China, that is expected to be the country’s third-tallest building and the fourth-tallest in the world. The Chicago-based architecture firm said it beat out finalists including HOK Architects and the Chicago office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill for the Wuhan Greenland Center, a 119-story tower that will include offices, apartments, condominiums and a hotel. Construction on the building is expected to begin this summer and take about five years.

    Read more: http://www.chicagorealestatedaily.com/article/20110621/CRED03/110629963/in-brief-adrian-smith-gordon-gill-jones-lang-chapter-11#ixzz1PxMGrf8h
    Stay up-to-date on Chicago real estate with our free, daily e-newsletter

  2. Battles of building symbolism are fought every day…
    See the full article here: http://enr.construction.com/SpecialReport/RebuildingGroundZero/Default.asp

    The New World Trade Center

    After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the 16 acres of land often called Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, where the twin 110-story towers of the World Trade Center stood, passed from being the financial capital of the U.S. to a symbol of a resilient U.S. Now Tishman Construction, Turner Construction, Bovis Lend Lease, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Silverstein Properties and dozens of architects, engineers, subcontractors and suppliers are constructing a $19-billion World Trade Center replacement. The development includes a 9/11 memorial-museum, with the world’s two largest constructed pools on the sites of the twin towers’ acre-sized footprints. The memorial, most of which is scheduled to open Sept. 11, will be flanked by a multimodal transportation hub, designed by Santiago Calatrava to resemble a dove of peace. Plans also call for 500,000-sq-ft of retail; a future performing arts center; and eventually five skyscrapers, including the 1,776-ft-tall One World Trade Center (formerly known as the Freedom Tower). The development is helping define a new generation of more-robust and safety-conscious skyscraper construction in an age of potential terrorism. The master plan for the Lower Manhattan neighborhood also includes a new Fulton Transit Center—a subway station under construction to the east. An underground east-west pedestrian concourse will connect the transit center to the World Financial Center at Battery Park City along the Hudson River, via the World Trade Center.

  3. Interesting post, really enjoyed it as I am looking into what qualifies as ‘symbolic architecture’
    well done, keep up the good work. 🙂

  4. Slow down. There’s little point getting infuriated over the 2000 year old Arch of Titus. Look how our people venerate the grave of child-killer Baruch Goldstein, we’re can’t lecture anyone on morals.

    And the 1st century Judeans are not *your people*, you’re a Khazarian, as recently proven by Israeli geneticist Dr. Eran Elhaik. Our people were phallus worshippers Khazars.

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