Today, we struggle to create a modern concept of a
city. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Before the 1890s, few
buildings rose over 7 stories. Then electric
elevators changed everything. With efficient means
for moving people up and down, buildings sprouted
upward. In the blink of an eye, cities changed
As cities raced skyward, our vision of what the
modern city should be raced even faster. Just
thirty years after the electric elevator, those
rising buildings had given birth to a radical new
concept of human dwelling.
That concept came full flower in the 1920s. Maybe
you've seen Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis.
It captured the new vision in 1926. Modern movies
have rediscovered it, but they add sinister
overtones. You've seen caricatures of the 1920s
city in Blade Runner and Batman. They
show the vision gone mad.
Yet the vision was powerful. Huge buildings rise,
layer upon layer. Bright lights. Multi-tiered
highways flow among the buildings on many levels.
Higher up are airways. Airplanes and helicopters
move through the upper levels of skyscrapers.
And it all goes up, up, up. Is there a bottom to
the picture? Who knows! The bottom is out of sight.
All we see is up. The vision is Gothic -- right
down to the Gargoyles and ornate towers of the old
cathedrals. Only the flying buttresses are replaced
by upper ribbons of highways.
Wanamaker's Department Store made a formal assembly
of this vision in October, 1925. They put on an art
exhibition. They called it, "The Titan City, A
Pictorial Prophesy of New York, 1926-2026." And
there was that Gothic reach of the city into the
sky. Up, up, up -- in painting after painting.
Rockefeller Center was a direct outgrowth of the
vision. The architect was one of its theorists.
Yet that vision was not to be. Oh, you catch a
sense of it today in, say, lower Wall Street. You
see a little of it when the evening sun flares on
the steel and glass of downtown Houston.
But in the end, we chose not to centralize and
build upward. We chose instead to build outward.
After WW-II, America moved to the suburbs. A city
will have several scattered office concentrations.
And most of us live in gentler outlying
neighborhoods, if we can. We flee the sterile
technocracy of high concentration.
Now and then we grasp at a Faustian vision of
technology for technology's sake. Now and then, we
let ourselves be carried away by a Tower-of-Babel
impulse. But, in the end, the things we build are
creatures of our hearts as well as our heads. In
the end, we build closer to our own human nature.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds