Dancing About Architecture


Buildings come with stories, ideas, and histories. Necessarily incomplete, in need of constant retelling and reliving, these stories feed on their own eloquence. Buildings need stories to survive beyond their economical lifespan; for their own sake, they want to generate a narrative to elevate them beyond plain utility. The stories winding through and around these buildings not only influence our perception, often more than their actual physicality, they also strengthen their negotiating position. Voiceless by themselves, they want us to exclaim: “An old building, with so much history! It has to be saved!” This is what Walter Benjamin’s famous aura - "unique apparition of a distance" 1 - becomes when applied to the built environment: the knowledge of what took place in a particular location, much more than any mystique of some author. Without us hearing and knowing stories, aura collapses; it is a process, not a thing.

High-rises, while through their size and cost alone somewhat more immune to replacement than their more mundane, more easily expendable lower density counterparts, are still part of that dynamic. Their stories are fundamentally different though: it is difficult to grasp them with a single glance, or a walk through. Anecdotes of past events and users fade in relation to their scale; their hermeneutics change. Their remove from immediate experience at detail level as opposed to the overwhelming whole keeps them as abstract objects. They ask for stories about them to be constructed in parallel to the actual building, stories that do not spring as easily from context and use as for traditional buildings, where accumulated experience will generally enable imagining something related to that blue plaque behind one of the windows.

The first generation of 20th century high rises sought to construct their stories through beaux-arts facades and classical volumetric order, appearing often almost comical from today’s perspective; they had the stories built into their appearance, preparing a breeding ground for the repercussive system of narrative and detail, of people and myths. Unimaginably tall buildings with gothic water spouts, the Chrysler building’s spire, follies several hundred feet in the air - the storytelling automaton has been programmed, and is, in most cases, still running. Where tall buildings of that era where dismantled, they opened up new strands of narrative, as in the case of the Singer Building, mentioned in most every Manhattan guide book despite having been torn down in 1968.

Modern, reductive buildings did not start with such a spin, on the contrary: they tried to do away with it as much as possible, leaving harsh abstracted volumes that tried to message mostly their size, ideas about proportions and materials, often showboating their structural muscle. In the more successful versions, these became stories in themselves - Mies’ Seagram Building a prime example, still celebrated for its crisp, careful, storytelling detailing (about itself) and its whiskey-coloured panes of glass that housed a distilling company's headquarters. Yet most tall buildings of the post-war era did not possess this kind of eloquence: they were huge but mute. A large stretch of New York's Avenue of the Americas presents one such series of silent giants; the other, and for a while final monument to the style were the twin towers of downtown’s World Trade Center, a curious blend of the feebly decorative and the nakedly structural, scaleless in their linearity.

By far the tallest buildings in the world when built, the towers had little going for them at the time of their creation. Mired in the financial difficulty of the United States in general and New York City in particular, the towers were seen as bland, uninspired, pure capitalism, and most of all simply too big: brute bullies in a schoolyard of charming and storied, comparatively smaller buildings. Probably the towers’ most quoted critic was Ada Louis Huxtable of the New York Times, with her famous rhetorical question and response: “Who is afraid of the big bad buildings? Everyone, because there are so many things about gigantism we just don’t know.”2 Yet this came at the end of an intense and lucid article that took into account changing tastes and nostalgia, the dynamics of public space, as well as what Huxtable saw as the inevitabilities that technological possibilities present. Ironically scolding contemporary critics for only warming to buildings a generation or more after their construction, she nevertheless expressed strong doubts and formulates the ultimately tragic insight that “the 20th century is in transition to a remarkable new technology and a formidable new environment, before we have learned how to handle the old one.”3


On the morning of August 7th, 1974, a young French adventurer named Philippe Petit stepped onto a wire that he and several accomplices had spent much of the previous night rigging up illegally between the two World Trade Center towers. Petit walked across the space eight times; he spent just under an hour on the wire, more than 400 meters above the ground, before being dragged off and arrested. The stunt turned him into an instant star, and gave the unloved, uncanny towers an utterly different image. In a way, Petit had treated the buildings like an architectural critic: he supplied an interpretation, in the form of an act, of a story, that was specific to this one design.

The story, however, extends beyond the 45 minutes spent on the wire: it includes the immediate complexities of setting up the "coup", as the team came to call it, as well as the larger context of imagining the act in the first place, and finally merges into the story of the towers and the city. The building played several roles, as becomes clear from the account Petit wrote many years later, published just after the towers' destruction4; we can define these roles as attractor, opponent, and partner.


Petit first hears of the buildings through a magazine at a dentist's office in Paris; at which stage, six years before his walk, they are still a project, not a physical reality, and the seventeen-year-old Petit has only just started to practice on the wire. Knowledge of the gigantic tower’s future existence is still sufficient, however, for Petit to not only steal the page from the magazine and flee the dentist's waiting room (enduring another week of toothache), but also reinforces his choice of career. He finds a future reality he wants to be prepared for.

Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, has described immensity as “a philosophical category of daydream”5, and stresses the importance of imagination in comprehending immensity: “the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.”6 Petit describes a similar approach to immensity: “...projects that ripen in the clouds. The secret desires of children who spend afternoons in treetops. Dreams.”7 It does not matter for the towers to not actually exist yet; their projected-ness is sufficient to integrate them into dreaming comprehension.

In January 1974, Petit, by then an accomplished artiste, having undertaken spectacular, illegal walks at Notre Dame Cathedral and Sydney Harbour Bridge, finally sees the towers, now nearing completion. Imagination and reality blend: “I press my chin against the aluminum, forcing my eyes upward, in search of the end of the wall. There is no end. This wall has no top. Instead, it becomes sky - aluminum into azure!”8 While feeling overwhelmed, Petit feels he cannot escape: “I long to flee, but still the colossal magnet controls my destiny.”9 The towers are now real; but the walk is still only a projection, and appearing utterly impossible.


For Bachelard, immensity related to landscapes. What we discover, reading Petit’s book and following the haphazard preparations, is that the scale of the towers has indeed turned them landscape-like: complex entities to be explored and conquered. The buildings get divided into manageable sections, hiding places are sought out, storage possibilities scouted. There is no single point of entry, after which you are inside; it is all its own multi-layered environment, and reminiscent of the way Reinhold Messner describes his ascents of Himalayan peaks: everything gets carefully planned and prepared. Camps are prepared at various stages, bivouacs get imagined, distances calculated, all in relation to other changing circumstances like the weather or guards on patrol. Despite regularly getting carried away in the preparations, Petit is ultimately a keen realist, taking his own safety very serious; as he has put it succinctly, "accidents caused by equipment must not happen."10 He consults engineers and fellow wire walkers, ridding the project as much as possible of uncertainty. He acquires plans, poses as architectural journalist interviewing workers on site, and boards a helicopter to explore the buildings from the air. Also similar to Messner’s descriptions of mountains is the way the buildings acquire a sort of character in the process, without actually becoming anthropomorphized. Finally there is the fulfillment of the undertaking, as in reaching Nanga Parbat's peak, where the action takes an entirely different turn: unlike the conquering of remote wilderness, where audience is rare, Petit steps onto the grandest stage imaginable.


The contrast between the weightiness of the preparations and the litheness of the walk is hard to overstate. Once the multitude of obstacles, physical and social, have been overcome, the walk appears as the very opposite. Petit moves in his own sphere, reinforcing the vertiginous effect: no-one can join him on the wire; he is protected by his own skill in overcoming the seeming impossibility of his very task. Gravity, which has made the preparations for the act so daunting and arduous, and the thought of it so scary, plays a very different role now: it seems to disappear for the wire walker, and appears multiplied for everybody else. Police Sergeant Charles Daniels, charged with getting Petit off the wire, neatly summarised this effect when talking to the press, unable to keep a sober tone:

"We observed the tightrope... dancer, because you couldn't call him a walker, approximately halfway between the towers. Upon seeing us, he started to smile and laugh. When he got to the building, we asked him to get off the high wire, but instead he turned around and went back into the middle. Everybody was spellbound in the watching of him." "I personally figured I was watching something that nobody else would never see again in the world - I thought it was once in a lifetime."11

Interestingly, parts of Daniel's description bear strong resemblance to the way Martin Heidegger has described truth metaphysically appearing through the work of art.12 Heidegger most likely was not thinking of a tightrope act between two incredibly large buildings when he came up with his metaphor in 1936, but it still mirrors the act uncannily. Often confusing, habitually opaque, Heidegger creates some models of the interactions of objects, perceptions, concepts and events that are surprisingly spatial. Truth he defines as un-hiddenness of Being, normally veiled by quotidian lurch. Heidegger invokes a clearing into which parts of Being move, unhiding it to varying degrees, while staying hidden only within the scope of that which is already cleared. Any Being involved holds an opposition of presence, as it keeps in itself a hiddenness; and the clearing, into which Being edges, is veiledness as well. Philosophical Truth for Heidegger is a process in constant movement, coming together momentarily; an act, not a state. Un-hiding is a task of art.

Daniels also illustrates an intrinsic aspect of the work of art as outlined by Hans-Georg Gadamer, that of play13, with everyone involved a participant: resistance, even for a toughened New York cop, is futile, and he becomes part of the act. Still, the foremost part is played by the buildings through their specificity to this act. Petit mentions the conquering of beautiful stages14, and as far as man-made ones go, this was the grandest possible. The conquest has now mixed together everything: that of the opposing building with its physical and social obstacles as well as that of the void. Huxtable pointed out the unknown, unintended consequences of tall buildings, invoking their uncanniness; Petit played with these fears themselves, visualising them, while defying both gravity and ‘the rules’, creating a specific work that we can relate to because we share those fears. In Bachelard’s words: “We feel that we have been promoted to the dignity of the admiring being.”15 Huxtable's formidable environment had found its formidable story.


Very tall buildings are not only difficult to grasp because of their changed platform-agency, their stacked floor space beyond homely experience. They appear as complex yet concrete manifestations of organisation, a concentration of money and power. They are the result of a collective effort bound together by market forces, vanity, and city marketing, of large teams of engineers, architects, financiers and workers, overcoming structural and organisational problems on a scale only understandable in abstract ways, from the foundations to wind loads. Tall buildings carry an abstraction of achievement in them. Often more an idea than a necessity, not necessarily dense and reasonable in relation to land value and -use, the high-rise building is as much symbol as utility, a tradition firmly established at least since the Empire State Building’s construction in 1932, still generally read as a manifestation of New Deal optimism overcoming the Great Depression.

It is an image that is sought, as much about context, the city, as about the building itself, looking to bask in the calculable, ultimately risk-free heroism of tallness. The story of the tall building is that of scale itself. It is telling where this is happening at which point in time, and where it is not: today, it is the oil-selling states of the Middle East that almost exclusively rely on heavily gestural building projects for their non-cities' marketing prowess and narrative ability, building either impossibly tall skyscrapers or islands in absurdly simplistic, even infantile shapes: a palm leaf, a map of the world. In New York City and in London, cities with currently massively increasing income disparities, skyscrapers are created that are largely perceived as attempts at visible and practical class segregation. At the other end on the scale of (first-world) heights and riches, Berlin’s senate has sought for two decades to create a cluster of high-rises at Alexanderplatz, but investors are mostly balking; it makes little economic sense, and the elevated imagery does not pay for the elevators, while the city itself seems to have to come to terms with its ground-hugging existence.

Looking at the high rise as phenomenon from that perspective, it appears at least as reasonable to span a wire between two buildings and walk across as any other use. Jean-Louis Blondeau, Petit’s principal co-conspirator, reacted accordingly when receiving, from Petit, a postcard of the buildings: “On top of the towers, he had drawn a little wire, and I thought: of course, that’s why these towers are there - for Philippe!”16 Petit’s reasoning, in front of the press after the act, was similar: “I see three oranges, I juggle; I see two towers, I walk!”17


The tacit subtext of this essay is an obviously much larger, and sadder story than that of Philippe Petit’s formidable adventure. It is impossible now to think of the Twin Towers without conjuring the images of 9/11; the famous foreshortened photograph of Petit with an airplane flying high above, framed between the towers, once an encapsulation of the clash of scales and of his daring, has retroactively lost all innocence. So has Huxtable’s warning of the towers becoming the “biggest tombstones in the world”18 ; what was meant as an austere metaphor for the death of the city within the rhetorical context of Jane Jacobs’ writings has become a literal description of buildings whose immensity, once again, yet utterly transformed through their narrative, exists only in imagination. 

1. Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, 1935-36
2. Ada Louis Huxtable, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Buildings, The New York Times, May 29th, 1966
3. Huxtable, ibid.
4. Philippe Petit, To Reach the Clouds, London 2002
5. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, New York 1964, p. 183
6. Gaston Bachelard, p. 183
7. Philippe Petit, ibid.
8. Philippe Petit, ibid.
9. Philippe Petit, ibid.
10. Philippe Petit, On the High Wire, New York 1985, p. 93
11. quoted from: James Marsh, Man On Wire, documentary movie, 2008
12. Martin Heidegger, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks, Stuttgart 1960, p. 50-53
13. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Die Aktualität des Schönen, Stuttgart 1977, p. 31
14. Marsh 2008
15. Bachelard, p. 184
16. Marsh 2008
17. Petit, Clouds, p. 198
18. Huxtable, ibid