- Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams
As Barry Bonds approached 755 home runs this summer, talk radio goons were in love with Hank Aaron. They recalled Aaron's humility in the face of death threats during in the summer of 1973, calling him a fine man, ogling him as cameras Ken-Burnsed around the septuagenarian's face in attendance at various games. That summer of 1973, as Hank Aaron methodically crushed 40 home runs en route to eventually clutching from Babe Ruth the sacrosanct title of Home Run King, a title Ruth had held since 1935, many of these same fans, statisticians, and sports reporters could only point out that it had taken Aaron thousands of more swings to reach the level of Ruth, that Ruth played during the 'dead ball era,' that no matter how many home runs Aaron might hit, he could never hold the aura of the Sultan of Swat. That summer of 1973 was also the first summer since Babe Ruth's career in which the Empire State Building did not hold the title of World's Tallest Building, surpassed by the World Trade Center, which opened in April.
Mark Kingwell's ode to the 'objectively lovable' Empire State Building functions as a defence of the Babe Ruth of buildings, containing within it some of the same wonder and chauvinism (of which Kingwell is aware but often unable to resist) that accompany summaries of Ruth's career. [End Page 355] Considering the rapid construction of super-skyscrapers in Asia in recent decades, Kingwell writes of the Empire State Building's four-decade dominance, 'Things were different in architecture's equivalent of the dead-ball era, and a building of 1, 454 feet (albeit with the last 200 an uninhabitable spire) could hope to hold on to the laurels for longer than five minutes or until the next season.' Kingwell refuses not to be awed by the building, often gushing with such platitudes as 'The Empire State is a cathedral not merely of architecture but of Americanness.'
Kingwell knows that you really ought to have an excuse for looking up at buildings, which equates to an excuse for writing about the Empire State Building. Scholarly detachment can seem a lot like a tourist's gawk, unforgivably walking backwards east on 34th Street with a camera, trying get the tip of the needle. A fifth of the book revolves around Kingwell specifically getting out of the way, by getting into the building and examining kitsch, meditating on the model and the machine, the elusiveness of representing the building, the fruitlessness of looking up. There is a tedium in reading this 'Still Life' chapter that reflects Kingwell's own ennui inside a shoddy office space, considering coffee or cocktails while examining replications of the building. Nearest Thing to Heaven's excuse is 9/11, with many passages of the book written during the winter following the attacks. Those passages and the tone of other such flourishes reflect the fact that the six years since those attacks have marked the shortest passage of time in which an emotional aesthetic, in this case an awesome assumed American innocence, has become so dated so fast.
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy and has written extensively on politics and culture, and in Nearest Thing to Heaven he excels most at situating the Empire State in a set of dream images, in King Vidor's Fountainhead, in popular futurism, in neglected books, in addressing limestone's shimmer. It is a celebration of the non-utilitarian value of the building, the quality of what Walter Benjamin describes regarding the collected object as 'freedom from the drudgery of being useful.' The adeptness with which he manoeuvres through the representations of the building, the brown antiquity of its inhabitance, is assured and easy-handed.
But Kingwell finally fails to consider the Empire State Building's arrogance. A memorable film image ignored by Kingwell is the close of Superfly, as Priest, coked up in the Brooklyn Navy...