Human Hubris and Skyscrapers

Unknown“Hubris” is a favorite word of misanthropic cynics. For the Greeks it meant overweening pride – that presages a fall. For many moderns it means humans too uppity, too full of themselves, foolishly imagining they can overcome nature. (Here’s an example.)

The Wright Brothers had this hubris.

Recently my wife and I watched a PBS documentary about the 2011-13 construction of London’s Leadenhall Building, nicknamed “The Cheese Grater” for its unusual shape. (How great to have a wife who, while totally feminine, enjoys a show about building construction.) Those builders too had hubris.

imagesIsn’t “skyscraper” a splendid word? The first was the Tower of Babel, an attempt to build up to the sky – whose hubris God knocked down. But that was mythical, and didn’t daunt future builders from trying again – and reaching the destination. Thumbing their noses at that God and the hubris-mongers.

The Leadenhall Building was an extraordinary project. It exemplifies my own watchword for humanity, rejecting the hubris canard – “the difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer.” That building overcame a lot of seeming impossibilities, yet went up in record time to boot.

The problem was the site: hemmed in by existing buildings, thus far too cramped to allow construction of a new one by normal methods. So they had to do something different: building it off-site.

images-1That’s right: much of the construction work that would conventionally be done in situ was indeed performed hundreds of miles away, creating pieces of a monumental jigsaw puzzle that was shipped in and assembled within the site’s space constraints. That was only the beginning of the innovation. The unusual tapered shape was necessitated by the requirement to preserve views of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This limited upper floor space. To compensate for that, whereas a standard skyscraper is built around a supporting core, this one instead employed an outer exoskeleton, to maximize useable interior floor space. Also, whereas normally a building’s “works” of air conditioning and heating equipment, and so forth, goes in the basement, this one put it on top – requiring quite a tricky ballet to hoist it all up and then insert it through just-large-enough roof apertures.

A similar maneuver in New York recently saw a massive air conditioning unit fall 28 stories; 10 people were hurt. Accidents happen. This doesn’t deter us. Crashes don’t stop aviation either. We learn from them and go forward. Hubris? No, perseverance.

images-2After completion, the Leadenhall Building settled a bit out of alignment. But this in fact had been planned for too. They jacked up the building – yes, the entire edifice – in order to remove some structural components and thereby correct the one-inch misalignment. The guy in charge of this little operation was quite matter-of-fact about it. No problem.

It was mind-boggling to contemplate the project’s immensity – the amount of insanely complex pre-engineering and planning required to make this construction go off like clockwork, all the problems and challenges and inevitable glitches that had to be overcome, and the coordinated efforts of so many disparate workmen, both at the site and in the factories that created the colossal prefabricated modules for assembly. What an impressive illustration of what is really, evolutionarily, humanity’s great “killer app” – social cooperation.

If this be hubris, take pride in it.

P.S. I can’t resist noting, this was not a government project.


3 Responses to “Human Hubris and Skyscrapers”

  1. Dan Says:

    And I always thought that “Hubris” was a Greek Pastry!

  2. Bumba Says:

    Taking away social cooperation was the Lord’s response to the Babel project.

  3. EriK Says:

    Frank, I appreciate that your posts are always (or almost always) interesting.

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