Top of the world, Ma: the Empire State Building

King Kong climbed it. Tom Hanks met Meg Ryan on it. Andy Warhol filmed it (very slowly). Why does the Empire State Building still enthral us after 70 years, asks Matthew Sweet, in the first in a monthly series on powerful and unexpected icons in the world around us
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The Independent Online

Skyscrapers were against nature, in the days when being against nature was still humanity's collective pose. In the golden age of skyscraper construction, between 1889 and 1931, commentators discussed these buildings as if they expected the world's population to decamp to their marble lobbies and steel-supported floors, like colonists disembarking for Venus in art deco rocketships. Ultra-violet lamps, it was said, would eventually be installed to provide artificial sunlight. "In fact, windows probably would be eliminated entirely to prevent interference with artificial ventilation which today is providing a balmy atmosphere, more constant than the real. Architects are beginning to discuss ideas of using modified pneumatic tubes to replace elevators and to shoot persons into skyscrapers."

Skyscrapers were against nature, in the days when being against nature was still humanity's collective pose. In the golden age of skyscraper construction, between 1889 and 1931, commentators discussed these buildings as if they expected the world's population to decamp to their marble lobbies and steel-supported floors, like colonists disembarking for Venus in art deco rocketships. Ultra-violet lamps, it was said, would eventually be installed to provide artificial sunlight. "In fact, windows probably would be eliminated entirely to prevent interference with artificial ventilation which today is providing a balmy atmosphere, more constant than the real. Architects are beginning to discuss ideas of using modified pneumatic tubes to replace elevators and to shoot persons into skyscrapers."

Skyscrapers, and the Empire State Building above all. In May 1931, when the doors were swung open for the first time, the Empire State became the most dreamy, gleamy symbol of capitalist progress the world had ever seen; the ne plus ultra of American modernity. That shiny white Indiana limestone; the corridors, in stentorian Hauteville and Rocheron marble; the metal spire, built as a dirigible mooring by the people of a more optimistic age. It spoke of American commerce, American bigness, American power.

And when a certain simian tourist was blasted from the summit by machine-gun fire, its status as a totem of uncompromising progress was assured. More than 90 films have set their action in or around the building; countless others have swooped around it in their opening helicopter shots of New York City. Most movies are made in and around Los Angeles, but the city has never produced an architectural symbol as powerful as the Empire State: Hollywood has been gazing over, green-eyed, since King Kong's 1933 ascent.

As the glamour of corporate business faded, movies endowed the Empire State Building with the aura of a more traditional kind of romance. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr used the observation platform as a rendezvous in An Affair to Remember, but that was only right and proper: they were symbols of the same ideology that had produced the building itself. Grant never looked more at home than when marching through the marble lobby of some huge corporate organisation: the Empire State was a metonym for his own well-upholstered, highly polished, deluxe persona.

But, in the 1960s, as the building's owners blundered into financial difficulty, the Empire State, and the easy power it represented, wasn't always treated with such deference. In 1964, Andy Warhol pointed a camera at the building, watched the lights change for eight hours, and turned it into a monument of banality. In 1965, the Daleks played one of their first comedy scenes when they landed on the platform and exchanged one-liners with Peter Purves, incongruously cast as a Texan tourist. And when King Kong was remade in 1976, he was no longer a monster who ­ despite a few redeeming personality traits ­ had to be conquered and killed in order to prevent him doing any more damage to the city's real estate. He was a misunderstood lover, a hirsute martyr to ecological causes, and ­ in Pauline Kael's words ­ "a teddy bear Christ of the Sixties flower children". He also ignored his old perch and made straight for the World Trade Center, which had ended the Empire State's reign as the world's tallest building.

Now, when you look back at the original movie, it's hard not to see Fay Wray's journey up the side of the building as an unconventional date thwarted by the jealousies of the other male characters. A love story at 1,454 feet. I met Fay Wray in 1998, when she attended a screening of her 1928 film The Wedding March at Sadler's Wells. It's a silent romance, a classic of its kind. We watched her Mitzi Schrammell dally under a blossoming arbour with Eric von Stroheim's dashing First Lieutenant in the Mounted Guards, and marvelled as the same woman, 70 years older, held court at the post-screening drinks. I scuttled over, knelt in front of her, clasped her proffered hand. She smiled, enthused about the movie, about von Stroheim, about her visits to England.

But, along with everyone else who came to do homage, however much we admired the charm and delicacy of The Wedding March, it was impossible not to think of the saucer-eyed scream queen who was lifted gently to the summit of the tower by Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The conjunction of ape and edifice is so firmly established in the world's collective cultural consciousness that it takes very little effort to conjure an allusion to this moment. The Chewits dragon managed it by standing in front of the Post Office Tower and masticating. The Goodies' giant kitten went one better and knocked the same building over. In spite of itself, Manchester City Council invokes the movie when it goes through the annual ritual of placing a giant inflatable Father Christmas on the roof of the gothic Town Hall. Mancunians celebrate the equally inevitable ritual of watching it slowly crumple after a lone gunman has punctured it with an air pistol.

The demise of Kong has also ensured that the Empire State Building itself has never become an object of hubris. It has never failed. Even when, on a foggy Saturday in 1945, Colonel William Franklin Smith, a veteran of 34 wartime bombing missions, crashed his twin-engine B-25 into the 79th floor of the building, at a speed of 250mph, the building only sustained minor damage. When the plane smashed into the offices of the Catholic War Relief Office, the whole structure shook, 13 people were killed, and a number of elevators were sent tumbling down their shafts. Could any other comparable building ­ Canary Wharf, the Eiffel Tower, the Lloyd's Building ­ have survived such an event?

Perhaps not. But then they were not the product of a war of egos between two titanic American industrialists. Walter Chrysler of the Chrysler Corporation, a grease monkey from Wamego, Kansas, who slithered his way to the top of America's second largest automobile company; and John Jakob Raskob, the man from General Motors, who allowed Chrysler a few month's grace at the top of the world, before beating him to another second place with the Empire State's 200-odd extra feet of height. The architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates designed the building, no beauty compared with the frozen fountain of the Chrysler, but a geometric monster of gigantic size and power. Construction began in March 1930, and progressed at the rate of four-and-a-half stories per week, until the great monolith of 102 floors, 73 elevators and 6,500 windows had risen from the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue. From the vantage of his Cloud Club room, Chrysler must have watched the rival project shooting upwards, and knocked back Martini after resentful Martini.

It is only to be hoped that he never knew that Merian C Cooper, the scenarist of King Kong, had planned to send his monster up Chrysler's stainless steel spire, and only plumped for the Empire State when he realised that the shining curves of the shorter tower might be too slippery for a giant tropical ape to keep a foothold. And if Cooper hadn't changed his mind, would lovers now be flocking to its rival on Lexington Street?

Today, we can be sentimental about the romantic power embodied in King Kong, but the moral of the picture isn't really Robert Armstrong's terminal line about beauty killing the beast. It was the bullets from the biplanes and the great height of the Empire State that did for him. King Kong was killed by American engineering, a force more potent than any glowering ju-ju man, crackjawed tyrannosaur, or starlet in a silk ball gown.

But it was only when the Empire State was usurped by World Trade Center that it was free to embrace its new identity as an object of nostalgia; a theatre of romance in movies both sublime ( Manhattan) and ridiculous ( Sleepless in Seattle). The future of the world it once embodied has narrowed to the future of two people, and the transformation has been persuasive. Persuasive enough, anyway, for me to ask my then girlfriend to meet me at the top, on a cloudy afternoon in the spring of 1999.

When I arrived, there was discouraging news from the adenoidal man at the box office. "Visibility is nil," he whined. "The only thing you'll see is the odd pigeon. Do you really wanna go up there?" Insisting that I had an appointment to keep, I slapped my $6 on the counter, and shoehorned myself into an elevator with a gaggle of Japanese tourists. One ear-popping ascent later, I clambered out, and dashed straight out on to the observation platform, as the Japanese party scooted into the souvenir shop and hovered around a display of Empire State Building snowstorms.

Outside, the rain was thrashing down, the fog so thick that only the vague traffic noises from below betrayed the height of the building. Nicola, wet and shivery, was taking refuge from the elements by the side of a telescope. Some 1,050 feet in the air, up with the gulls and the rain clouds, I explained that I'd always wanted to marry her. She didn't seem to mind that much that the ring was a pink plastic one the colour of a half-sucked Jolly Rancher, which had been laid by an electric chicken in an amusement arcade on Mott Street. Or that it was so small, we had trouble jamming it on to her little finger. When you're standing on top of 365,000 romantic tons of limestone, granite, steel and marble, stuff like that doesn't matter. Ask Fay Wray.

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