PsychoGeography #26: On top of the world, looking down on creation

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The Independent Online

In Chicago the boy wants to go up the Sears Tower. It's a mere 110 storeys high, and has long been eclipsed by other vast edifices in the near and far east, but still, it's there, we're there, he wants to.

In Chicago the boy wants to go up the Sears Tower. It's a mere 110 storeys high, and has long been eclipsed by other vast edifices in the near and far east, but still, it's there, we're there, he wants to. I don't know exactly where these loftier skyscrapers are. Nevertheless, I picture them as being shaped like colossal bodkins and darning mushrooms; crudely forceful examples of how reinforced steel and glass can be shaped to form the most prosaic of objects, then writ large, stupidly gross.

The Riyadh Bodkin and the Kuala Lumpur Mushroom are positive Meccas for all kinds of daredevils - of this I'm sure. Decadent Saudi princes pilot micro-lights through huge fistulas in their façades, while Malaysian spidermen scale them using giant suckers in lieu of crampons. All these activities serve to demonstrate is that modernist megaliths have suborned the role of natural features in providing us with the essential and vertiginous perspective we require to accurately comprehend our ant-like status. Natch.

My brother, an architectural historian, often observes that the highest building to be erected during any given economic cycle, is invariably a harbinger of recession. One thinks of Canary Wharf before the downturn of the 1990s, or the Twin Towers in New York before the shit hit the fan in the early 1970s. Come to think of it, the terrorist attacks of September 11 may well confirm this thesis by inducing a recession. Like so much in this brave new century, the economic edifice theory seems like an example of over determination: "too-true, too-true" a wise owl might coo.

Yes, I'm thinking about it a lot on this visit because it's only 40 days since the WTC imploded, and the boy and I are adrift in a chastened, muted America. I admire the way his youthful enthusiasm segues with his lack of neurotic superstition. Sadly, the management of the Sears Tower have closed the observation deck. The security men stare at us as if we'd asked to get on top of them - not their building. But they direct us the blowy mile back over the Chicago River and down Michigan Avenue to the John Hancock Center, which - while only a mere 90-odd storeys - is still open for business.

I went up the WTC in 1993, I've been up the Empire State as well. The Eiffel Tower hosted me when I was 11 - the same age as the boy. I've usually scaled the highest building in any city I've visited. In the States it's de rigueur for your hosts to whip you up one soon after your arrival, so that the descent into the airport followed by the ascent by lift feel curiously like the two sides of a roller-coaster's parabola. It isn't the 1,000-footers that I find the most intimidating. Hedged round with their ordinary mystique - people work here, for chrissakes! - they are too high to provoke vertigo. Peering down from such a peak perspective only ever reduces the world below to an intelligible version of itself: the microcircuitry of society.

Still, on this particular dark day, the obsidian bulk of the John Hancock Center looks threatening, as does the clanking lobby. Some of the lifts are out of order and shrouds of plastic have been taped across the entrances to these steely tombs. On the long ride up we stand together with a quartet of out-of-towners - regulation moustaches, baseball caps, cameras and avoirdupois - and I wonder at their sang froid. Could these couples be disciples of Epicetus, who've undertaken this purgatorial sightseeing in order to cultivate stoic detachment? Or are they merely dumb hicks?

Up on the observation deck we can feel the whole mass of steel, concrete, stone, plastic, fibreoptic cable and nylon carpet heel beneath us, as if it were tall ship about tack off across the ruched grey surface of the lake. Like Prometheus I'm bound to this rock while the eagles of anxiety gnaw at my liver. The boy has no such problem, he scoots about from infopoint to infopoint. There's a place where you can go out onto an enclosed terrace and promenade in the screeching elements, so I force him to do the walk. It's his turn to feel fear - and mine to experience catharsis. It occurs to me that terrorism is Schadenfreude taken to the point of evil.