The elevator is to go on to revolutionize city planning: after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city’s downtown was rebuilt in a more systematic way that better made use of scarce land; once electricity becomes available, thus making elevators more practical, skyscrapers started being built all over town. To this day, Chicago architect bureaus dominate the market for skyscrapers.
It should be noted that the idea of skyscraper is age-old: while the modern, structural definition dates the first skyscraper back to 1870, tall urban towers certainly exist: Roman insulae reach more than 10 stories, and the taller of the two Towers of Bologna reach 97m. And the Old Testament, of course, contains the myth of the Tower of Babel.
We must be careful not to interpret this myth literally, as some fundamentalists did after 9/11: to claim, as these people are wont to do, that the tragedy was divine retribution for our hubris and pride would be, apart from being self-righteously judgemental and insensitive, providing moral justification for terrorism. Likewise, invoking divine wrath for Carribean hurricanes (such as devastated New Orleans, Cuba, Haiti) is a cop-out: the (disproportionately poor) victims are blamed for supposed moral degeneracy, whereas it was actually the more well-to-do, all over the world, who contributed to the severity of modern-day hurricanes by pumping so much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that the oceans are warming up.
Which brings us to a full circle: having been created in God’s image (Gen 1.26), we are called upon to be the steward of God’s Creation. And that requires responsibility, humility, even, in the way we use up the earth’s resources.
Skyscrapers certainly has a role to play in urban planning: coupled with efficient public transportation systems, they allow for high-density cities, reducing urban sprawl and therefore our environmental footprint. But the recent trend, starting with Malaysia’s Petronas Twin Towers, of skyscrapers being built as status symbols, without sufficient consideration for transportation problems.
The Dubai skyscrapers, of which Burj Khalifa is the latest incarnation, demonstrate this charge. Dubai is a city built around cars and air-conditioners, with nary an eye to sustainability: crossing the road, for example, often requires lengthy detours — in the desert heat. The city epitomizes the worst side of capitalism: a now-burst construction bubble, badly treated migrant workers, and obnoxious luxury catering to the global nouveau riche. This, even though the official story is that Dubai, oil-poor by Gulf standards, is trying to wean itself off the black gold and morphing itself into a business hub! Contrast this with the neighboring Abu Dhabi’s sustainable Masdar project.
The bible is a rich source of allegories, and the point of allegories, including this one, is to impart moral lessons that ought to change our behaviors. And the moral of the Tower of Babel is that we bring disaster to ourselves if development is not balanced with conservation. If we continue building Towers of Babel (of various kinds, not all of them buildings), we’re condemning ourselves to our own Flood — though, in our imperfect world, it’s going to be the poorest and least powerful among us who, as usual, will be bearing the brunt of rising sea levels — small island communities, low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, and the billions of people, mostly in the Third World, who will be affected by water shortage.