What Our Skylines Tell Us About Ourselves.

Through the Middle Ages, the Cathedral was the true skyscraper of most ancient cities. It could be seen for miles and dominated, not only the skyline, but occupied the central square of the town. As the Renaissance set in, palaces and government buildings began to dominate the central square and even the skyline as the churches shrunk in stature and moved to the side streets. Today, our great cities such as New York and Chicago have skylines dominated by great buildings of commerce and industry. The Cathedrals of these great cities would be hard to find by most visitors. What does all this say about our culture? How are we known by our buildings? What are the priorities and central focus of our time?

Now, all that said, I suppose it would be silly to build a 150 story church. At some point a church serves its purpose at 100 feet.  And,  buildings for people to live and work in can serve practical purposes at higher and higher levels.  Still, the poet in me says, love should soar highest. So the poet and dreamer in me says, what if the tallest of our buildings were places that served the poor, cared for the sick, or were places where people crowded in to make spiritual retreats and study God’s Word? I know, absurd! Call me a dreamer. Call me inefficient, and say that we don’t need taller spiritual buildings, just more of them. Perhaps. But there’s something about a tall building that says: “prominent,” “important,” “significant” and “preeminent.” The dreamer in me suspects that if our spiritual values were more central, our skylines would announce it to any passerby: “Here is a city whose God is the Lord!” (Psalm 33:12). Just dreaming!

Here’s another dreamer, Fr. Robert Barron, who, in this video, makes an interesting observation in the renaming of the Sears Tower to the Willis Building about 2 years ago. It now appears that the three tallest buildings in Chicago are all named for, and owned by’ Insurance Companies…go figure! And while you’re at it, ask, “What does this say?” It seems to say, that the more affluent we become, the more anxious we become. With all our stuff we have much more to protect, much more to insure, much more to be anxious about!

And in whom do we trust to bring us this protection? Surely God, you will say! Ah, but look again; by our buildings you will know the answer! Jesus saves, but, “just in case He can’t come through,” man insures. Or so our culture would seem to say.

To be sure, there is nothing evil about insurance, but our buildings tell us we are quite anxious about many things and that insuring and ensuring looms large in our culture.

Yes, we who have much, have much to lose. And our anxiety about that sticks out; it looms large, and stands tall, very tall.

14 Replies to “What Our Skylines Tell Us About Ourselves.”

  1. Epistle 209
    My some thoughts about “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, suppose that this homily of Msgr. Charles Pope is his doctoral thesis.
    Secondly, I am an old doctor, and I have a responsibility to remark the doctoral thesis. If I remark it is good, Father will be a new doctor, on the contrary, Father will not be.
    Thirdly, my remarks are here below:
    Name of Father’s doctoral thesis is “What our skylines tell us about ourselves”.
    The doctoral thesis has about 500 words.
    The doctoral thesis includes three main parts and a conclusion part:
    Gist of first part is that through Middle Ages, the Cathedral was the true skyscraper of most ancient cities, but today it was sunk by other skyscrapers of commerce and industry.
    In second part of the doctoral thesis, the author said that it would be silly to build a 150 story church, though Father hopes to build a tallest church so.
    In third part of the doctoral thesis, the author excerpted words of Fr. Robert Barron that if we build a tallest church in America as the Willis Building, then we have much more to protect, much more to insure, much more to be anxious about.
    However, Fr. Robert Barron stressed that just God, Jesus himself, will protect our tallest church.
    In conclusion part of the doctoral thesis, the author of the thesis concludes that we have much of things, but also have some things to lose. And our anxiety about that sticks out; it looms large, and stands tall, very tall.
    Fourthly, some conclusions of commentator are:
    The doctoral thesis was written meticulously.
    The author saw all strengths and weaknesses of building a tallest church in US in the near future.
    Author of the thesis, Postgraduate Charles Pope, deserves to receive a Doctoral Degree.
    Ho Chi Minh City, 27 July 2011, Commentator, Doctor Nguyen Thuong Minh, signed.
    [In University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City, my remark is worth $25 (VND500000.00)]./.

      1. I feel somewhat obliged to dispute the part of Nguyen Thuong MInh’s reponse where he says, “…if we build a tallest church in America as the Willis Building, then we have much more to protect, much more to insure, much more to be anxious about.”
        It appears to me that Monsignor Pope is making a statement about more being invested in large insurance buildings because of our modern cultural obsession with worldly real estate and chattels and that Nguyen Thuong MInh is implying that the “more to protect…insure…be anxious” is about a church; or cathedral; on a comparable size scale as a skyscraper built to serve business (worldly) interests.
        Certainly, it is important to see to our worldly needs so that we are healthy in sustenance, shelter, etc. but, to see our regard for our spiritual nourishment remain static while business, and an obsession with more and more of the material, soar into greater prominence makes me wonder if we are losing our awareness of that which is beyond the five basic senses.
        Indeed, the hedonism which has grown since the 1950’s definately appears to be a growing exaggeration and obsession with the sensory that leads to a resulting dormancy of our ability to perceive the intangeable.
        In favour of Nguyen Thuong MInh’s comment; it seems that, if he misinterpreted, it may be due to the appearance that English seems to be a second language but; in a scholarly response; one should be careful about such things by checking through other means such as professionals in translation.

  2. One quibble with Fr. Barron’s commentary is that, now, the Trump building in Chicago is the second-tallest.

  3. Dear Msgr.,

    At a height of 560 ft., the spires of the Sagrada Familia in Spain reach toward Heaven. The architect Antoni Gaudí must have shared your dream! I hope to visit it someday. Here in St. Paul we are very blessed, however, by the Cathedral of St. Paul, located prominently on a hill overlooking the state capitol.

  4. In Charleston, SC the steeples can still be seen in the city. I think there’s a rule that no building can be built higher then the steeples. But not like Charleston ever needs a building that size. But still very cool to see.

      1. Wouldn’t it be hard to build a building higher than the steeples of Charleston, since the water is just below the soil? It’s been years since I’ve been to Charleston, but I seem to remember that there were few basements for that reason.

  5. There is also the Riverside Church in NYC whose tower is 392 feet – the tallest church in America. It was built with Rockefeller money, which we Catholics don’t really have at our disposal. But, it is a grand church, and we could do much worse by having a church like that dominating the skyline of a major city. Then there is the Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa, whose Art Deco architecture is not my kind of tea, but it has a 225 foot tower.

    I hear Raleigh needs a new cathedral, which is an excellent and rare opportunity for old school Catholic triumphalism (of the right sort!) to dominate the skyline. Where can our Pugins and Crams be found today to accomplish this task?

  6. Poppycock and nonsense, say I, about the article, “What Our Skylines Tell Us About Ourselves”. The modern city skyline results from the combination of the need for lots of people in a very small space (because they work with each other a lot) and the real-estate markets, transportation realities, and architectural and mass-transit technologies available. To put the millions and billions of dollars needed to build and maintain a skyscraper into a Christian house of worship would be a vast waste of resources better spent to serve the mission of Christianity. It’s my experience (from viewing tall mountains from their bases – such as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park) that, after an object is raised to an altitude about 300 feet above my head, any increase in its altitude is less and less perceivable. So to construct a ceiling much higher than 300 feet would be a waste of money for the additional visual impact it would cause (in my humble opinion.) And the exterior of a skyscraper-high church that rivalled business-devoted buildings in height would, as I said be a questionable expenditure of scarce resources.

  7. I was thinking about this lately, actually. Here’s several things that popped into my mind:

    The cathedrals, while not the tallest buildings, are different in their look: They look as though that are reaching up, trying to reach toward heaven. Their gaze is upward.

    Modern skyscrapers have a totally different look: They are tall and try to give the appearance of standing above everything else and looking down on the little people below on it.

    In fact, the entire credit/financial crises to me almost seems like a copying of the story of the tower of Babel. The skyscrapers were built to ‘make a name’, and now so many of those companies have/will fail.

  8. Father, what about a campaign to have “In God we Trust” posted on top of the highest buidling in every city? What a beautiful statement that would make!

  9. In my opinion, the most beautiful cities have a centre that is dominated by human scale buildings (maybe about 10 stories max), and in many cases result in an impactful spire.

    One image burned in my memory is driving off to Chartres and seeing its spires on the horizon over the flat landscape for what seemed like about a half an hour of the drive before arrival. Before the motor car it may have seemed all day I’m guessing.
    Seeing Cracow from a distance was also an image that took me back in time.

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