Mordecai Martin

The Tower


ISSUE 81 | BUILDINGS | DEC 2017

Jutting out of an icy mountain, the building rises blasphemously, blotting out the celestial sky. Perhaps that’s why it’s on fire, the revenge of the sky or of God, as a lightning bolt has blown off the magnificent, crown-like dome, and a man and a woman, themselves crowned, themselves aflame, tumble downward, thrown from the blast.

The scene is a familiar one to students of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot. It is card XVI of the major arcana, The House of God, or, as it is styled in the modern, less religious deck, the Tower. It is a card dreaded in many readings, symbolic of sudden downturns in fortune, humiliations, failure, loss. A history of benevolent interpretation softens this to “sudden revelation” or “an emotional outburst.” I am particularly fond of the meaning of the card in the context of the Fool’s Journey, the transformation of the major arcana into one continuous narrative. The Fool, after growing wise and powerful, and vacillating violently between extremes, finds himself corrupt, materialistic, and despairing, in the grips of the card preceding the Tower, the Devil. The destruction depicted in the Tower is the only way forward for our hero, ourselves. We must tear down what we have built around us, humble ourselves, in order to reach the serenity of the Star.

But I’m a New Yorker of a certain generation, and in contemplating the Tower, there is one image that comes to mind, one clear blue autumn morning. The iconography of 9/11 is well settled, “Never Forgotten.” As a nation, we replay our memory over and over, like taking a well-loved treasure reverentially out of its box. The surreal conjunction of horizontal airplane and vertical skyscraper, the people, tiny as ants, hurling themselves out of the windows, the smoke, the flames, the long collapse inwards.

We were all younger then, of course. When I was very young, I would build towers out of blocks, fantastic dream-like cityscapes, and learned how to anticipate pleasure by putting off the final, best moment: the moment I would knock down my creation, the clatter and crash of it all. What is it about falling towers, that I so look forward to them?



In New York, our foundational myth, our Romulus and Remus nursed by the she-wolf, is the story of Pieter Minuit’s sharp dealing (some would say theft) of the Lenape, the unthinkably and immorally cheap purchase of Manhattan for 60 guilders. The myth establishes an island wide love of the Deal, the Hustle, the Real Estate Scam. In Mexico City, where I currently live, the famous story of the Aztecs building on a lake the city foretold by an eagle and a nopal cactus establishes Mexico’s love of portent and poetry. If origin myths betray the culture of a city, what then do we find in the myths of the city’s end?



The first I heard about the September 19th earthquake that struck Mexico City was a text from my girlfriend’s father telling us that everything was fine. We were in New York, visiting my family, and at that particular moment, we were apart, me with a friend of mine, she at my parents’ house. It was an odd text to receive, although almost all the texts I receive from Arturo are odd. It was only later, when we were together, that she could interpret it for me. “Everything is fine.” means “A disaster has happened, but the family is safe.” And that was true, although it was a few panicky hours before we could locate my girlfriend’s youngest sister. I will reiterate: Neither I nor my loved ones were hurt in the earthquake.

As the days followed and the damage and death count became more extensive, the news became more surreal. Familiar street names became disaster sites, sites of heroic rescue efforts, sites of tragic losses. A factory. An apartment building. A school. Ghosts were raised, as the earthquake happened on the exact same date as the truly catastrophic 1985 earthquake that killed untold thousands and practically levelled the city. But perhaps these ghosts were congratulating the city for not repeating their folly, as much of the construction that dated after 1985 managed to survive the seismic force.

As I returned to the city, the fallen buildings were not as evident as the damaged ones, those with cracks, those leaning away from or perilously towards their neighbors. Eventually, the city filled with caution tape, roping off the condemned buildings. While the death toll stabilized, and the evacuees found new homes, I became curious about the buildings left behind, these cracked facades, looming over the sidewalks I walked, denounced as dangerous, but just sitting in our city, waiting . . . for what? Another earthquake? A planned demolition? When would the buildings fall? I wanted to know. I was looking forward to it.



Perhaps at the heart of all these destroyed buildings is Romance. The Romantics notoriously fetishized ruins. We may be searching for the picturesque and sublime in Modern architecture. Sartre wrote of his flânerie around New York, “I see in the distance the Empire State Building or the Chrysler building pointing vainly toward the sky, and it occurs to me that New York is about to acquire its history, that it already has its ruins.” This vaguely threatening, vaguely mournful passage reminds us of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” “that colossal Wreck.” Just as Ozymandias’ tribute to himself has been worn down, so too we can imagine the Empire State Building unrecognizably eroded, indistinguishable from the stub of the Chrysler building to the north, or the smoking trunks of the World Trade Center towers to the south. Maybe our attraction to these images is just a foreshadowing of the pleasantly gloomy contemplations our descendants will have, looking at the half sunk and shattered visages we have left behind, thinking of our hubris, our demand that the world look on our works and despair.

But it is not the decaying ruins of the cities that capture our focus in the Tower card, but the active destruction of a mighty structure. So too, in the kaiju (giant monster) movies that I greedily ate up as a kid. After all, Godzilla does not reign over a decayed landscape of a forgotten era; rather, his thunderous foot falls on a living, breathing Tokyo. Kaiju are not so much story devices or characters as they are a series of images and emotions, primarily the images and emotions of mass destruction. In this way, they aren’t a sober reflection on the past and the glories it held, as we see in Shelley. Nor, though they necessarily invoke the specter of 20th century fears—pollution, nuclear weaponry, runaway militarization—are they a critique of the 20th century. Rather they are a dark celebration of it, a reenactment of the visceral terror and catharsis of the worst happening.



The urbanist Mike Davis tackles disaster imagery in his Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, methodically working his way through a century of American apocalypses in writing and film. For Davis, the appeal for writers and directors of destroying a cityscape is really the appeal of wiping out the majority brown and black bodies that inhabit that cityscape. “Armageddon has been imagined as a war of extermination between the white and colored worlds. . . there should be no doubt that the ritual sacrifice of Los Angeles, as rehearsed incessantly in pulp fiction and film, is part of a malign syndrome, whose celebrants include the darkest forces in American history.” Davis condemns those who’d thrill at the sight of a falling building as cruel voyeurs, uncaring of the lives in the building.

Architecture, because of its enormous expense, because of its scale, because of zoning and building codes, is ultimately the art of the powerful, and reflects their views of us, who scurry around in the shadow of their towers. When they think we deserve beauty, they define beauty to their own satisfaction, and give it to us. When they think we deserve what is modern, they build reflections of modernity. When they think we deserve brutality, we are given brutalism. This is why the Tower card, a card in a deck designed for telling the fortunes of the rich, is so shocking, so atrocious. Because it shows the end of power, its toppling from its height. This is why 9/11 comes as a surprise to struggling Americans everywhere, Americans unaware of the empire they live in, their own imperiousness. “Are we really that high up?” they think to themselves, “I don’t feel so much above them. Why did they knock us down?” It would be tempting to say that destruction then fascinates me because it is the antidote to power, because it sees the fall of the oppressive tower.

But that’s not true. The men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center were just as much part of an oppressive ideology as the one they attacked. Ultimately, the people with the power to bring down a building are the same people with the power to put one up. It is this display of power that we find so darkly fascinating. We are drawn and repelled by the cruelty on view, the callousness of God, or of terrorists, or ourselves, as we push the blocks over. What do we learn from the Tower then? Our love of power. It humbles us, because we see its limits. We cannot bend the world to our will. When we are sad, we cannot block out the sun with our towers. When we are angry, we cannot shake the earth. The world remains unresponsive to our emotional states, except in fiction, which is where we eagerly consume destroyed buildings. Beneath our pens, in our stories, we build mighty cities, only to knock them down.