Vacation Memories 1: Unbuilding

One of the fringe benefits of visiting family is that I get to reacquaint myself with the books among which I grew up. Prominent among my warm and sunlit memories of bookworm-hood are David Macaulay‘s illustrated volumes. Macaulay’s career began with Cathedral (1973), the story of a medieval town building a Gothic cathedral; he followed with Pyramid (1975) and Castle (1977), among others, and his whimsy grew to (heh heh) mammoth proportions with The Way Things Work (1988).

The book I’d like to talk about today, however, is Unbuilding (1980). After describing how all sorts of great architectural works were built, Macaulay decided to explain how one gets taken apart, and for his example, he chose the Empire State Building. The whole book is full of fascinating details on how a building can be demolished, with some portions preserved for re-erection elsewhere, but those details aren’t what caught my eye. In each of his illustrated architecture books, Macaulay provides a back story, telling who’s building the title piece of the book and why. Naturally, he constructs a story for the Empire State Building’s demolition, too.

Prince Ali Smith, a Saudi oil tycoon educated in the United States, needs a new corporate headquarters for the Greater Riyadh Institute of Petroleum (GRIP). To the surprise and bafflement of his fellow executives, Prince Ali announces that GRIP will buy the Empire State Building, dismantle it, and rebuild it in the Arabian desert. What happens next, I quote below the fold:

Three days later Prince Ali flew to New York for a private meeting with the building’s owners. Within the week a deal was concluded, and on April 29, 1989, news of the sale was made public. At first New Yorkers were outraged at the suggestion. The whole idea was branded as un-American. Letters of condemnation filled the pages of the Times, and protest marches were held every Sunday afternoon for a month. Both the preservation society and the historical commission organized massive antisale mail campaigns.

Being familiar with American ways, Prince Ali wisely allowed two months for things to calm down before announcing his carefully planned offer. To the owners of the building Prince Ali would pay an undisclosed, but predictably large, amount of money. To the residents of New York, in a somewhat surprising move, he offered the site and announced that it would be converted into a park at GRIP’s expense. The mooring mast, which had already been designated a historic landmark and could not leave the country, was to be completely restored and re-erected in the center of the park. The basement and subbasement of the building were to be converted into a midtown gallery for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Five days later, as resistance to the sale began to waver, he further announced that a specified amount of oil would be made available on a regular basis to the city’s taxicabs and buses. On the brink of defeat, one desperate but clever preservationist suggested that the twin towers of the World Trade Center be offered instead — both for the price of the Empire State. In declining the offer Ali suggested that he would be willing to consider pulling them down as a goodwill gesture. With this final show of generosity all remaining resistance crumbled.

Macaulay was writing in 1980, remember. Eight years later, he probably would have had the Empire State Building bought by the Japanese!

One thought on “Vacation Memories 1: Unbuilding

  1. It’s also worth remembering that public support for the WTC was actually a long time coming. For a good while after their erection, the towers were seen as huge eyesores that people just got used to. Back in 1980 it wouldn’t have been unusual to find a New Yorker who wouldn’t mind their (planned and controlled) destruction.

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