Updike on Modern Skyscrapers

By Aaron Britt / Published by Dwell
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John Updike, the expert critic and novelist, only occasionally took up architecture and design as the sole subject of his prodigious powers of description. Though in sketching the rural barns of the stories in "Pigeon Feathers," the grand, burned church of his novel "Couples" and the changes wrought by the decades of the last half of the last century on Mt. Judge, the setting of his masterly "Rabbit" tetralogy, Updike shows his knack for seeing through to the heart of a building or place, ferreting out and naming its essential sadness or mystery.

In the current issue of the New Yorker, a publication for which he spent lakes of ink, the magazine has republished excerpts from his best essays, stories and poems. In one bit of criticism, taken from the "Notes and Comment" section of the October 13, 1962 issue, Updike assesses the state of the modern skyscraper. As ever, his prose is strong and sprightly, his insight keen, and his tone knowing and playful. The last lines show a clear debt to his light verse; note the diminished spectator, "Glassy-eyed" from wondering at windows, the slanted rhyme of "feeling oddly empty" and the wry indignity of "a meal of doughnut holes." Would that he had been an architecture critic; any discipline would have been lucky to have him.

"These new skyscrapers do not aspire to scrape the sky; at the point of exhaustion, where the old skyscrapers used to taper, gather their dwindling energy, and lunge upward with a heart-stopping spire, these glass boxes suffer the intense architectural embarrassment of having to house the air-conditioning apparatus, and the ascent of windows ends in an awkward piece of slatted veiling. A pity, perhaps, but well suited to an age of anticlimax. Glassy-eyed from contemplation of these buildings made entirely of windows, we walked west feeling oddly empty, as if we had dined on a meal of doughnut holes."

Aaron Britt


Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.

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