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Has the battle against high-rise developments already started?

Despite Mr West's contention that it is 'bizarre, not to say mad' (AJ Letters 26.9.02), I still believe that the analogy between the current controversy about the future of tall buildings and the 20th century debate about the usefulness of battleships can be fruitful and predictive - even without bringing the Pax Britannica or Pax Americana into it.

The way I see it, the problem with battleships and tall buildings alike is not so much that they each became symbols of imperialism, but that their symbolic content interfered with their practical performance.Thus the lack of deck armour that laid British battleships catastrophically open to plunging fire at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 might be equated with the inadequate fire-proofing that hastened the demise of the twin towers of the World Trade Center 85 years later - both being latent defects of no symbolic significance that suddenly became fatally important under conditions of practical use.

Proof indeed that, sooner or later, all symbols are put to the test and turn out to be not the same as the real thing.

The father of the modern battleship, the quintessentially realistic Admiral Lord Fisher, knew as early as 1916 that the game was up for the big-gun battleship, not only because of the disastrous British losses at Jutland but because he saw that in the future no big ship would be able to defend itself against attack from the air.

'To build battleships so long as cheaper craft can destroy them is like breeding cats unable to catch rats or mice, ' he said before his death in 1920. 'All you want is the naval side of the air force - that's the future navy!'

Unfortunately, Fisher was ignored and 20 years later the destruction of the battleships began with a list headed by Germany's Bismarck and Tirpitz, Japan's Yamato and Musashi, Britain's Prince of Wales and Repulse, America's four sunk at Pearl Harbour, not to mention several Italian and French vessels. As a result, after 1945, no more battleships were laid down anywhere. The genre was and remains defunct.

It may seem at first sight that there is no episode of tall building destruction to match the cull of battleships that took place during Second World War, but there is. If one can argue that the twin towers was the Jutland of tall buildings, then it is also possible that events have moved even faster than that.

What if the real Jutland of tall buildings happened in the 1970s and 1980s, in the US as well as Britain, when there was a tremendous reaction against high-rise public housing that resulted in dozens of tower blocks being dynamited to the ground before large crowds?

Since then, it would be fair to say that very little high-rise housing has been built and much entrenched opposition to high-rise projects is routinely encountered.

Indeed, in the light of the glee of the crowds that gathered to watch the demolitions, we should not forget the unfortunately enthusiastic reaction of much of the developing world to the terrible suicide attacks on the twin towers.

All of which might surely lead us to the conclusion that the high-rise buildings of the past 30 years or so; great towers like the Jin Mao and the Petronas twin towers and others in Asia; the Messeturm and Number One Canada Square and others in Europe, are the Yamatos and Missouris and Vanguards of the high-rise age, anachronistic rather than futuristic, and burdened by a symbolic status that one day is bound to be tested against the reality of an increasingly turbulent and hostile world.

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