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Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams By Mark Kingwell. Yale University Press, 2006. 235pp. £16.99


Among many cultural references in this thoughtful book is a quote from one of Saul Bellow's novels: 'Skyscrapers may be filled with abominable enterprises, but they do transmit an idea of transcendence.' To Mark Kingwell, New York's Empire State Building is the skyscraper par excellence - a building for which that much-abused word 'icon' for once is apt, symbolising as it does both a city and a nation. And although Kingwell pays due attention to the facts of its construction - it was a fasttrack triumph, completed in just 18 months and below budget, thanks to cheap labour in the Great Depression - it's this status as an icon that he aims to explore.

The book was written in the aftermath of 9/11 which, says Kingwell, made the Empire State 'more visible than ever' and showed that it had a resonance - a place in public consciousness - that the World Trade Center never enjoyed; and without being selfconsciously expressive in form, like so many would-be icons.

In tracing its multiple meanings and associations, Kingwell ranges widely - from Cary Grant to Andy Warhol via Le Corbusier and Don DeLillo, with detours into politics and technology. If this sometimes reads like namechecking (Heidegger, Virilio and Simmel are all cited in less than a page), there's plenty of food for thought. Interesting as well to learn that on completion only 23 per cent of the Empire State was let - that even makes one home-grown 'icon' look good.

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