Saturday, July 23, 2011

The View From Above

Source:  "Looking Down from the Sky"; Engines of our Ingenuity, No. 1729
Keyword:  aloof, abstraction, reductionism

When human flight came to be, suddenly there was a new way of looking at the world.  Artists and then cameras took birds-eye views of the landscape. 

Two of the many people who talked about the new aerial perspective were Charles Lindbergh and the radical architect Le Corbusier. For Le Corbusier, the view from above made the earth below into an abstraction. In 1935, he wrote.
The bird's eye view ... now sees in substance what the mind formerly could only subjectively conceive.
He particularly disliked what he saw of cities from above. He went on to make this chilling remark:
Cities must be extricated from their misery, come what may. Whole quarters of them must be destroyed and new cities built.
Then we see the sterile geometrical city layouts he proposed as replacements. Just as Mussolini and Hitler took power, Le Corbusier was gravitating into a like-minded form of technocratic fascism.
The young Lindbergh was also accused of pro-fascist leanings. However, at the end of long and complex life, he was still struggling to get it right. In his last book, published after he died, he recalls visiting an island off the Brittany coast, in 1938. First, he seems to echo Le Corbusier. He says:
... when I was flying from America to Europe [I] looked down on the Atlantic and wondered what shapes and contours were masked by the sameness of its surface. ... the sea maintained its dignified aloofness.
But now, walking the beach below, his tone changes:
At the edge of [the sea], each fastly ebbing tide opened the ocean's threshold, let you step into a strange and foreign realm. Fish, camouflaged by weeds, hung motionless in crystal pools. Green, protoplasmic masses lay inertly on the stones. A tentacle from a small squid flashed out.
Lindbergh had been a barnstormer, a hero, an inventor, and a WW-II combat pilot. He'd had seen it all from above. An older Lindbergh understands how that elevated perspective can deceive any of us.
We engineers live by abstracting reality into manageable parcels. But we know nothing if we disconnect from the hard earth of messy detail. The "dignified aloofness" of the long view is lovely, but only because it is constructed from the rich organic clutter contained within it.
 Abstraction and reductionism often leaves out life.  It is important to live within the messiness of real life.  The faith calls us not simply to the mountaintop but also to the life below.