Freeway in Houston, Texas

listen now:

Building structures is not unique to humans: birds build nests; spiders build webs; bees build hives. But we’ve built and built until we’ve transformed the face of Earth. We’ve built until we’ve transformed ourselves from two-legged foraging beasts into custodians of the great technological temple surrounding us. Along the way, we’ve made building into a metaphor for our very being. 

Nietzche once described that temple, what I call our exoskeleton, in the oddest words. He said,

The philosopher believes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the building: posterity discovers it in the bricks with which he built and which are then often used again for better building; in [fact] that building can be destroyed and nonetheless possess value as material. 

He’s speaking metaphorically, of course. Yet what he says is true of our own technological edifice. Tear a chunk of it down -- replace iron façade buildings with skyscrapers -- and much of what we learned in the old architecture lives in the new. 

Nietzche’s interest in structure also takes a far more literal turn when he also says,

When one has finished building one’s house, one suddenly realizes that in the process one has learned something that one really needed to know in the worst way -- before one began.

No metaphor here. Now he’s completely down-to-earth. We quite literally need to experience the process of building and making. We need to know the act that’s central to our human identity. We’ll never understand our vast structural exoskeleton without taking some part in its formation and maintenance. 

So that’s why I say hats off to beams and girders, to structure, to making things in the world -- to making things in the mind making music, making hay, making whoopee, making good ... Hats off to the high rise of the great lattice work everywhere around us.

   - John Lienhard

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Bird and Drawbridge photo by John Lienhard