Today, we look upon Earth from above. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I'm just back from one more
airplane trip -- one more chance to see Earth from
above. That adventure has been tarnished by
familiarity and by high altitude. But, this time I
paid closer attention while we were still climbing
beneath the clouds.
Such views were the great miracle of the late
nineteenth century, and we began capturing them in
two ways. Inspired by balloonists, skillful
itinerant artists, with a strong command of
perspective, went from town to town. They made
detailed bird's eye view
drawings of each hamlet, as it would've
appeared from above.
When photography became fast enough to get a sharp
photo from a balloon, cameras were destined to
overtake artists. By the 1930s, aerial photography
was now routinely being done from
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
The bird's eye view ... now sees in substance
what the mind formerly could only subjectively
He particularly disliked what he saw of
cities from above. He went on to make this
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
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
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.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on LeCorbusier and fascism, see: C. Jenks,
Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in
Architecture. New York: The Monacelli Press,
Le Corbusier, Aircraft. New York: Universe
Books, 1988 (reprint of a 1935 English edition.)
For more on Le Corbusier and his ideas see F.
Choay, Le Corbusier. New York: George
Braziller, Inc., 1960; and G. H. Baker, Le
Corbusier: An Analysis of Form. Hong Kong: Van
Nostrand Reinhold (U.K.) Co. Ltd., 1984.
C. A. Lindbergh, Autobiography of Values.
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976, pp.
L. S. Reich, From the Spirit of St. Louis to the
SST: Charles Lindbergh, Technology, and
Environment. Technology and Culture, April
1995, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 351-393.
View Mt. Hood from above, and it becomes an altered
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.