Colin Dickey | Longreads | April 2017 | 12 minutes (3,060 words)

In the opening pages of Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald describes the Antwerp nocturama, a zoo enclosure of simulated darkness designed to allow visitors to watch nocturnal animals in their natural environment. Sebald finds himself fixated on a raccoon compulsively washing a piece of apple, an animal whose work goes “far beyond any reasonable thoroughness,” he writes, as though this “would help it escape the unreal world in which it had arrived.” In the same way, perhaps, I’ve been reading Sebald compulsively for the past few months, as though through this act I might find the means to escape the unreal, topsy-turvy world of this grim winter.

Sebald is often called a Holocaust writer—all his major works deal with the Nazi genocide, some more explicitly than others. But his writing is often more concerned with a crisis in European modernity, one that can be traced back as far back as the Napoleonic Wars—a crisis in which the Holocaust was a horrifying, but nearly inevitable by-product. No historical tragedy arrives, ex nihilo, like Athena from her father’s forehead. Rather, Sebald traces and patterns that are laid out decades, perhaps centuries in advance, often in plain sight. They ostentatiously draw attention to themselves, though we have no desire to recognize them. Rather than focus on cartoonish depictions of Nazism as some anomalous evil, Sebald looked for the ways that fascism grew from the innocuous and banal aspects of European culture—from textile manufacturing, to psychotherapy, to architecture.

It was in architecture that Sebald saw the most telling indicators of the inevitability of the camps, often in the most unlikely of places. In Austerlitz, Sebald’s narrator meets up with the novel’s eponymous protagonist in Brussels’ Palace of Justice, reputed to be the largest courthouse in the world. Built in the 1880s, the Palace is a massive accumulation of stone organized haphazardly, such that many of its corridors and stairways lead nowhere. Sebald sees a paranoid logic in such a building, meant as an awe-inspiring monument to justice,  yet containing a lawless rabbit warren of hallways—a belief that marble and brick can forestall death itself. There was an anxious psychosis in the late-nineteenth century that led to greater and greater structures, each trying to outdo the last, further exacerbating a death drive. “At the most,” Jacques Austerlitz tells the narrator about this palace, “we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.”

The Palais de Justice in Brussels, Belgium was begin in 1866 and finished nearly twenty years later. It is said that Hitler admired it as one of his favorite structures, but during the liberation of Brussels, retreating German troops set it on fire, heavily damaging the building. (Wikimedia Commons)

This motif of grandiose architecture recurs throughout Austerlitz. In the opening pages, Sebald turns to the ever increasing complexity of European fortresses, which eventually adopted a star-shaped dodecagon plan, one which strikes the layman “as an emblem of both absolute power and of the ingenuity the engineers put to the service of that power.” But it is of course the case that “the largest fortifications will eventually attach the largest enemy forces, and that the more you entrench yourself the more you must remain on the defensive, so that in the end you might find yourself in a place fortified in every possible way, watching helplessly while the enemy troops, moving on to their own choice of terrain elsewhere, simply ignored their adversaries’ fortresses, which had become positive arsenals of weaponry, bristling with cannon and overcrowded with men.” The result of such thinking and such buildings, and of what Austerlitz refers to in passing as a sort of “paranoid elaboration,” was that “you drew attention to your weakest point, practically inviting the enemy to attack it,” to say nothing of the increasing expense and time to build such outsized buildings, whose efficacy and technology are quickly overtaken by modern developments before they are even completed.


Increasingly our attention has turned to the building of great walls—walls that will rise up from the desert to protect the nation. Already architects are salivating over the prospect, eager to imprint their own ideas on to these structures; they see it, perhaps short-sightedly, as a means of securing a legacy, a project so immense it will stretch into the distance farther than the eye can see.

But walls—even very great ones—rarely protect the lands they encircle. One has only to look to the eastern countryside of France, where ruins of the Maginot Line still lurk. Built between the wars at great expense, the Maginot Line, was to consist of great fortresses of poured concrete, hardened into the landscape and stocked with provisions and armaments, connected by underground railroads, all to protect the country from Germany’s armies. Of course, they succeeded only in drawing attention to the country’s most vulnerable frontier, which the Nazis were able to traverse easily, leaving the battlements of the Maginot Line untouched. Now, decades later, abandoned, the ruins continue their slow rot—gray, shambling monsters half-emerged from the pastoral landscape. But despite their decay, the fortresses appear at any moment, given the blast of trumpets, to rise and set loose across the countryside.

In Austerlitz, Sebald’s narrator travels to the Breendonk fort near Antwerp, whose fate was not terribly different than the Maginot Line. Built to withstand a German invasion during the First World War, the Germans avoided it entirely, moving past Antwerp towards France via a southern route, turning to Breendonk only later and sacking it easily. In the next war, it would be again occupied by German forces, who used it as a concentration camp to prisoners before they were shipped to Auschwitz and other locations. As Sebald’s narrator walks around the fortress’s edges, he remarks,

From whatever viewpoint I tried to form a picture of the complex I could make out no architectural plan, for its projections and indentations kept shifting, so far exceeding my comprehension that in the end I found myself unable to connect it with anything shaped by human civilization, or even with the silent relics of our prehistory and early history. And the longer I looked at it, the more often it forced me, as I felt, to lower my eyes, the less comprehensible it seemed to become.

Built to withstand the onslaught of armies, such buildings can become uncanny without their enemies. “When I studied the symmetrical layout with its outgrowth of limbs and claws,” the narrator continues, “the semicircular bastions standing out from the front of the main building like eyes, and the stumpy projection at the back of its body—I could not, despite its now evident rational structure, recognize anything designed by the human mind but saw it, instead, as the anatomical blueprint of some alien and crab-like creature.”

On the other hand, the beauty of a wall, at least as we imagine it, is that it will have none of these contortions and digressions—it is a line, straight, pure, and simple. Cutting across the desert, it will exude simplicity and purity, a strong and noble sentiment. Its appeal seems to lie less in its efficacy than in its symbolism. There has even been some discussion that the Wall will be paid for by cutting funds from other border patrol organizations—the Coast Guard, or the Transportation Security Administration that guards the country’s airports—as if to make clear to anyone confused that the goal here has nothing to do with safety or security, and everything to do with monument-building.

A youth looks at a new, taller fence being built along U.S.-Mexico border, replacing the shorter, gray metal fence in front of it, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on March 29, 2017 (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

We should not be so sure of the symbolic simplicity of monumental walls—even the greatest, it turns out, can be difficult to find or remember. When the North African traveler Ibn Battuta came to China in 1436, he enquired repeatedly about the famed Great Wall he had heard of from other Muslim merchants; he referred to it as the “obstruction of Gog and Magog.” But after repeated interviews, he confessed that he could find no one who had seen the Great Wall, nor even anyone who knew anyone else who had.

The Great Wall of China, Kafka tells us, is not one continuous, unbroken line, but is instead riddled with openings. His 1917 short story, “The Great Wall of China,” told from the vantage point of a scholar in Peking, reimagines this architectural monstrosity as a meditation of national identity. He begins by discussing how the Wall had to be built in small sections of no more than 500 meters at a time, leaving large holes that could be traversed by invading armies. Because it was so monstrous, he explains, builders would have never in their own lifetimes experienced the satisfaction of seeing it finished. Even after completing a 500 meter section, the scholar tells us, those supervising the construction were “as a rule quite exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the wall, in the world,” and had to return home to their families, leaving other sections to be finished by later generations. Reading Kafka’s story, one does wonder how those young architects, so eager to make their marks on such a monumental process, will feel once it is completed, and their dreams and visions are so permanently welded to something that reeks of despair.

As a parable, Kafka’s story tries to understand how we, as citizens of a country, participate in something larger than ourselves and our immediate communities. The Wall the scholar describes gradually comes to stand for that work of nation-building and sovereignty that all countries must develop—work that is wasteful, exhausting, and serves the vanity of a sovereign who cares nothing of his people. But, Kafka’s scholar notes, while such walls may seem to serve the vanity of the sovereign, they do not actually serve him; rather, such things are dreamed of, conceived of, and implemented by murky leadership forces that exist before and after the king who demands a Wall. “Honest, unwitting Emperor,” he exclaims, “who imagined he decreed it! We builders of the wall know that it was not so and hold our tongues.”

[pullquote align=”center”]After completing a 500 meter section, those supervising the construction of the Great Wall were “as a rule quite exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the wall, in the world,” and had to return home to their families, leaving other sections to be finished by later generations.[/pullquote]

The real reasons for such great walls, the scholar confesses, have little to do with the blustery egos who announce and slap their names on them. And yet it is the belief in the myth of the Emperor and his Wall that holds a people together. Buildings, Kafka suggests, build themselves. Perhaps this is why Sebald too often sees in them an alien and alienating logic that has nothing to do with human life.

Reading Austerlitz, I have come to see these days, in many images of tall and imposing buildings, not grandeur but menace—now even the most innocuous photographs of skyscrapers and government buildings seem to radiate this. My mind often returns to an image by Akira Aimi, a photographer whose work is little known and long forgotten, but whose photographs were used in the liner notes of an album by jazz musician Keith Jarrett, where I first came across his work. In one of Aimi’s photos, skyscrapers rise up into a pure, white fog, the black and white image both grainy and sharp in that manner of 1970s photography. In the foreground, a few sparse trees, their leaves bare for winter. They are sharply delineated, these trees, but nonetheless menaced by the looming towers behind them—as though a reminder that sooner or later these ominous works of humanity will blot out what’s left of our fragile environment.

Last November, I walked out onto the Brooklyn Bridge thinking of the enormous challenges required to build such a monument—not just technical challenges, though there were many, but the significance of how its designers anticipated and accounted for human failure.

The bridge’s architects, John Augustus Roebling and his son Washington, designed the structure to be twice as strong as standard bridge specifications, precisely because of an expectation that somewhere during the process, graft and incompetence would weaken it. Despite great vigilance, a corrupt contractor snuck in faulty cable, so that somewhere, even to this day, the bridge contains around 220 tons of faulty cables—rotten, festering metal that can never be safely removed, so that at best we can only hope the other elements of the bridge can contain them. It’s a reminder that even in a structure as magnificent as the Brooklyn Bridge, we are one short remove from the catastrophes that befell the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the I-35W bridge failure in Minneapolis, and the collapse of the skyway at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency in 1981, killing more than 100 people during a party. Perhaps, if there was some way to locate one of these hidden, faulty cables, deeply entwined with the rest of the bridge’s infrastructure, it could be singled out to passersby and tourists, a reminder that even something so seemingly strong as this has its rot.

On the promenade of the Brooklyn Bridge, stereoscopic view. (NYPL Digital Collections)

But this is not our nature. The structural engineer and writer Henry Petroski writes in To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure that we should expect to see a massive structure like a bridge spectacularly fail somewhat regularly, every four or five decades. This is not due to the faultiness of materials, as building material technologies continue to advance and become safer each year, rather because architects and contractors fail to learn the lessons of the past. Once a design is proven successful, subsequent architects look for ways to refine it, to make it lighter, cheaper, and more ambitious, always pushing at the edge of what is acceptable in terms of cost and safety. Because they rarely keep in mind previous disasters, eventually this need to improve leads the builder to overlook any faults and repeat the mistakes of their forebears.

Petroski notes that this rate of failure more or less mirrors the turnover rate of generations. A generation that witnesses a tragedy firsthand takes from it sober lessons, resolving never to repeat its mistakes. But in time this resolve becomes mixed with nostalgia, reduced to meaningless catchphrases—never again, never forget. The next generation, eager to make its own mark on history, take these stories as given, mistaking as a bedrock foundation what is in fact only the most tenuous of vigilances. The history of a country shouldn’t chronicle its generals and politicians, but rather its industrial failures, its corner cutters, its grifters and hacks—a reminder not of what we have achieved, but what must be resisted every single day in order to achieve anything.

From my vantage point on the Brooklyn Bridge, I looked across the East River towards the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Built to exude strength and confidence, they radiated only anxiety and vulnerability. No one who has threaded their way through the concrete barricades, metal detectors, and endless layers of security these buildings can fail to notice the sense of desperation that is the modern skyscraper—an awareness of its physical tenuousness, the overwhelming desire of its bones to return to earth.

As I leaned against the great bridge’s railing, pigeons wheeled above me in their idle frenzy, and like all city dwellers learn to do, I instinctively shifted my position to avoid any potential droppings. From this new vantage point, looking north, I could see the Citibank building with its distinctive, slanted roofline, like a knife cutting up out of the city. The tower was a marvelous feat of engineering, rising as it does on four massive pillars, each a hundred feet high, the building’s structure cantilevered over tiny St. Peter’s Evangelical Church that stands at the northeast corner.

But the grace and wonder of Citibank’s knife-sharp design was, as it happened, something of a fiction; because of a deficient manner of construction, the entire building was susceptible to destruction in high winds. The architect, in what seemed like a stunning oversight but was really just common laziness, had calculated the stress of winds from each of the cardinal points, but not from winds coming at a diagonal angle. In order to save money, the design had been further changed during construction: Joints designed to have been welded together were bolted instead, saving on time and money. This in turn reduced the structural integrity of the building, such that a moderate-sized storm could potentially topple it. Once discovered, designers hid this secret flaw from the public—even the surrounding neighbors who would likely have been killed should the skyscraper collapse—and over the course of three months worked feverishly each night to fix the problem before it was discovered or the building collapsed. The tower, itself built as a monument to global capital, was, quite like that capital, equally arrogant and tenuous, inviting its own ruin.

Perhaps I had read Aimi’s photograph of trees, fog and towers wrong. It wasn’t the trees that were endangered, menaced by the buildings behind them, it was just the reverse: The towers drifting into the opaque fog were themselves slated for imminent disaster, and the trees, threadbare and withered, were going to outlast us, once we are finally overtaken by our own follies.

It would have been interesting to ask Aimi himself what he thought of this question, but the photographer died tragically on June 28, 1981. He had also been on the Brooklyn Bridge, in the evening around 5 p.m., waiting for the light to die down so he could take some photographs, when a high-tension cable snapped and fatally struck him. The cable had failed because of years of accumulated pigeon shit. The acidity had slowly eaten through the steel.

432 Park Avenue at sunset. The most expensive sale in the building was for the full-floor penthouse on the 85th floor, sold to a Saudi retail magnate for $87.7 million.

This desire of all things—skyscrapers and great bridges alike—to fail and return to the earth may explain why Manhattan’s high-rises are increasingly empty, filled only with paper ghosts. Recent studies of the most exclusive addresses in the city have found that up to a third at any given moment are unoccupied, owned by foreign businessmen, politicians, and criminals. A place like the recently-completed 432 Park Avenue, the tallest residential building in the western hemisphere, which juts out of the skyline with ill-concealed pathos, is mostly occupied by people who don’t live there, investors who can say that they own a piece of this ostentatious wealth without having to face the terror of inhabiting such a monument. Architecturally, 432 Park Avenue resembles nothing more than a series of storage lockers, stacked one on top of another into the stratosphere. It has no name or identity other than its own address—fitting for the new urban landscape in which residences are nothing but deeds on paper and insurance forms. The Manhattan skyscraper, it would now seem, has become a symbol, first and foremost of decadent decay—emptied out of its purpose, propped up by ghost capital and absent tenants.

It is impossible to see in these towering behemoths anything but the most delicate fragility—yet a vulnerability that must be hidden and protected at all costs. It is hardly a wonder, I thought as I turned to walk back to Brooklyn, that when fascism came to America, it came not, as James Waterman Wise, Jr. prophesied in 1936, “wrapped up in an American flag,” but as a real estate developer.


Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, along with two other books of nonfiction. He is also the co-editor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology.