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Architectural Wonder: Tower of Babel

“During the course of many generations the Tower grew higher and higher until one day it pierced the floor of heaven…”

- The Tower, Steven Millhauser

Was the Tower of Babel ever built? Was it an architectural wonder that was lost throughout the centuries? In biblical literature, the Tower of Babel is a structure built in the city of Babylon, through which its construction explains the existence and origins of the multiplicity of language. It depicts the ever-feuding conflict between the divine, man, and the natural and social order.

According to biblical narratives, the human race following the Great Flood spoke a single language. After migrating to Babylon, they agreed to build a city and a tower tall enough to reach heaven. After seeing this, God furiously confounded their speech so that they can no longer understand each other, divided them into linguistic groups, and dispersed the people across the world.

1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. 4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. 6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. 7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
Genesis 11:1-9

The single tower erects itself towards the heavens as a symbol for how mankind should strive to become the very best, achieve the unimagined, and test the limits by transcending boundaries of construction technology and ceaselessly overcoming what was previously known as impossibilities. Although these physical bounds still restrict feats of construction until this day, mankind continues to explore the structure that could have been.

Depictions of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel (1563), Athanasius Kircher (1679), and M.C. Escher (1928)

Through fictive imagination, several endeavors at depicting the Tower through various mediums such as painting, literature, and other forms of representation have been attempted. More famously known, are the paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1563, Athanasius Kircher in 1679, and M.C. Escher in 1928.

Bruegel’s depiction of the Tower’s architecture was inspired by the Roman Colosseum. At a time where achieving such high definition and precision in construction and engineering was a monumental feat, the intention of using Rome as backdrop for the painting was symbolic of the Eternal City whereas using the ruin-like Tower represents the vanity and transience of earthly efforts. Bruegel further emphasized the profanity of the Tower by depicting its arches perpendicular to the slanted, unstable ground. Thus, through further examination, one can see some of the arches crumbling from the unbalanced foundation.

Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar, took a different approach through the story inspired from the Qur’an. Set in Egypt, Pharaoh asks the high priest, Haman, to build him a stone tower high enough so that he can mount up to heaven and confront God. The depiction of the Tower is reflective upon Kircher’s ideas on architecture, language, and religion to celebrate how modern science supports the biblical narrative.

M.C. Escher’s woodcut of the Tower depicts a more stylized geometrical structure. The point of view looking from above the tower enabled Escher to play with the use of perspective. For Escher, the top of the tower was the focal point, or the climax of the action allowing the audience to perceive his artwork from an unusual viewpoint.

Numerous well-known Tower of Babel paintings were influenced by certain existing architectural monuments. From arches and spiral pathways to dome-like roofs, many of the artists were inspired by the prominent architectural style of their time. Besides depictions through paintings, the story also was an inspiration for many avant-garde films such as the “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang.

Film still from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927)

The Tower, in the case of Metropolis, features an eclectic architectural style referencing Bauhaus Modern to Art Deco and to Expressionism. The sci-fi, black and white film shows the Tower as a grim and shady “futuristic” structure where industrial and office workers are in a never-ending loop of work cycles in the super modern maze.

Through all the different architectural stylistic portrayals of the Tower of Babel, the unrealized potential of its story continues to offer opportunities for its visualization.

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