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By Jonathan Lowe

August 2008

by Jonathan Lowe

The building of skyscrapers is a perilous but heady endeavor. For the site of the World Trade Center, a Freedom Tower is now being designed by the same architect who drafted the Burj Dubai, the current world's tallest building. And a futuristic mile high tower, (once envisioned as theoretically possible by Frank Lloyd Wright), is also being proposed by a rich oil sheik in Saudi Arabia. So the skyscraper race is "on" once again, just as it was almost a century ago. To hear how that first race was conducted, I recommend the audiobook HIGHER by former agent and editor Neal Bascomb, as read with documentary aplomb by veteran stage actor Richard Davidson. It details the rivalry between two architects, William Van Alen and Craig Severance, as they plotted to outdo each other in the construction of the Chrysler Building and the Manhattan Company Building in the late 1920s in New York. Ultimately, both men were defeated by William A. Starrett, an architect on the Empire State Building in 1931. (That building remained highest in the world until 1972.) As Starrett put it, "Building skyscrapers is the nearest peace-time equivalent of war," since many trades are involved in what consists of building a vertical city on a timeline requiring utmost coordination, while safety is granted the narrowest of margins. One misstep, one unexpected strong breeze, and hoisted steel could launch an unwary worker off a girder, if not crush him. Bascomb's account is embellished with the color of the times, including the Great Depression, which didn't stop construction, but rather goaded it on to quicker completion. Both corporate financiers and their competing designers and engineers are profiled, while the experience of the trades people actually doing the grim work for low pay is conveyed as though their toil possessed grander purpose than simply to erect monuments to the egos of their employers. A few facts: A secret 185' spire was hoisted and placed atop the Chrysler Building near the end of its race with Severance, to claim the title for the 77 floor building whose facade is reminiscent of a car's radiator grill. (Exactly 391,831 rivets were placed in the building's framework.) The 70 floor Manhattan Company Building was struck by a Coast Guard plane at the 58th floor in 1946, when four were killed. The building was sold to Donald Trump in 1995. Another plane, this time a B-25 bomber, also struck the 102 floor Empire State Building in 1945 at the 79th floor level, but the building was only closed briefly. Originally, the building was designed to have a landing dock for airships, but after a trial docking maneuver in strong, cold winds at the 1250' level, those plans were scrapped. Although Faye Ray doesn't look cold with King Kong at the summit! (Recorded Books; 11 hours unabridged)

Next, if your only aspiration is to be a beach bum, it helps to have either a tidy investment portfolio featuring energy futures, or maybe a rich uncle whose real estate isn't owned by Fannie Mae. In THE DAWN PATROL by Don Winslow, the beach bum hero Boone Daniels is a sometimes P.I. like Magnum, with a benefactor to support his surfing lifestyle in San Diego (rather than Honolulu), and an occasional job to keep him in fish tacos. His sidekicks include five friends affectionately known as the "Dawn Patrol" because they like to get up early to scout for waves. Although the waves in southern California aren't as big as those on the north shore of Oahu, neither are Boone's ambitions, although he does have a hidden need for redemption involving an abducted and abused girl named Rain, whom he wasn't able to save while a San Diego cop. In the climax at the end of the novel Boone is given a chance to "make up" for that obsessed moment in his life, but in the meantime there are a lot of character studies and observations to be made about everyone he knows and everywhere he frequents. This is as much a people and place novel as it is a mystery or thriller, centered around Boone being hired by a sexy attorney named Petra to find a stripper whose testimony she needs to defend her law firm from a sleazeball nightclub owner. Wry observations are made at every turn, in a not unsuccessful attempt at endearing you to the characters, although why we need to be tour-guided in the history and evolution of Boone's environs at times seems questionable. Winslow is obviously not writing according to formula in the way James Patterson does, which oddly works to his favor, since the book slowly begins to work on you. Just don't expect the unexpected twists, false turns and relentless plotting of your typical mystery. These are just some laid back beach bums with an attitude, a bent toward territorial defense, and a creed known as loyalty. What happens is similar to real life, not pulp fiction, and in the voice of actor Ray Porter, whose skeptical tone and in-the-know style also presented "The Four Hour Work Week," it's a marriage made in heaven. Boone and his buddies don't want to work a forty hour week, they'd rather catch waves. Gather Magnum, Boone, Winslow, Tim Ferriss, Porter, and the editor who bought this book, and you'll probably discover they all hold that philosophy, either outwardly or secretly. Workaholics - or serial killer fans - need not apply to the Dawn Patrol. (Blackstone Audio; 9 hours unabridged)

Finally, Peter Senge is an MIT lecturer whose book "The Fifth Discipline" was called one of best business books of all time. His new book is THE NECESSARY REVOLUTION, which embraces change as the model for the 21st Century by proposing that what America needs now is quite different than what we expected it would back in the 20th. Our past strategy of compete-to-dominate is over. With the new world more and more a closed system, we share the air with many new consumers and markets, who are also new polluters. According to Senge, we cannot afford to continue to perceive the world in the same way that we did, because change is being forced upon us, and it is much better to anticipate and plan for that change than to dig in and wait for some giant dinosaur to collapse on top of us. In an increasingly interdependent world, what is most necessary is to cooperate. Ways to achieve cooperation for a sustainable business environment are outlined here, with examples of what is already happening around the world. Inspiring and insightful, the audiobook is co-authored by Bryan Smith, president of Broad Reach Innovations; Nina Kruschwitz, manager of the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook project; plus Joe Laur & Sara Schley, cofounders of the SoL Sustainability Consortium. The book is narrated by actor Patrick Frederic, while author Peter Senge is also featured. (Random House Audio; 6 hours abridged)

2008 Past Columns

David Baldacci / Mar Reviews

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