As of the afternoon of March 2, 2020, the Leaning Tower of Dallas leans no more. Since a February 16 implosion failed to bring it down, the eleven-story building that once stood near the city’s downtown became an object of local and national fascination, becoming an unlikely landmark that some even lobbied to make permanent. For more than two weeks it stood, attracting tourists and online tributes, all while a wrecking ball made slow and often risible work of dismantling it. And now that it’s finally been reduced to rubble, there is a palpable mourning for what was lost.
What was it that made this unflappable yet otherwise unremarkable office structure so captivating? It seems that the building and its protracted destruction symbolized something—but what? Let’s look at some candidates and see if we can divine some meaning from our grief.
This one seems like a gimme. At a time when the state of our union feels more fragile than ever—cracked along ideological lines on the inside, hammered on the outside by threats of war, recession, and disease—a solid core keeps us from toppling over completely. We remain slumped yet resilient, bruised yet upright, and always with our sense of humor intact. If this was our Leaning Tower of Pisa, then it defied nature in a distinctly American way, without all the godly presumption of Italian architecture. It was a battered Ford truck; a pair of Levi’s with patches on the knees; a John Cougar Mellencamp record with a scratch down one side. While it lived, the tower said, “I’m still here, baby—and so are we.”
Again, seems pretty obvious. Dallas is skyline-deep in gentrification at the moment, with cranes swooping in to pluck away the last carrion vestiges of its past, and leaving only hollow glass monoliths in their wake. In its former life, the eleven-story “leaning tower,” erected in 1972, was once home to the Southland Corporation, which evolved from a humble ice house storefront in Dallas into the international conglomerate that is 7-Eleven. In the nineties, the building was taken over by Affiliated Computer Services, which handled 7-Eleven’s data processing—and Affiliated itself soon grew into one of the world’s largest information technology services. The leaning tower was a reminder of the city’s proud industrious history that’s being slowly chipped away by its relentless quest for new condos and mixed-use developments.
The tower’s stubborn refusal to fall became a source of pride for the people who actually built it back in the seventies—a holdover from an age when things were still made to last. The tower’s principal designer, Thomas Taylor, explained to WFAA that they gave it a “slip-form concrete core” he compared to the trunk of a tree, joking, “Nobody ever told me to make it easy to demolish.” That core was partially designed by the late architect Pat Spillman, whose family told The Dallas Morning News how much their father would have enjoyed seeing that his building “refuse[d] to go down without a fight.” The tower could be a metaphor for an entire generation of workers—perhaps even for the value of hard work itself—which, as we’ve increasingly discovered, is not so easily replaced.
Meanwhile, you have this new generation of phone-addicted chuckleheads who spend a perfectly good workday watching a livestream of a building being torn down, sniping at each other in a chat window. Then they snare up traffic so they can take goofy pictures of themselves pretending to hold the tower up so they can post them on Instagram. Taylor’s generation built an indestructible edifice with their bare hands, using concrete and brawn. We then turned it into Miley Cyrus memes and a lawn party with food trucks and DJs. So perhaps the leaning tower was a postmodern symbol of our complete detachment from the world, an inability to engage with anything real except from behind a screen and at a suitably ironic distance. It lived. It died. We laughed and felt nothing.
But then again, what folly to assume that anything we build will last! What narcissism to believe that mankind’s achievements matter at all, our piddling ink spots scattered haphazardly across the universe’s limitless black canvas? Humanity’s existence is only a brief aberration, a blink in the cosmic lifespan, and these things we create are just crumbling sandcastles on the shoreline to be swept away in the tide.
The professor in the one art history class I took told us that all art is religious, since it inherently desires to be an expression of the sublime. God is felt in art even in his absence, she argued, because art grapples, at its center, with the ecstatic truth of our being. So maybe the Leaning Tower of Dallas was about God somehow? Perhaps it represented our crumbling faith in organized religion as an institution? Or perhaps it’s about our attempt to rid ourselves of God, and its refusal to fall represented his unconditional love … or it’s like a Tower of Babel situation? I’ll have to get back to you on this one. I got a B in that class.
The Industrial Revolution
As anyone who’s ever taken a standardized test can tell you, you’ve got a pretty good shot of snowing your way through the essay portion if you argue that something is a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution. You don’t even have to justify it, really! Most people will just nod and say, Hmm, yes and move on. So yeah, the tower represented the Industrial Revolution. Let’s go with that.
You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you? All those things you’ve had to deal with at work and from your family and friends…nobody really appreciates how hard it is for you, or acknowledges how much you put up with. But you know what? You’re fine! You’re like that tower! Life just keeps trying to tear you down, but you’re still standing, a little worse for wear, but wearing it well! Or, I mean, you were. They finally finished the job, and now you’re basically just dust. On second thought, forget it. It was just some old building.