Why Do Men Build? If Freud Is To Be Believed, Father May Know Best
Jotham Sederstrom Sept. 21, 2012, 7 a.m.
We are small beings, yet Manhattan’s towers reach to the heavens.
Manhattan is a forest of enormous buildings, some simply, jaw-droppingly majestic. Big buildings surely require outsize developers, while the layman barely knows how to install a swing set.
But what moves someone to build a bigger and grander building than his neighbor? Is it all about money, or are there other factors at play? Motives vary, and very few people do things for one reason alone. For example, do therapists practice psychotherapy for the money? Yes and no. Is it for the pleasure of helping people? Is it to develop a craft? All behavior is multi-determined. And, since developers are human too, their motivations will vary depending on whom you talk to.
Boiled down, I see five good reasons why men reach for the sky.
To build a great building is to be an artist; the developer needs to know the lay of the land, how to finance it, what will work and what people need. Building big is an aesthetic. The world benefits from those with an aesthetic gift: whether it’s as a great lover, teacher, surgeon or a master developer of big buildings.
Next time you walk past a truly great building, think about what it took to put it together. It’s a work of art. Developers are not alone in this experience; many professionals and craftsmen see their job as an art form as well.
Pride and Vanity
Imagine having built a great building in the city of New York. Imagine the pride one feels: thousands of people are entering your building every day. Many have offices or homes there. They are shopping, exercising, conducting business, doing therapy and making love, all under a roof that you built.
You take pride knowing that you made this happen.
Pride is an internal experience that enriches you. You feel a sense of accomplishment and, with it, a strong sense of self. Psychologists call it “healthy narcissism”: the pleasure of knowing that you’ve done something great. It’s a wonderful human experience.
Douglas Durst, the chairman of the Durst Organization, one of the leading real estate developers in New York City, has a healthy sense of pride in his family’s legacy. “If you’re in Liberty State Park and you look north and see this building, you see 4 Times Square and the Epic, and it’s changed the skyline,” he once said. “It’s quite a thrill to see that.”
But pride can downshift to vanity.
Unlike pride, vanity is externally driven and derived from a hole inside our psyches. Vain people need to be reassured that they’re special, even though deep down they sense they’re not.
Vanity is pride’s unhappy and demanding sister.
Pride is powerful and vanity is not. I don’t care how big your building is or how rich you are. Find pride and you find power. Derail toward vanity and you’ve wasted your opportunity. Take a look at In Praise of Folly, written by a monk named Erasmus about 500 years ago. Erasmus nailed it: if you’re building to get a lot of attention, you will get it. But, what will that get you? It’s folly.
Of course, developers do it for the money, the financing, the deal, the profit. For some, it’s probably fun; for others, it’s a drive that is never satisfied. But what does money mean? After all, money is just a thing in this world. If you’ve made enough, why the relentless drive to make more? Money caries so much meaning. Perhaps early poverty or insecurities drive a man to pile up the cash, or maybe you just love competing and money is the measure.
Money is what we make of it; like self esteem, pride, vanity, competition or survival. It’s an object of value, but also of intense projection. Big buildings often make lots of money, and it’s perfectly healthy thing to want. Yet the true value of that money comes from within.
Yes, of course, New York’s big buildings can be likened to phalluses. But this clichéd image is more titillating than interesting. The real story is in just how competitive human beings—and developers—can be.
Think about it: the ancient world lacked food. Parents were preoccupied with survival, and only the most robust progeny lived. It is an ancient drive, so basic and so real. Some people feel it more than others. Our genes move us to beat our siblings, get the food and grab the alpha male’s (often Daddy’s) attention and favor.
Ted was a patient back in the day when I practiced in Washington. He had a hugely successful high-tech start up, and a big decision to make. “Should I buy my competitor and become even bigger, or sell—and take the windfall.” Objectively speaking, it was advantageous to sell, yet Ted wanted to get bigger. (Note: Let’s avoid phallic associations here, shall we?) In therapy, Ted discovered that his need to grow came from fear—and had little to do with business.
“Will anyone call me if I sell?”
Ted eventually sold, and Wall Street was impressed. The phone has not stopped ringing.
Phallic competition is competition with other men, as in who is bigger, or more important. For some, it may be an Oedipal tale of bettering one’s father. But, in my experience, phallic competition is really a battle among siblings, each unconsciously looking to be crowned the winner by his father or by a surrogate.
“My son, the doctor” jokes aside, many a man is motivated to better his dad or get his father’s approval—or both. This is an eternal archetype, which continues even after dad is gone, whether you are developing awe-inspiring buildings or raising a great family. “Daddy, am I looking good now?”
Donald Trump, whose deceased father helped him get started in the real estate industry, put it well, “Not many sons have been able to escape their fathers.”
Mr. Trump tells us a great truth.
The Immortality Project
In 1971 Ernest Becker wrote an incredible book called The Denial of Death.
His thesis: Human beings have a crazy flaw in our wiring; we know we are going to die someday. It’s strange, because we’re granted a sense of grandeur in art, sex, love and ideas that are eternal. It feels like we’re never going to die, and we don’t want to.
What Becker tells us is that the human mind is constructed in a bizarre way that simply sections off the fear of death from our everyday life. We “earn a feeling of primary value of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning [through] carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value.” In other words, we walk around feeling immortal, despite knowing that we are just the product of a putrid drop.
So, human beings deal with the fear of death by denial and the creation of “immortality projects,” a term that Becker coined.
Great buildings are immortality projects: a president has his legacy, Mozart had his music, Einstein had the theory of relativity and Steve Jobs had Apple. Our developers transcend through the greatness of these living monuments.
An image comes to mind when I think of our great buildings: a Manhattan filled with a majestic totems, old and new. And what are totems? The Australian Aborigines, the peoples of Africa and those of Pacifica built these large structures that kept their ancestors close.
We are small beings, yet these towers reach to the heavens.
If Becker is right, perhaps an unconscious motive to build big comes from an ancient source. Maybe our proud and assertive developers are also morphing themselves into ancestors of a kind, celebrating our civilization and their achievements—for better or for worse. After all, these great towering structures will outlast us all.
And for counterpoint, a line from Emily Dickinson:
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?
So let’s enjoy our great buildings and hope our developers are building them beautifully, ethically and with pleasure. And if they have moments of vanity, a bit of greed, or need to create a bigger-than-life presence in the world, then who cares? We are just human, and they are too.
Mark R. Banschick, M.D., is a psychiatrist with training from Georgetown University Medical Center and New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Medical Center. He is the author of The Intelligent Divorce book series and contributes regularly to PsychologyToday.com and divocesourceradio.com. Dr. Banshick is in private practice in Katonah, N.Y.