Architecture as anthill madness

Artistic echoes of a primordial cultural project gone awry, but to this day remembered, resonant, and perhaps—in the beauty both of our varied tongues and non-disastrous buildings—redeemed.


The Tower of Babel is a vision of architecture as anthill madness. As the British Museum’s exhibition Babylon: Myth and Reality reveals, Brueghel is not the only artist driven to imagine this fabulous building. Towers of Babel proliferate in this show, be they painted with miniaturist precision or exploding in apocalyptic doom; there’s even one made of shoes, in a 2001 painting by Michael Lassel. Martin van Heemskerk’s, however, is square, in keeping with old sources he studied, but his attempt to visualise what the tower was “really” like does not stop him showing its top smashed apart by divine lightning. In an anonymous Dutch painting—one of a series that riff on Brueghel—the city that surrounds the tower is on fire, the summit of the hubristic edifice menaced by an eerie light coming through the storm clouds. Perhaps the strangest is by Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century scholar whose light, airy spiral looks prophetically modern, like a blueprint for a skyscraper.

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