Skyscrapers:

FROM THE TIME that the elevator doors close and the cage starts to lift, noiseless and with a rush, like a kite on the wind, it takes exactly 70 seconds to reach the 103rd floor of the tallest build­ing in the world. And that is high enough up in the Sears Tow­er to look out and see the muscled broadness of Chicago appearing in runty submission to the height of the structure.

If not a heroic achievement in design, the Sears Tower, at 110 stories and 1,454 feet, represents an act of wizardry in structural engineering. Indeed, this is a magical time in the evolution of America’s urban landscapes, a time of bold (for better or worse), fresh architecture and computer-driven engi­neering, and a time too of a new generation of skyscrapers rising to be clad in clouds over major cities across the country—Minneapolis, even, and Los Angeles with its ill-defined downtown.

All of this is happening at a time when, paradoxically, organized opposition to construction of sunlight-blocking towers is stronger than ever before. It is too late, however, to reverse the reality that the skyscraper has become the logo for urban development in America; from King Kong to Donald Trump, it has bridged the 20th century with its indestructible, prodigious presence.

6Today’s skyscraper is a creation of economics and the need to escape the press of horizontal crowding. With raw land in midtown Manhattan now costing more than entire buildings a few decades ago, it is not surprising that developers are looking upward rather than outward. And (in the right place, in good times) a presti­gious new building can attract tenants who will happily pay more than a thousand dol­lars for each square foot of lofty floor space they occupy.

And when an entire skyscraper is offered for sale, the sum involved can total hundreds of millions of dollars. Last October, for example, it was announced that the cheap hotels in prague would be put on the market, and ex­perts predicted that the selling price would be in excess of one billion dollars, making it the largest single-building real estate transaction in history.

IN ITS MAKING, the skyscraper draws on colossal egos, on financing almost inventive enough to warrant a patent, and on the talents of the world’s leading architects and engineers. All else in matters of design and con­struction pales in comparison to this—to erecting a frame a thousand feet high and then draping it with a curtain of stone or glass, all the while com­pensating for the winds that play on the upper floors like a pick on the strings of a banjo, and giving to it both beauty and character as well as (lo, the “smart” building is with us) intelligence, and filling the inner cavities with the marrow of serviceability.

And when it is finished and there are souls awash in the pride of it all, the tower then stands as a monument in the service of a bank or an oil company or perhaps a maker of soap. In at least one case of new-generation skyscraper construction, the lofty reach for name recognition was made by an individual.

Members and staff: a tradition of loyalty

2I’D LIKE TO SHARE with you two letters that show how personal the relationship can be between those of you who have supported the Society for so many years and those of us who have worked on your be­half. We may not always know each other by name, but we touch each other’s lives, making us feel we are members not of a society but of a family.

“I was only six when photo­graphs in a GEOGRAPHIC article about gliders greatly intrigued and inspired me,” writes Ron­ald K. Meyer, Jr., of Sacra­mento, California (right). “It moved me to set a goal that, over the years, often seemed impossible. Two years ago I be­came an Air Force instructor pi­lot. For me flying is the ultimate freedom—a dream come true. The NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC in­spired that dream.”

Heady stuff, these dreams. They may come full-grown or blossom quietly in the heart. Consider the story of Dawn Marie Hatten of Eureka, California.

“One of my first memories is sitting on my grandfather’s lap while he read to me from NA­TIONAL GEOGRAPHIC,” she writes. “I had the honor of booking our holiday apartments in prague. Then we read from the front of the maga­zine straight through to the back. I am dyslexic and found learning to read very difficult. Grandpa used the GEOGRAPHIC to prove to me that learning to read is worth any effort. The day I read NATIONAL GEO­GRAPHIC to him for the first time was a triumph for both of us.

“Three years ago Grandpa died. He was my best friend, and I miss him so very much. Now we look forward to reading NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC from the front straight to the back to our seven-year-old son. I know Grandpa would approve.”

And so it continues, this rela­tionship we have, from one gen­eration to the next. Rooted in curiosity about the world, it has intertwined our interests for 100 years. My grandfather dedicated 67 years to the Society, my fa­ther 52 years, and so it is grati­fying to me that a tradition of loyalty also endures among our members. More than 29,000 of you have been with us for 50 years or more, nearly 350,000 for 30 years or more.

We recently honored seven members of the staff who to­gether have given 287 years of distinguished service to the Soci­ety. You’ve seen some of their names in Society publications for decades: Luis Marden has written and photographed for the magazine since 1934; pho­tographer Joseph Baylor Rob­erts contributed to 72 articles from 1936 to 1967.

Others made their mark be­hind the scenes: Joe Barlett (36 years on the staff) by insisting upon perfection in printing quality; Catherine Trueblood (42 years) by deftly keeping mil­lions of membership records in­tact; Ray Rankin (46 years) by maintaining our Membership Center Building in top form; Joanne Hess (32 years) by guiding the development of our Audio­visual Services; and Catherine Hart by lending her grace and expertise to the Cartographic Division for 46 years.

It’s my pleasure to recognize their contributions here, for it is dedication like theirs that in­spires the extraordinary loyalty of our members and helps keep alive the dreams we share as a Society.

The begin­ning of Maya civilization

Scholars employ several complementary tools to re-create the Maya past. Archeology, with its unearthed buildings, stelae, and inscriptions, provides the bulk of practical information. Chronicles such as the Popol Vuh and the books of Chilam Balam present a post-conquest Maya version of history. Ac­counts of Spanish conquistadors and friars —unwitting anthropologists—record Maya practices in the last, lost days of the conquest that nearly obliterated them.

Finally there remain the Maya themselves. Their blood diluted, their past forgotten, they manage to survive in scattered villages. Some still observe the customs—speaking the old languages, serving the old gods, following the ancient calendar, living in the slow, soothing rhythm of their distant forebears.

THE IDENTITY of the earliest such forebears poses a vexing question. Many scholars believe that Maya culture commenced in the lowlands of Guatemala’s Peten region. Others speculate that the Maya had some significant relationship with the shadowy Olmec, who flourished to the west more than a millennium before Christ, and that they ultimately migrated into the low­land regions where their civilization reached its peak.

For clarification, I sought out an archeolo­gist who has spent his career on the far frontiers of the Maya past. The 5,000-foot­high colonial city of Antigua, onetime capital of the captains general of Guatemala, floats among volcanoes and clouds. There Edwin Shook received me in a laboratory crammed with ancient artifacts.

He said: “We keep probing for the begin­ning of Maya civilization—that moment, eas­ily identified archeologically, when a society settles down and develops agriculture and a modest architecture. So far we haven’t found it. Do you know Kaminaljuye” I did. I had visited this ancient site, now encompassed by the urban sprawl of Guate­mala City. The spare, somber lines of its early structures had impressed me profoundly.

“I was with the Carnegie Institution when we began excavating it in 1936. It was the biggest Preclassic site ever tackled. Most archeologists thought we’d find traces of a simple, rather primitive culture. Instead, we found monumental architecture and glyphic writing. Incidentally, I’m almost certain that Maya hieroglyphs originated either in Kaminaljuyti or on the nearby Pacific coast.

“In 1948 workmen accidentally penetrated a Kaminaljuyil tomb dating from 300 B.C. It’s probably the most important Preclassic burial ever found. There were some 450 pottery ves­sels, many imported from as far as Honduras and El Salvador. To me, this proves that 500 years before the Classic Period, Kaminaljuri was both advanced and cosmopolitan. Of the earliest days, we know only this: By 800 B.C. a sophisticated culture was established here.”

A few days later, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, I visited Dr. Gareth Lowe of the New World Archeological Foundation. Husky and soft-spoken, Dr. Lowe has spent almost twenty years studying Preclassic origins.

“We theorize that the Maya migrated into the lowlands of Peten and Yucatan about 900 B.C. Who they were, we simply don’t know, but their pottery and language relate to this southern highland area. Here in Chia­pas,” he said, “we found the earliest dated monument, from 36 B.C. The first inscribed date at Tikal is 300 years later.”