Anything You Can Build, I Can Build Better!

When building our worlds, we authors often become too focused on order and forget the inherent chaos of humanity. We arrange cities in perfect grids, ensure that there is sufficient water supply for all, and that roads make sense. These are all logical, reasonable choices. However, as a society progresses, city planning may become less important than aesthetics and ego. Sometimes, people build their mansions on the top of a hill simply because they enjoy the view and want to be seen.

Once a society reaches a certain level of development, aesthetics gain importance on a cultural level. Monuments on the scale of Chichen Itza and the Notre Dame cathedral required thousands of skilled laborers to devote years to their construction. Stone was moved immense distances. Precious metals and gems were used to decorate their facades. People undoubtedly died in accidents related to their construction. Monuments are a significant expense of time, energy, materials, and lives for a society. As such, there must be a sufficient overabundance of resources to justify opulence.

In addition, what sort of grand structures a culture chooses to build says a lot about their priorities and personality. Given limited natural resources and an unlimited human imagination, what gets built first? Discounting mercantile monuments and arenas for entertainment, I would argue that there are three major motivations that inspire societies to build grand structures.

The first is to appease the gods or to create a venue for worship of overwhelming opulence. Look at how many of the world’s most famous landmarks are tombs or churches. Build impressive structures to their honor, and perhaps the gods will favor you.

The second reason is to celebrate the greatness of an individual, an office, or an event. We carve the likenesses of leaders we wish to celebrate into the sides of mountains and build monuments in remembrance of those fallen in battle. Additionally, though we may not call the residences of modern world leaders “palaces,” they certainly are on a similar scale.

The third and final reason is pure conspicuous consumption. We want to prove to ourselves and our neighbors that we have the best stuff. If we have the biggest and shiniest monuments, palaces, and churches, we are clearly the most successful society. The Great Wall of China was hardly effective as a practical defense, but it sure looked impressive to the guy on the other side.

As a species, humans love building big, impressive structures. Some are serious, such as religious monuments, tombs, or the tributes we build to our leaders. Others are silly, an expression of an individual or community’s obsession or passion. Personally, I love that the Taj Mahal in Agra, India can exist in the same world as the world’s biggest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas. They are of very different scales and were created with very different intents, but both are very human.


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