'We're bit of an odd bunch," Dylan Leblanc tells me on the phone from Victoria. "A lot of people … say none of their friends cared. But then they find our site on the Internet, and it's like they found their people. They fit in. They belong with us."
He pauses for a moment.
"Some guys like cars, some guys like planes and some guys like skyscrapers."
Indeed, they do. As it has for so many other constituencies, the Internet has provided a home for the world's wandering tribes of skyscraper fans. And Leblanc would know, since, for the past decade, he has played host to them like few others.
His site, the venerable SkyscraperPage, is something of a monument in its own right. There are plenty of sites out there that, like SkyscraperPage, provide a forum for guys - and it is mostly guys - to bicker over skylines and the relative merits of the large, pointy objects that populate them. But what's the point of obsessing over large, pointy objects if you can't whip them out and measure their comparative heights?
That's the particular genius of SkyscraperPage. The site hasn't merely compiled a database of skyscrapers; it has built up a database of 22,000 custom-made skyscraper drawings, each and every one meticulously drawn to the same scale of 1 pixel per metre.
This means that a schematic skyline for any major city can be punched up from the database, spreading every office complex, high-rise hotel and tourist-trap tower across the screen like a police lineup. Better still, this being a database, you can query across cities and countries, learning all kinds of things you never knew you didn't know.
Did you know, for instance, that the second-tallest structure in Canada is actually a notoriously large smokestack in Sudbury, which would loom over downtown Toronto and reach most of the way up the CN Tower? Did you know that in Dubai, where the tallest building in the world is under construction (its diagram won't even fit on my screen), they've drawn up plans for an even taller one? Or that, when you compare the skylines of, say, Winnipeg and Tulsa, Okla., it becomes immediately clear that Winnipeg needs to get with the program?
These facts are of unending fascination to some of us. This might account for the fact that those 22,000 drawings were drawn by the site's users; SkyscraperPage was using user-submitted illustrations before user-submitted content was cool. The drawings themselves are all rendered as flat elevations, without any perspective, as if they were being viewed from a great distance through a telephoto lens. At the same time, they're usually rendered with the kind of gorgeous, maniacal detail that only a hobbyist could crank out. It gives the drawings an adorable collect-them-all kind of look; the whole site has a distinctive aesthetic to call its own.
As he tells the story, Leblanc, now 30, was a young programmer who was reading over encyclopedia entries about skyscrapers in 1997. To help visualize them, he drew their heights in bar-graph form. These eventually became silhouettes, and the silhouettes became illustrations that found their way onto the young Web, and were eventually bundled into a database. And, as databases will, it grew, until it became a global destination for skyscraper enthusiasts.
And today, the site is busy trying to become something else entirely: a global agency for amateur skyscraper artists. Like prospectors seeing gold in them thar hills, Leblanc and his 25-year-old business partner, Mike Kozakowski, see licensing opportunities in that thar database. For starters, the site peddles a growing number of skyscraper posters, assembling various favourites into all-star configurations.
But what really seems to have captured their attention is the possibility of supplying other publications with their art. A few years ago, they sold their first skyscraper drawing to the august pages of The Globe and Mail's Report on Business Magazine, no less. Since then, their schematics have run in the likes of Wired, Condé Nast and National Geographic's website. Whenever someone needs a diagram of a skyscraper - stat! - they want to be there, offering the goods, taking a cut and passing a share on to the artist. There are 600 artists signed up with the site, about half of whom are active, Leblanc says. (They won't say exactly what that split is, noting that they negotiate with their artists individually.)
Kozakowski says there's a demand for the service, with the caveat that many would-be clients might not have thought about online skyscraper-diagrams-on-demand services in the first place. "We're creating our own demand at this point," he notes.
SkyscraperPage celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. Ten years is a long time on the Internet. To put that in perspective, consider another small website that just celebrated its 10th birthday last week: Google. SkyscraperPage may not be worth $128-billion (U.S.), have indexed the sum of human knowledge and been credited with increasingly mediating reality as we know it. But it's making enough money by selling little pictures of skyscrapers to keep its staff of two in their office.
As behemoths like Google have risen from nowhere and transformed the world, SkyscraperPage has plugged gently along, doing its thing, giving skyscraper fans a place to do theirs, and generally being the kind of site that makes the Web worthwhile in the first place. That's an achievement to look up to, right there.