Monday, March 18, 2013

In Defense of (Some) Skyscrapers

(Photo by Bruce Liedstrand)

I love all kinds of cities, so picking a favorite is difficult. But if I had to, I would probably pick Paris. My time there has been minimal, but it was enough to infect me with a deep admiration if the place. Paris is eminently enjoyable and delightful, and in this era of megacities it is an excellent model for places that strive to be sustainable, successful, and happy. 

Paris is admired across the globe for its architectural beauty, its civic grandeur, its vibrant range of shopping, culture, and entertainment, and its walkability. Another defining characteristics of central Paris, at least for now, is a conspicuous lack of skyscrapers. For a modern city of its large population and economic output this is a rare feature in the world. Is the a case of cause and effect, or correlation without causation?

It is difficult to say, but this is important to contemplate at this moment, because Paris is considering adding skyscrapers in its historic core. While it is hard to know if Paris' greatness is due in part to its lack of skyscrapers, there can be little doubt that the particular type of skyscrapers proposed would cause unconscionable and irreparable harm to the city. I hope that the local officials make the right decision and abandon this proposal.

The Paris of Tomorrow? Would it be as loved as the Paris of Today? (Image by Brenac et Gonzalez)
Paris is so eminently delightful, provides so much joy to so many people, and functions so well, that it should probably be left alone. I think that some people are far too averse to change, and that change can often be beneficial, but in this case it is really best to keep Paris in maintenance mode. Its evolution should be kept at a very gradual pace. Some proponents of the plan suggest that change itself is the highest goal, and claim that the fact that Paris looks the same as it did a century ago is the sign of some sort of terrible problem. This is ridiculous. Change is not the goal. Excellence is the goal, and change is merely a means toward that end.
Enjoy it while you can.
(Photo from 
Should We Ever Build Skyscrapers?

Not every place is Paris, though. Most places can change a bit without harm, and can often benefit from change. In these places, are skyscrapers worth while? Many urban thinkers that I admire, such as the great James Howard Kunstler and Leon Krier, have proposed that skyscrapers should not be built. While I understand their point of view, I respectfully disagree... and I rarely disagree with these wise fellows.
Tour Montparnasse.
Don't do this.
(Photo from Wikipedia) 

To be clear, I agree that skyscrapers don't make sense for most places. Small towns typically just don't need the large amount of office space and apartments that tall towers can hold, and outer suburban areas in metropolitan areas which are poorly served by transit should not be the focus of dense development. Most importantly, plopping one tower in the middle of a low-rise district, such the Tour Montparnasse, should never be allowed.

It is also important to note that high rises done badly have serious consequences. New York's misguided windswept plazas of the mid-twentieth century come to mind, as do the countless look-alike glass curtain wall flat top boxes that have destroyed skylines across the world. Many recent skyscrapers have terrible frontage treatments, with only the lobby entrances breaking the long stretches of blank walls along their sidewalks. Sometimes a new building is so large that is sucks up all of the demand for space for years to come, stifling future development potential for neighboring properties.

Nevertheless, I believe that tall buildings should be one of the tools in our planning toolbelt. They allow wealthy people and families to have big apartments and still live at high densities in the centers of our cities, which allows downtowns to have a full spectrum of demographic groups and enough people to support transit, retail, and a vibrant streetlife. They also allow for a strong central employment district, which can serve as an powerful economic engine and which makes a strong basis for a good transit system. Finally, they add drama and excitement to the city -- they provide a visual and symbolic focal point to important areas, they provide great views (both from them and to them), and they provide great opportunities for grand artistic expressions that make cities inspiring and loved.

Montevideo, Uruguay. The Palacio Salvo has a Parisian base, with a slender and attractive tower. Would adding buildings like this be harmful to a historic city that needed an economic boost but wanted to retain its charm?
(Photo by servicioti at
Skyscrapers Done Right

The potential benefits, when they are done well, are very significant, so I propose that these are the key factors that cities should consider when deciding if or how to allow tall buildings:

  • The Right Height for Right Spot. Before we fuss over the design of these buildings, we need to make sure they are in the right spot. Clearly, downtowns of our big cities are an obvious choice. Other nodes of activity outside of the metropolitan core, such as major transit stations, can also be good spots for modest towers. Downtowns of smaller cities can be great, too. My hometown of Fresno was building 10 to 16 story buildings in the 1920s, when the population was only about 40,000. This allowed them to have a very strong downtown and a robust streetcar system. Many other small cities in this era benefitted from modest skyscrapers as well, and we shouldn't rule them out now. 
Fresno, California in 1926. Tall buildings were an appropriate part of the this small (at the time) town.
(Photo by Pop Laval)
    • Set Heights Based on Economics. Set the height limit based in part on economic needs. Buildings need to be high enough to make development profitable and generate economic activity, but not so high that one building can suck up all of the demand for space for the foreseeable future. By studying land costs, construction costs, rents, projected growth rates, and the amount of land likely to redevelop you can begin to get a handle on what your maximum permitted building heights ought to be.
    • Don't Go Crazy. It's fair to say that the hyper-tall towers of recent years are a bit of an excess. They are inefficient and over-centralize housing and employment. We need to be more centralized these days, but you can over-do a good thing. Skyscrapers in the 10 to 40 story range (depending on context) can bring a lot of benefits to areas looking to generate streetlife, support transit, reduce sprawl, and revitalize downtowns.
    The Burj Khalifa in Dubai. At 163 stories it is cool, but a bit overboard. (Photo from Wikipedia)
    • Beauty.  Don't be weird, ugly, or out of place. Big buildings are much more visible than low rise buildings, so it is really important that they look great (to the masses, not necessarily the architects). This is crucial for maintaining public support; a couple of big, highly visible, ugly boxes may be all it takes to spark a density revolt. Compatibility is also crucial. When an area first adds towers, their scale will not fit in, so their style should fit in as much as possible.
    • Central Chicago, 1930.
      (Photo source unknown)
    • Avoid Flat Tops. Classic skyscrapers has glorious spires, cupolas, and domes. Post-war towers are boxes. Dramatic skylines were turned into featureless jumbles during the second half of the twentieth century.
    Central Chicago, Today.
    (Image from Google Earth)
      • Slender and Spaced. The first generation of skyscrapers, up until the 1930s, were largely very slim. Regulations such as New York's 1916 zoning code played a role in this, resulting in the classic wedding cake towers of that era. Part of this was due to the fact that these towers were placed within old lot and block patterns that didn't lend themselves to large sites, and the fact that natural light and air were very important in that era, forcing floorplates to be modest. Later towers became very bulky, blocking out all sunlight, creating canyons, and frankly creating ugly skylines. Vancouver limits floorplates to about 6,400 square feet (80 feet by 80 feet) and requires towers to be at least 80 feet apart. The result is high density, vibrant streetlife, lots of sunlight, and great views. It should be noted that requiring slender towers will restrict how tall buildings can rise, because taller buildings require massive amounts of elevators and other internal infrastructure. The Empire State Building has 73 elevators. Vancouver's slender towers, which tend to be in the 20 to 30 story range, often have only two.
      Vancouver, Canada enforces strict zoning rules which keep towers slender and spaced.
      • Active Frontage. While the upper part of the building should be slender, the bottom 3 to 6 floors should be built out to the street similar to the classic midrises of Paris and other pre-skyscraper cities. Whether we are dealing with two story buildings in a neighborhood center, or 30 story story buildings in the metropolitan core, the interface between the building and the sidewalk must be active. Major streets need to be lined with storefronts, and side streets can be lined with apartments with individual entrances to the sidewalk featuring stoops, porches, and similar treatments.
        Vancouver's slender towers widen at the base to create an urban street wall. (Image from Google)
      • Make a Cluster. Keeping some space between your towers can have many benefits, but you don't want them spaced so far apart that you lose the benefit of having a high density focal point in an important area. One tower here, one tower there doesn't accomplish anything. Rather, cluster towers in strategic areas, and prohibit them everywhere else. Back in the 1970s Arlington, Virginia pioneered this technique by ramping up heights and densities within a five minute walk of the newly planned Metro transit stations, and staunchly preserving adjacent low-rise residential areas.
      Arlington, Virginia clustered high rises within 1/4 mile of their Metro transit stations,
      and preserved low rise residential areas outside of these zones. (Image from Google Earth)
      • Civic Peaks. There should be a crescendo to your skyline, and the crescendo should be civic. The beloved skylines of Europe and classic American small towns are fantastic due to the juxtaposition of low rise apartment and office buildings punctuated by the civic exclamation points of churches, courthouses, and monuments. The most prominent structures were not towers of commerce, but buildings of shared public institutions. High rise cities lost this, but Los Angeles City Hall, Buffalo City Hall, the Manhattan Municipal Building, Moscow's Seven Sisters, the Eiffel Tower, and the Seattle Space Needle all provide great examples of how public structures can be translated into a tower form and regain their rightful place at the top of the pack. 
      City Hall dominated the Los Angeles skyline from 1928 until 1964. (Photo source unknown)
      • Keep a Human Touch. Shimmering glass can look nice, but I would discourage it except as an accent material. Avoid entire walls of glass and long horizontal or vertical bands of glazing. Instead, give your skyscrapers individual windows which are narrow and tall, like the classic towers of the 1920s that command our affections to this day. When we look at these buildings we immediately recognize that each of the windows is about the size of a person, which helps us process how large the building is, and it makes it feel like a home for people, not just a big HVAC unit or computer server. This can reduce the visceral negative reaction that many people developed to tall buildings in the second half of the twentieth century. Even if your town likes Modernism, do it in a way that respects this rule. We don't want to live in work in machines, we want to live and work in buildings made by people, for people.
      These rules can apply to office, residential, and buildings alike. While it is easiest for traditional architects to follow such rules, Modernist skyscrapers can also fit into this mold and contribute to a great cityscape. There are many examples from the golden age of skyscrapers, and some great examples from our era, as well. Below are a few more that I particularly like.

      Buenos Aires, Argentina
      (Photo from Wikipedia)
      Midtown Manhattan, New York in the 1930s
      (Photo source unknown)
      Manhattan Municipal Building,
      New York

      Upper West Side, New York City
      (Photo source:

      Vancouver, Canada
      Moscow, Russia
      (Photo Source: Wikipedia)
      Moscow, Russia
      (Photo Source: Wikipedia)

      Boston, Massachusetts
      (Photo Source: Boston Globe)

      So, let's not rule out moderately tall, well designed, well placed skyscrapers as one of the tools available to us as we work to inject our cities with life. They can put a lot of people right where we need them in order to achieve our economic, social, and environmental goals.


      1. Hi Dan, I happened upon your site while searching for a photo of the Los Angeles city hall as it used to appear, when I was a boy in the 1950s, against the skyline. Now it is nearly impossible to see the city hall. Developers rule but architects ought to know better. Too much self aggrandizing ego goes into their work. The skyline has certainly not improved but the air quality definitely has. The smog was miserable in those days. Big old cars with no emissions controls whatsoever. I am enjoying your blog. Your musings on skyscrapers and their influences are right on.

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