Tuesday, October 17, 2006

High-Rises and Urban Design

It is a basic principle of traditional urban design that symbolically important buildings should be taller than utilitarian fabric buildings. This is why the we are so attracted by medieval European cities where the cathedral rises above the skyline, and by Vermont towns where the church steeple rises above the skyline. These cities and towns seem coherent and meaningful because their skylines are dominated by the institution that gives meaning to the culture.

But you cannot follow this principle when the fabric buildings are high-rises. Even though the consistent 12 to 14-story apartment buildings on the main streets upper West Side of New York are generally very appealing, much more appealing than most high-rise neighborhoods, you can see that the skyline is incoherent when the apartment buildings surround a church.

Imagine, instead, that the apartment buildings were cut off at the sixth floor, as they are in traditional European cities - so their roofs are a bit lower that the peak of the church's pitched roof and much lower than its tower. Then we would have skyline that is symbolically meaningful - not a skyline of faceless boxes.

13 Comments:

Blogger Michael Allen said...

Ah, but that skyline of meaningless boxes is the fruit of capital!

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding "High-Rises and Urban Design"

While I agree that THIS particular instance of tall background buildings and a shorter foreground building is unfortunate, I don't believe this is always the case. In fact, it seems to me that some of NYC's most beloved cityscapes are a result of just such a situation of a low-rise foreground building surrounded by high-rise background buildings. Here are some examples that come to mind:

1) TRINITY CHURCH surrounded and framed by the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, particularly those on Wall St.

2) FEDERAL HALL NATIONAL MONUMENT (originally the sub-Treasury building) on Wall St., also surrounded by the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan.

3) THE NEW YORK STOCK EXCHANGE surrounded by the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan.

4) NYC's CITY HALL (from 1812) surrounded by the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan.

5) GRACE CHURCH surrounded by taller buildings of Lower Broadway.

6) CHURCH OF THE ASCENSION(sp?), surrounded by the apartment houses of Lower Fifth Ave. (especially the wonderful 40 Fifth Ave., which I mentioned in some posts on the TradArch mailing list last spring.

7) TThe Church of the Transfiguration (a/k/a THE LITTLE CHURCH AROUND THE CORNER), surrounded by the loft buildings of Mid-town south.

8) the NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY main building, surrounded by the skyscrapers of Mid Manhattan.

9) GRAND CENTRAL TERMINAL surrounded by the skyscrapers of Mid-Manahattan (especially when the Hyatt Regency was the Hotel Commodore and wasn't clad in reflective glass).

10) THE MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY surrounded by the tall apartment houses.

I think there are other, less famous instances as well.

Also, I think it's imnportant to point out that in a number of these cases the foreground buildings aren't wonderful in spite of the the looming tall background buildings, but actually in large part because of them (e.g., the Little Church Around the Corner).

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11:20 AM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

Ben:
You make an interesting point, as always. But I have heard that Trinity Church was a much admired landmark in the nineteenth century, when its spire was the tallest structure on Wall Street, and I think the same is true of many buildings on your list. (No, I am not old enough to remember them when they were that way.)

6:32 PM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

Note that these examples are at special locations that make them visually prominent even though they are surrounded by high rises. Trinity Church terminates the view down Wall St.; Grace Church is at the bend in Broadway; the subtreasury and stock exchange are at a place where the street suddenly widens; Grand Central Station terminates the view up Park Ave. South; city hall is on city hall park, the public library on Bryant Park, and the Museum of Natural History on Central Park. (I am not familiar with the church of the Ascension or Transfiguration, which I will have to check out some day.)

When they are in special locations like this, public buildings can work as urban design even if they are surrounded by highrises, though I suspect they would work better without the highrises. For example, Trinity Church is still a prominent landmark because you see it when you look down Wall St (though it was an even more prominent and beloved landmark in the nineteenth century, when its spire was also rose above the other buildings in the area).

But for every Trinity Church, in a special location where it terminates the view down a street, there are a hundred churches in ordinary locations on the street grid, like the one in the picture, which do not work as urban design.

Even St. Patrick's Cathedral, a major landmark, does not work as urban design. Compare it with the cathedrals in traditional European cities, which rise above the urban fabric, and with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NY, which is on a special location where it terminates the view down a street.

10:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Charles,

Hi!

While it is true that Trinity Church was also an admired landmark when it was the tallest building in New York, it seems to me that it is even MORE prominent and beloved now that it has been hemmed-in and overshadowed by taller buildings. And I think the same holds true for the other landmarks that I've mentioned (although few of them ever towered over their neighborhoods to quite the same extent that Trinity Church did). That's what I meant when I said that these landmarks are wonderful in large part BECAUSE they've been overshadowed, not in spite it. (So this appears to be one area of disagreement between us.)

And while it's true that two or three of the buildings mentioned have special locations that enhance their prominence, I don't think this is really true for most of the others. Most of the other buildings mentioned don't really have special locations that affect their prominence, in my opinion. And in any case, special locations don't explain why these buildings work well -- or even better -- as civic landmarks even though they have been overshadowed by taller buildings.

Why, then, do these buildings work so well as landmarks?

It seems to me that one can be a prominent and beloved landmark by being a tall building that towers over surrounding buildings, OR one can be a prominent and beloved landmark by being a short building that is towered over by surrounding buildings. The main thing, so it seems to me, is that a prominent building be SUBSTANTIALLY DIFFERENT from the buildings that surround it. (By the way, Jane Jacobs says something similar while discussing Trintiy Church, etc., in her chapter on urban design in "Death and Life of Great American Cities.")

So, although St. Patrick's Cathedral actually works rather well (in my opinion) as urban design (being a large church set amidst large commercial structures), I think it would work even better if it were a SHORTER building (maybe more like Baltimore's cathedral or more like St. Mark's in Venice or St. Basil's in Moscow) and also one that were darker or more polychrome (to give greater contrast to the mostly limestone, with some brownstone, facades that surround it). (Of course, in reality St. Pat's was built long before any of the surrounding buildings were built. But if one were to build a St. Pat's today at that location and wanted it to stand out, that's the way to do it, so it seems to me.)

It also seems to me that it is also important that the lot-line facades of surrounding buildings have a designed or finished look to them -- and not be poorly fenestrated and ornamented, cheap brick, dead, lot-line walls. (This seems to be one of the problems with the group of buildings that were used to illustrate your post.) As I mentioned in my TradArch post last spring, for instance, one of the wonderful things about 40 Fifth Ave., so it seems to me, is that its lot-line facade is well-designed and provides a very nice backdrop to the Church of the Ascension next door.

And while a "special" location isn't necessary, in my opinion, for such overshadowed short buildings to "work" as urban design, it might be important, however, for them not to have a "bad" location -- like being on a corner and being surrounded and "ENCASED" by what is, in effect, a large "L-shaped" mass. It seems to me that this might be another one of the problems with the group of buildings in the photo used to illustrate your post.

Another example of a building being "diminished" by being encased in an "L-shaped" mass might be Carnegie Hall which was actually designed to be encased by an L-shaped mass of two, tall, income-producing "annexes." Even though these annexes are not unhandsomely designed, the resulting complex is admittedly awkward as urban design.

However, I think this illustrates yet another important point -- that proper "good looks" are not the be all and end all of urbanism and that an over concern for good urban design can, indeed, be detrimental to good urbanism. Sometimes it can be just as useful -- and maybe even better -- for an important civic landmark to be an ungainly, but dense mixed-use building (towered over by rehearsal studios and apartments), than for it to be a "pretty-pretty" "City Beautiful" building in a "proper" setting (like those fancy "City Beautiful" pastries on a tray structures criticised by Jane Jacobs in the "Introduction" (?) to "Death and Life of Great American Cities").

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8:45 PM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

Ben:
Thanks for your comments.

I certainly don't want a pretty-pretty city-beautiful design. And I don't want one architect designing an entire complex of buildings, as they do city-beautiful designs.

I do want a design like traditional European cities. That means there is a great diversity in the design and function of fabric buildings, but that their height is limited so symbolically important buildings rise above them.

That pattern gives us good urban design generally, not just in some cases.

And that pattern certainly is not detrimental to good urbanism in the European cities that still have their traditional skyline, and it was certainly not detrimental to good urbanism in 19th century New York.

Finally, that pattern produces a coherent skyline that has symbolic meaning. It does not produce the jumble of faceless high rises that you see when you look at the skylines of most American cities today.

(Incidentally, what would you say about St. Patrick's Cathedral? I don't think that it is good urban design, and I don't think that any of your explanations tells us why it is not good urban design. My explanation is that the symbolically important building is lost in a sea of taller fabric buildings.)

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Charles wrote:

I certainly don't want a pretty-pretty city-beautiful design. And I don't want one architect designing an entire complex of buildings, as they do [in] city-beautiful designs.

I do want a design like traditional European cities. That means there is a great diversity in the design and function of fabric buildings, but that their height is limited so symbolically important buildings rise above them.

Benjamin writes:

Of course everyone is entitled to their own likes and dislikes, so you are certainly entitled to yours.

My point, however, was that although surrounding an important civic structure with taller buildings can result in an unpleasant cityscape that also diminishes the smaller civic structure (as shown in your photo), such is not necessarily the case with such an arrangement. Actually, such an arrangement can be very pleasant and can even make the smaller civic structure more prominent, rather than less. And, in fact, a good number of New York City's most beloved cityscapes, indeed, contain just such an arrangement.

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Charles Siegel wrote:

That pattern [where the height of buildings are limited so that symbolically important buildings rise above the others] gives us good urban design generally, not just in some cases.

And that pattern certainly is not detrimental to good urbanism in the European cities that still have their traditional skyline, and it was certainly not detrimental to good urbanism in 19th century New York.

Benjamin Hemric writes:

Using this logic we would never have most of the wonderful modern-day cityscapes of New York City (e.g., a Trinity Church surrounded by skyscrapers, Broadway, Rockefeller Center, etc.). These are cityscapes for a modern-day citiy and they actually work and are much beloved.

While the kind of urban design you suggest may have worked in the past, it is not the only kind of good urban design that is possible, and in modern days such an approach to urban design would have been economic stultification (or strangulation?) to a city like New York.

Why should modern day cities be held back and economically stultified (or choked) so that they can fit into the mold of the pre-skyscraper cities of the past? Why not look at what works and does not work in modern day American cities instead?

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Charles Siegel wrote:

Finally, that pattern produces a coherent skyline that has symbolic meaning. It does not produce the jumble of faceless high rises that you see when you look at the skylines of most American cities today.

Benjamin Hemric:

I think you are confusing two different issues here: 1) tall buildings and small civic strutures and 2) boxy, faceless, Bauhaus-inspired tall buildings and a city's skyline. The Trinity Tower Buildings, the Irving Trust Building (these are three of the buildings around Trinity Church); the Standard Oil and Cunard Buildings (overlooking the low-rise Custom House); the Lincoln Building, the Chanin Building, the Chrysler Building and the Graybar Building (four of the buildings surrounding Grand Central Terminal); Forty Fifth Ave. (next to the Church of the Ascension); etc. (and even the SONY, nee ATT Building, the Citicorp Building, etc.) are high rises but they are not boxy and faceless -- and they make wonderful contributions to the skyline of NYC.

Faceless, boxy high-rises are faceless boxy high-rises because they are "faceless" and "boxy" (and the product of orthodox modernism), not because they are high rises.

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Charles Siegel wrote:

Incidentally, what would you say about St. Patrick's Cathedral? I don't think that it is good urban design, and I don't think that any of your explanations tells us why it is not good urban design. My explanation is that the symbolically important building is lost in a sea of taller fabric buildings.

Benjamin Hemric writes:

Of course, everyone is entitled to their own tastes, and apparently our tastes are different here.

As I wrote earlier, I think that St. Pat's and the buildings around it work fairly well as urban design. The key to their working well as urban design is contrast -- the contrast in function (God vs. Mammon) and the contrast in architectural styles (neo-Gothic vs. Beaux-Arts classicism and, more recently, Bauhaus modernism). (In her chapter on urban design in "Death and Life . . .," Jane Jacobs points out the importance of contrast with regard to Trinity Church and the buildings that surround it.)

I think however that St. Patrick's and the buildings around it would work even better as urban design if the contrasts were even more pronounced -- i.e., if St. Patrick's had been a shorter, squatter cathedral (like the one in Baltimore) or if the buildings around it were even much taller than they are now, or if St. Pat's and the buildings around it differed more in terms of color and building materials.

(Interestingly, by the way, St. Pat's was still taller, I believe, than all but one of the buildings directly surrounding it until relatively recently. The taller buildings to the north, east and south were only built around 1976, 1982 and 1990, respectively.)

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7:52 PM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

Ben:
Thanks again for your comments. I will just make a couple of points.

First, traditional urban design does work in some contemporary European cities and does not stultify them economically, as you claim.

Second, most people would agree that high-rise neighborhoods are faceless and impersonal, regardless of whether the design is modern or traditional. There is an explanation of the reason for this in
http://preservenet.blogspot.com/2006/11/why-high-rises-seem-faceless-and.html

New York was the first city to go high-rise, so people there were impressed with the dramatic contrasts when they first appeared. As the rest of the world's cities go high-rise, those dramatic contrasts become more common, and they look less special and more like an unpleasant portent of a less human future.

4:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Charles wrotes:

First, traditional urban design does work in some contemporary European cities and does not stultify them economically, as you claim.

Benjamin writes:

How would one know that such cities have not been stultified? Maybe such cities would have grown even more without such regulations -- or maybe such cities would not have grown more even without such regulations (i.e., maybe they've grown about as much as they would have grown anyway)? One never really knows.

However, such a comment about contemporary European cities misses my point: that existing skyscraper cities, like New York City, would indeed have been stultified (and visually boring, too) if some urban design experts had decided that no skyscrapers could be built taller than, or at some distance from, the old buildings that these urban design experts personally liked and had chosen as urban design landmarks.

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Charles wrote:

. . . most people would agree that high-rise neighborhoods are faceless and impersonal, regardless of whether the design is modern or traditional. There is an explanation of the reason for this in
http://preservenet.blogspot.com/2006/11/why-high-rises-seem-faceless-and.html

Benjamin writes:

We disagree here. I don't think that "most" people find high-rise neighorhboods of traditionally designed buildings to be "faceless" at all!

But even if "most" people did, the fact of the matter is that a great many "other" people like such environments to such a degree that such areas are very popular and much beloved (and command premium rents) -- and this is not a transitory phenomenon, but has been true now for about a hundred years.

Regarding the arguments presented in the thread about Jan Jehl's book "Life Between Cities": I've been meaning to comment on that thread for a while, but haven't had the time so far. But hopefully I will get the time soon and will post in that thread directly.

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Charles wrote:

New York was the first city to go high-rise, so people there were impressed with the dramatic contrasts when they first appeared. As the rest of the world's cities go high-rise, those dramatic contrasts become more common, and they look less special and more like an unpleasant portent of a less human future.

Benjamin writes:

While New York City was among the first cities to go high-rise, this has nothing to do with the fact that people TODAY find the contrasts to be enjoyable. Its beloved cityscapes are a new type of urban design -- and one that is more in tune with the realities of modern life (e.g., where a landmark "Cathedral of Commerce" is indeed, in reality, more "important" to civic life than a civic remnant from the 19th or 18th centuries).

(P.S. -- Please excuse the name change, but I had problems logging in and had to open a different account.)


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Sunday, December 17, 2006

7:10 PM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

Ben: Let me respond to your final comment:

Ben writes:
"While New York City was among the first cities to go high-rise, this has nothing to do with the fact that people TODAY find the contrasts to be enjoyable."

CS writes:
I don't think this is true. People were very impressed with Trinity Church in the early 20th century, because there was nothing like that contrast anywhere else in the world. Now it is commonplace to see old churches overshadowed by highrises, and I don't think people are as impressed with Trinity Church or with the canyons of Wall Street today as they were in the 1950s.

Ben writes:
"a new type of urban design -- and one that is more in tune with the realities of modern life (e.g., where a landmark "Cathedral of Commerce" is indeed, in reality, more "important" to civic life than a civic remnant from the 19th or 18th centuries)."

CS writes:
Here we get to the heart of the issue. Notice that my description of this blog, which appears on each page, says: "This is a blog about the limitations of modernism and economic growth."

You are embracing an esthetic that uncritically accepts - and, in fact, celebrates - modernism and economic growth, symbolized by those "cathedrals of commerce" - an esthetic that dates back to the early twentieth century.

I think we have reached a point where we need to think critically about growth and to put political limits on growth.

A skyline dominated by those "cathedrals of commerce" symbolizes an economy and society that considers growth the most important thing - just as you say, it symbolizes the fact that the highrise office buildings are more important to "modern life" than civic buildings.

A skyline where public buildings rise above fabric buildings symbolizes a society that limits growth and considers other aspects of life more important than making money. I think that, if we are going to survive, we will have to move beyond the growth-mania that dominated "modern life." By "modern life," you mean the life of the twentieth century, which will not get us through the twenty-first century.

So, the esthetic difference actually comes down to a difference about what is a good life and a good society - as is often the case.

6:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Charles wrote:

Now it is commonplace to see old churches overshadowed by highrises, and I don't think people are as impressed with Trinity Church or with the canyons of Wall Street today as they were in the 1950s.

Benjamin writes:

Of course everyone is entitled to their own personal likes and dislikes (especially on one's own blog!) but in order to clarify where the actually disagreement lies: 1) I don't think this arrangement (i.e., a church, etc. surrounded by tall MODERN TRADITIONAL skyscrapers) is quite all that commonplace today; but 2) even it it were, it seems to me that, even today, many people (with, obviously, a different philosophical outlook than yourself) find a church, etc. being surrounded by tall modern traditional skyscrapers to be an enjoyable, and philosophically legtimate, aesthetic alternative to a church towering over low-rise buildings.

- - - - -

Charles wrote:

I think we have reached a point where we need to think critically about growth and to put political limits on growth.

A skyline dominated by those "cathedrals of commerce" symbolizes an economy and society that considers growth the most important thing - just as you say, it symbolizes the fact that the highrise office buildings are more important to "modern life" than civic buildings.

A skyline where public buildings rise above fabric buildings symbolizes a society that limits growth and considers other aspects of life more important than making money. I think that, if we are going to survive, we will have to move beyond the growth-mania that dominated "modern life."

By "modern life," you mean the life of the twentieth century, which will not get us through the twenty-first century.

So, the esthetic difference actually comes down to a difference about what is a good life and a good society - as is often the case.

Benjamin writes:

It is interesting to note how very different your "Preservationist" viewpoint, both economic and aesthetic, is from the Jane Jacobs viewpoint.

(By the way, for anyone reading this thread who may be interested in a fuller understanding of Jacobs' economic viewpoint, it is important, I think, to not just read "Death and Life of Great American Cities." However, "Death and Life . . . ," particularly the chapter on urban design, does give a pretty good expression of her viewpoint on urban design.)

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

12:27 PM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

As much as I admire Jane Jacobs, we have to remember that she published Death and Life in 1961, about a half-century ago, at a time when America's per capita national income was less than half of what it is now, at a time when no one had ever heard of global warming.

At the time, it did make some sense to admire economic dynamism and urban design that expresses that dynamism. But now we should be looking forward to how the world could be after economic growth ends.

5:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course you are free to disagree with Jane Jacobs -- afterall, it is your blog! But for the sake of clarity a few things should be pointed out.

In addition to "Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961), Jacobs has written six subsequent books, which essentially expand and elaborate upon what she wrote in the first one. Her books are not oblivious to the issues you raise, but address them directly.

So I suggest that anyone interested in an alternative viewpoint on ecology, economies and cities look them up -- especially "The Economy of Cities," "Cities and the Wealth of Nations," "The Nature of Economies" and "Dark Age Ahead."

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

3:06 PM  

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