Friday, July 03, 2009

Highrises and Urban Fabric

The opening of the Cathedral of Light near Oakland, California's Lake Merrit provides a perfect illustration of how highrises affect the urban fabric.

The first picture shows how the cathedral and nearby buildings actually look.

The second (Photoshopped) picture shows how they would look if there had been a height limit that stopped highrises and created a consistent urban fabric.

The second picture is particularly compelling because the architecture is so bad: the individual fabric buildings are modernist glass and concrete boxes with all the visual interest of a blank piece of graph paper.

But the urban design is fairly good despite the bad architecture. The facades of the individual fabric buildings are repetitive and monotonous, but the ensemble has variation of detail and placement with generally similar massing, which makes for good urban design. Because the fabric buildings have this consistency, the Cathedral stands out from the urban fabric, so it is clear at a glance that it is an important public building.

By contrast, in the first picture, the highrise overwhelms all the other buildings. If you want good urban design, you should not let the skyline be dominated by a fabric building like this - an office buildings or apartment building whose goal is to provide square footage for a repeated function.

The point here is not what the height limit should be. The point is that the height limit for fabric buildings should be consistent, allowing for different designs with generally similar massing. In Vermont towns, the fabric buildings are two-story houses and three-story commercial buildings, and the church steeple rises above the fabric. In traditional European cities, the fabric buildings were five or six stories, and the cathedral rises above the fabric. And in the second picture above, the fabric buildings are ten or twelve stories, and it still works fairly well as urban design, despite the ugly architecture.


Blogger Kent said...

Hi Charles,
What did you think of the recent Eastbay Express article about "You can't be an environmentalist if you're also a NIMBY?" The reason I am asking you is because the author (Gammon) makes the case that developers won't build anything between 70 and 140 feet in height because of the economics of needing reinforced steel upwards of 70 feet. His point is that mandating height limits of 100 or 120 feet will essentially limit any new construction to 7 stories or less. The conclusion from the article is that some very tall buildings should be allowed, perhaps in particular clusters / zones. Am interested in your feedback. And no, I don't think you're a "NIMBY"!

10:44 PM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

Kent: Did you see my opinion piece about this in the Daily Planet? It is at

6:14 PM  
Blogger WENDY said...

Could you photo shop similar high rises at Shattuck & Allston and Shattuck & Center in Berkeley? thanks, Wendy

12:02 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home