Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Transamerica Pyramid and the Empire State Building

San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic, John King, recently wrote an article about the success of the Transamerica Pyramid. When it was proposed forty years ago, King says, Progressive Architecture called it "insensitive, inappropriate, incongruous," and Newsweek said it would "wrong in any city" and "particularly wrong in ... San Francisco." But today, it has become a beloved icon on the San Francisco skyline.

We can see the limits of King's vision - and the limits of modernist architecture - by comparing two icons: New York's Empire State building, which was designed in the 1920s, when principles of traditional urbanism and architecture were still influential, and San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid, designed at a time when modernist urbanism and architecture had taken over completely.

The illustration below shows a view of the Empire State from across the street. It obviously fits into the surrounding urban fabric and creates a place that is interesting and attractive to pedestrians.

The next illustration shows a view of the Transamerica Pyramid from across the street. It obviously tears a hole in the urban fabric and creates a place that is uninteresting and unattractive for pedestrians.

This is particularly sad, because it was built right next to San Francisco's historic Jackson Square district, shown in the next illustration. The very appealing, fine-grained urban fabric of Jackson Square shown below is right across the street from the view of the pyramid shown above - as if this one block of Washington Street were designed to show the contrast between human-scale traditional urbanism and anti-human modern urbanism.

Now, let's step back to the medium distance and look at these two buildings from a few blocks away.

The Empire State building stands out because of its size, but it also fits in with the architecture of the surrounding neighborhood.

The Transamerica pyramid looks like an alien that was dropped into the surrounding neighborhood from outer space.

The Empire State building fits in, despite its large size, because its overall massing is divided into smaller sub-masses. By contrast, the Transamerica Pyramid is a simple geometric figure - an example of what Nikos Salingaros calls "geometrical fundamentalism."

Both Salingaros and Christopher Alexander have argued persuasively that large buildings that people find appealing have always been designed with intermediate scales like this, which mediate between the mass of the entire building and the mass of smaller elements such as windows. They claim that we like these buildings because the same sort of range of scales occurs in nature: for example, a tree has a massive trunk, large boughs, medium size branches, and small branches, and it would look very strange if it just had the massive trunk and small branches without the intermediate scales.

Modernist buildings usually lack this intermediate scale: typically, a building with a glass-curtain wall is a big slab with a steel frame dividing it into glass windows, and with no masses mediating between the building as a whole and the individual windows. Early modernists defended these slabs on the grounds that they were functional, but an odd-shaped building does not have this defense: the sloping walls of the pyramid make its spaces more difficult to use and are dysfunctional.

Now, let's step back to the far distance. There is no need for pictures, because everyone knows that both of these buildings became icons because of their distinctive silhouette on the horizon. In fact, any building that is the tallest building in a city and that has a distinctive shape will become an icon, whether the Transamerica Pyramid, the Empire State building, or the Capitol dome in Washington.

I think it is best for the building that dominates the skyline to be an important public building, like the Capitol dome, or like the cathedral of a traditional European city. No office building could have the symbolic resonance of this sort of iconic public building.

But there can be an immense difference in the quality of iconic office buildings that dominate the skyline. The Empire State building works as an icon on the distant skyline, and it also works when you are a few blocks away from it or across the street from it. The Transamerica Pyramid works as an icon on the distant skyline, but it does not work for people who are near it.

Yet the only picture in King’s article shows the pyramid as it appears on the distant skyline. He very briefly mentions its connection with the surrounding neighborhood, but even then, he thinks of it as a sort of a modernist sculpture to be viewed with esthetic detachment, and he does not think about whether it creates a good place for the people who actually use the spaces right around it.

This is a common flaw in King's criticism and in most of today's architecture criticism. For example, look at another review that King wrote about a new parking structure at Click on the pictures in that review to enlarge them, and you will see that anyone walking by it on the sidewalk will experience this garage as a bleak glass-and-concrete wall; it is hard to imagine worse urbanism. But King calls it "an urban-scaled work of sculptural art" with an "abstract modern design." He loves the parking garage because he thinks of it purely as an artsy sculptural object. He doesn't care about whether it creates a good place for people to be.

In the last forty years, architecture has moved backward as urban design has moved forward. During the 1970s, post-modernist architecture critics were criticizing some of the same obvious flaws of modernism that I mention here by saying that architecture should be aware of its context. When Progressive Architecture called the Transamerica Pyramid "insensitive, inappropriate, incongruous," and when Newsweek said it would "wrong in any city" and "particularly wrong in ... San Francisco," they meant that it ignored its context.

Now, architecture critics have forgotten the lessons of post-modernism and moved back to some of the worst dogmas of modernism, at the same time that urban designers have rejected modernism and gotten better at creating good places for people.

Any New Urbanist commenting on the Transamerica Pyramid would focus on how badly it tears up the urban fabric of Washington Street.

Any ordinary person walking down Washington Street recognizes intuitively that the Transamerica Pyramid has torn up the urban fabric of the street.

Only someone who has been indoctrinated for many years in the dogmas of modernist architecture would ignore this plain fact and would consider the Transamerica Pyramid purely as an abstract sculptural object without thinking about whether it creates a good place for people to be.

Our cities have so many bad places for people to be, precisely because of this sort of thinking among modernist architects and architecture critics.

Kings article is at


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