A Meaningful Skyline
Visually, it is best for a city to have a height limit of no more than six stories for fabric buildings. This is the scale that gives visual coherence to traditional European cities, where the cathedral and perhaps the campanile stand out above the urban fabric. We have a similar coherent scale in Washington D.C., where the Capitol dome and Washington Monument stand out above the urban fabric. It is also possible for a city to be visually coherent with a height limit of as much as twelve stories for fabric buildings, if it has symbolic buildings or towers large enough to give it a strong visual identity. With fabric buildings much higher than twelve stories, though, a city is bound to be dominated visually by a crowd of faceless high-rises, like most modern American downtowns; it can still work well as a city, but it will not be visually coherent.
The cathedrals and government buildings that dominate the skylines of traditional cities symbolized the shared values of the people who live there – common religious, cultural and political values. The glass and steel high-rises that dominate the skylines of American cities today symbolize our shared belief in technology and economic growth; the modernists said they were symbols of purely rational decision making, but they look more like symbols of technology that has never been controlled, of a society where growth is not subordinated to human purposes.
If a contemporary American city were built with a six-story height limit for fabric buildings and no limits on symbolically important buildings, it would not center on one religious building, like the cathedral of mediaeval cities whose life centered on a common religion, and it would not center on one or two government buildings, like Washington, DC, a company town where life is dominated by the federal government. It would be much more pluralistic.
In the city center, the largest buildings of the city’s major religions would rise above the urban fabric: perhaps a cathedral, a mosque, a Hindu temple. Several different types of civic building would rise above the urban fabric: city hall, the main courthouse, major museums. There might also be a purely symbolic structure in the city center, such as a campanile or a obelisk. Out in the neighborhoods, hundreds of smaller buildings would rise above the urban fabric: church steeples, local library branches, local courthouses, community centers.
These should be designed to make a distinctive mark on the skyline: even if the building proper does not have to be larger than the fabric buildings that surround it, it should include a tower or spire that rises above the fabric. In some cases, we already have conventions that let us identify the type of building from a distance – steeples for churches, minarets for mosques, classical cupolas for government buildings. We should try to create an equally strong visual identity for other types of buildings.
The typical skyline of our cities today is a clutter of faceless high-rises. You cannot even tell by looking at them which are office buildings and which are housing. It is usually boring, because most high-rises look more or less the same, but it is even worse when developers pull in avant-gardist architects who design high-rises that are weird just for the sake of being different. It is usually meaningless, because it is made up of housing and offices, which have no symbolic value, but if one building dominates the skyline, it can create inadvertent symbolism: for example, in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, the 60-story Bank of America Corporate Center, by the well known modernist architect Cesar Pelli, towers over the usual clutter of faceless high rises, and the skyline very clearly symbolizes the fact that this city is so fixated on growth that the developers can do what they want and the bankers are in charge. (They themselves would say it symbolizes the “economic dynamism” of their city – but that is just another way of saying the same thing.)
The skyline of the city we are imagining would be interesting, with distinctive building types rising above the fabric, including some structures that are unique to the city, like the Duomo of Florence or the Campanile of Venice. This skyline would also be meaningful: the urban fabric represents the necessities of life, housing and business, and the buildings that rise above the fabric represent the things that people believe make their lives worthwhile – religion, culture, self-government.
From my book Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices.