Cities vs Skyscrapers

Many thanks to Matthew for pointing me to an extremely peculiar 3,000-word Business Week feature on global architecture. If you want proof that the teachings of Jane Jacobs have yet to sink in around much of the rest of the world, then all you need to do is read this article, which paints global architectural activity as, in the words of the headline, "The Battle for the World’s Skyline".

The word "skyline", to me, is closely related to the concept of zoning. Go to Sao Paulo if you don’t understand what I mean: innumerable skyscrapers, but no skyline, since there’s no zoning. But the Business Week article’s authors seem to think that the best skyline, by definition, belongs to the city with the most and newest skyscrapers:

The battle for the best skyline, which has been underway for more than 100 years, is entering a new round. And it already seems to be clear who the winners will be: the Middle East and the Far East. Kazakhstan and Qatar could soon be aesthetically more dominant than Europe or the United States. It is an architectural clash of civilizations.

Puh-leaze. St Paul’s Cathedral, finished in 1708 and just 365 feet off the ground at its highest point, is a key, instantly-recognizable element of the London skyline to this day. There’s a world of difference between a city with lots of glass towers, on the one hand, and a vibrant global city with a great skyline, on the other. And I know which one I’d rather live in.

A skyline implies sensible zoning, a coherently-planned central business district, and a transportation infrastructure which is designed to funnel a lot of people in and out of the same place at the same time. And a great city does not need many tall buildings: if you look at that list of top global cities, London is at number one (not too many skyscrapers there), and even Amsterdam makes the top ten, easily beating out Dubai and Shanghai and Mumbai, let alone Almaty or Tripoli.

So what are we to make of this?

Economically booming megacities — such as Beijing, Shanghai and Dubai — where extravagant skyscrapers are shooting up all over, mean that cities like New York are beginning to look old and outdated, despite attempts to modernize. In Europe, the eastern part is beginning to look more modern than the western part. Cities like Istanbul and Moscow are more dynamic than London, Paris or Milan.

Cities such as London and Amsterdam are living proof that old is not the same as outdated, and that tall buildings are not the be-all and end-all of municipal dynamism. Do the authors of this article really think that adding a bunch of "extravagant skyscrapers" would make Milan "more dynamic" than it already is? Evidently they’ve never heard – or if they have heard they haven’t really understood – Jacobs’s famous saying that "new ideas require old buildings".

Which is not to say that there isn’t development in western cities; there is. And Business Week’s list of ways in which "the massive downturn in the American credit market has caused the cancellation or postponement of many major architectural and urban-planning projects" is very silly indeed: there’s always a long list of such projects which have been cancelled or postponed, no matter what the credit markets are doing. What’s interesting to me is the number of projects, such as Larry Silverstein’s towers at the World Trade Center site, which are still being built speculatively, with no anchor tenants.

And it would be very hard indeed to find many New Yorkers who agree with the Business Week article that the scaling-back of Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn is "a tough blow for New York". (I suspect the authors will have lost most Brooklynites when they describe the area as "an industrial wasteland".)

But my favorite part of the article is this:

And what about Europe? Will the old world have to start getting used to the idea of becoming a museum — picturesque, but without any real chance of keeping pace with the iconography-rich growth of other continents?

It comes just a few paragraphs after this description of Dubai:

The skyscrapers look somehow familiar — and not accidentally so. Many of the building’s architectural elements — including the bell tower from St. Mark’s Square in Venice and the silver arches of New York’s Chrysler Building — are borrowed.

Ah yes, St Mark’s Square, that icon of modernity. I’m so glad that the Venetians decided to build a series of 75-story glass towers right alongside it, otherwise they wouldn’t have been "keeping pace with the iconography-rich growth of other continents".

The article ends by quoting German architect Hilda Léon:

Léon already has her sights set on the next market. It is only a matter of time, she says, before all of Africa will be "the next big thing." In this context, the word "big" is no exaggeration. What a paradisiacal concept for architects: all that undeveloped land for what Friedrich Nietzsche called representative architecture’s "eloquence of power."

It’s a vision of empty space as the ideal place to build skyscrapers. Well, good luck with that. I’ll stick with my tried-and-tested cities, thank you very much. They might not be as paradisical for architects, but they’re much nicer for people.

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