Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Skyscraper Dreams

Skyscrapers have been a grand vision of saving urban centers ever since the Chicago School of the 1900's saw structures leaping into the sky. Ever upward, mile-high scrapers, every generation growing exponentially taller, cities competing for the highest skylines. That's all about money and prestige. We now have a new generational argument for skyscrapers that describe other humanity-saving qualities, such as dynamic public space, greater density, more economies of scale, greener structures, and so on. Edward Glaeser makes this argument in his Atlantic article, How Skyscrapers Can Save the City.

These visions have become increasingly feverish, with wildly "organic" forms attempting to solve the problems of pollution and light and space with layers of pneumatic shapes and colors weaving into the fabric of existing cities. There's also a futuristic skyscraper competition from Evolo that has produced some radical variations on buildings and structure every year.

And now a new professional group promotes infill development in city centers as a response to California's SB 375 legislation, with the argument that dense urban landscapes are preferred by more people. That argument has failed to carry water for the acres of unsold highrise condominiums that were shoveled into suburban cities by developers against the community's desires in the last decade, so it's being applied in the urban centers by developers now working with more malleable large-city planning and development agencies.

Yet, to quote an article on the consequences of high rise buildings:

As a recent UK House of Commons report concluded, also summarizing the research: "The proposition that tall buildings are necessary to prevent suburban sprawl is impossible to sustain. They do not necessarily achieve higher densities than mid or low-rise development and in some cases are a less-efficient use of space than alternatives."

The report then goes on to list the negative effects of tall buildings in very dense urban cities, and includes a very strong argument for the isolation inherent in this kind of dense vertical habitation. It takes the position that tall buildings are potentially becoming an anachronism, a solution that belongs to an older era. Sustainable processes that produce urban structures will create forms that include the ground, the street, the adjacent structures and engage the geographical form. They will not be "futuristic skyscrapers" of the old Metropolis dreams, but rather complex forms that respond to place and to each other, resulting in diminished mass and reduced consumption of resources.

So the dreams are shifting, and a new phase of habitation seems to be evolving out of the lessons of our urban centers that is more nuanced and less aggressive. The new intertwines with the old in unexpected and refreshing ways, such as the Highline in NYC, which is about people, art, and a park in the sky.