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The Scourge of the Boxy Skyscraper
Common Edge
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Media, Non-profit, Architecture, Design
Mark Alan Hewitt
Date Published: 
Opinion, Essay, High-Rise Buildings, New York, Zoning Codes, FAR, Regulations
Tapestry Statistics:
2021-02-24 20:33:34
2021-02-24 20:39:11
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Problem: How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions? How shall we proclaim from the dizzy height of this strange, weird, modern housetop the peaceful evangel of sentiment, of beauty, the cult of a higher life?

When Louis Sullivan wrote his famous essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Reconsidered” in 1896, he could not have foreseen the length of its shadow. For more than a century architects have debated its assertions, but they have generally agreed with Sullivan on the main point: Tall buildings must either gracefully diminish toward the top or have a cap to define the top edge as it meets the sky. He warned, prophetically, that anything looking like a box would be an aesthetic failure.

Boxy skyscrapers were briefly in vogue when Mies unveiled the slender Seagram Tower, but generally only bland corporate sweatshops and developer cash cows stayed with the obvious diagram for maximum floor space in a given FAR. Following the 1916 New York zoning law, most cities required setbacks in tall buildings to allow light to penetrate the canyons they often created. Cesar Pelli was the architect most intent on sculpting elegant, tapered towers throughout his career, and he designed several of the most lauded tall buildings of the past 50 years. Adrian Smith, the architect of several recent supertalls, retained Sullivan’s wise model for breaking up rectangular masses into finial-like spires. And as Rafael Viñoly (and readers of the New York Times) recently learned, failing to do so could result in a creaky, wind-bent residential tower—and, eventually, expensive lawsuits.

So it is fair to ask: Why are we seeing so many new skyscraper designs that resemble teetering stacks of skewed boxes? Were the architects playing beer pong late into the night while building the models? Did Rem Koolhaas try to patent a “Pruitt-Igoe in mid-explosion” concept and get laughed out of China?

Virtually all of OMA’s recent tower designs are clumsy groups of cantilevered glass boxes plopped on their sites with little concern for context or orientation. Zaha Hadid Architects tends to add a few curvy surfaces to their buildings to hide the boxy banalities, but it is hardly immune to the trend. But why would someone like Frank Gehry, the master of signature forms, succumb to these fickle winds of fashion?

Gehry’s pair of boxy Toronto skyscrapers will dominate the city’s skyline for decades, though Canadians have generally managed to avoid the crazy hodgepodge of tower construction that has ruined cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. In fact, it was Gehry who bucked the trends in the Big Apple to give the city 8 Spruce Street, a metal-clad tower nestled politely into the fabric of Lower Manhattan. It looks like it belongs in New York and seems to have pleased the tough critics there.

Not so the Toronto monsters. Described initially by BlogTO as “cheese graters staring longingly at each other,” they were once a ménage à trois and are now a matching pair, though still 2 million square feet in floor area. Controversy dogged the project during a decade of planning review. Hence the developer funding the project recently revived it as a downtown arts center and condominium complex with a visual arts college attached—a peace offering to be sure. Perhaps he also demanded that his Toronto-born architect hew to the accepted developer vocabulary and simplify his often-wrinkled skins. The PR info says that the towers will be clad in “energy saving” new materials but does not say what they are—a familiar ploy to deflect criticism of what looks like mirror glass. The most distinctive features of the pair are rotating boxes at the top third of each building, not tapered but roughly the same dimensions as the lower portions. Mercifully, the base of one building preserves the façade of an old, beloved landmark.

Large cantilevers are difficult enough to engineer when they sit atop midrise structures, but they become wind-catchers when placed 1,000 feet in the air. They are also visually obtrusive and unbalanced, contrary to the contention that defying gravity is always exciting to humans with two feet on the ground. Since we are more aware than ev
Organizations Mentioned: (6)
Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Gehry Partners, LLP
Los Angeles, California, USA
ODA New York
New York, New York, USA
Architecture, Interiors
OMA | Office for Metropolitan Architecture
Rotterdam, Netherlands
Rafael Vinoly Architects
New York, New York, USA
Zaha Hadid Architects
London, United Kingdom