Opinion, Essay, High-Rise Buildings, New York, Zoning Codes, FAR, Regulations
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 â€śThe Tall Office Building Artistically Reconsideredâ€ť 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 Sullivanâ€™s wise model for breaking up rectangular masses into finial-like spires. And as Rafael ViĂ±oly (and readers of the New York Times) recently learned, failing to do so could result in a creaky, wind-bent residential towerâ€”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 â€śPruitt-Igoe in mid-explosionâ€ť concept and get laughed out of China?
Virtually all of OMAâ€™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?
Gehryâ€™s pair of boxy Toronto skyscrapers will dominate the cityâ€™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.
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