Tall Towers: For Winners or Wannabes?

Burj KhalifaRecently, the Wall Street Journal announced “Skyscraper Builders Reach for the Stars Once Again.”  Among other things, the article discussed the fact that most of the world’s tallest buildings were now existing and planned in the Middle East and China.  The article chided Western Europe as ” fall[ing] behind the rest of the world when it comes to the biggest buildings.”

The race for respect via high rises and their unintended inverse branding:

Ah the false idolatry of tall towers, from Babylon to the present.  Or to use a more present day phrase, “act like you’ve been there before,” not like a newcomer to the industrialized world.  It seems like every place in the world that has been simmering awhile with an inferiority complex rushes to build a super high rise when they get some money.  “That’ll show the world we’re no rubes, no country bumpkins!” they seem to scream.

In the early part of the last century, it was the U.S., and particularly New York City symbolizing the U.S. throwing off the yolk of a small ex-colony of the British Empire and flexing its new gilded era muscle.  At the same time, the robber barons were using their overnight wealth to throw off the stigma of their rural roots by buying titles of lesser European nobility and searching their genealogy for a connection to noble blood, however tenuous.  They were also purchasing every artifact of nobility that wasn’t nailed down (culminating in the purchase of the London Bridge for importation to Arizona’s Lake Havasu in 1968), and building mansions fashioned after European palaces.   Respect was a bit harder to purchase.

Jealousy wasn’t reserved to U.S. cities against European cities.  Rivalries developed on our own continent.  The next city to flex its muscle was the City of Broad Shoulders, throwing off the stigma of national slaughterhouse and gateway to the Wild West.  Chicago built one tall and ridiculously ornate tower after another, culminating in the world’s tallest (at the time) but not ornate Sears Tower in 1973.  Next up, L.A., though it only mustered the tallest building west of the Mississippi.

On the international scene, the march continued through the latter part of the last century into the new millenium: Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Dubai, Shanghai, etc.  Japan, in its economic surge of the 80’s was one of the exceptions (although it did build the world’s largest “tower,” i.e. not a building – the Tokyo Skytree in 2012).  

High-rises, what are they good for?

My city, San Diego, is not excluded from high rise & skyline envy.  The skyscraper contingent complains each time a mid-rise building is constructed downtown. They swoon over the skyline of Vancouver British Columbia, to which San Diego is often compared in its infancy.  However, should the moniker of “Blandcouver” also be transferred?  “Bland Diego”?  It may fit semantically as well as it does phonetically, as downtown Bland Diego is in the process of eliminating much of its architectural, land use, and population diversity via demolition for parking lots, presumably clearing the way for more drive-in / drive-out condo towers.   The swooners pay lip service, at best, to the fact that true urbanism can be traced more to how a city treats its citizens on the street than those that dwell in the air, and arrive and leave by car.  

To this day, there is a fascination in the U.S.’s second tier cities with joining the ranks of cities with dramatic skylines and super high rises. The web even has a forum for those who pine for ladders to the sky – the Skyscraperpage.com – with a chapter for nearly every city or high rise related topic.

Taken it to the Streets:

Those who believe high rises are necessary for respect often lose sight of  the fact that many of the world’s most urban cities eschewed grotesquely tall buildings, e.g., Washington D.C., Portland, and of course most Western European Cities.  Perhaps counterintuitively, mid-rise buildings often achieve higher densities than high rise structures.  Why?  Because they enable full block coverage while at the same time allowing for small lot infill resulting in greater architectural diversity.  In contrast high rises typically require large lots or entire blocks to build, thus eliminating small lot infill diversity, while at the same time failing to achieve efficient lot coverage because they cannot abut other high rises, and because of set back, step back, floor area ratio, and sun access requirements (without which they would create a truly oppressive street level experience).

A careful review of the world’s most popular cities shows a strong, if not perfect, inverse correlation between cities with high rises and cities held in high esteem.  Even Manhattan’s best neighborhoods are not its high rise neighborhoods.  While density is necessary to a successful urban eco-system, high rises are not.

Act like you’ve been there before:

There is a common factor among cities competing to build ever higher buildings:  They are typically new arrivals to the ability to do so but have not yet arrived at the good sense to refrain from doing so.  My advice to these cities: “act like you’ve been there before.”  Lavish your new money on your street dwellers, not your ego.  That’s what will get you real respect from the world’s more sophisticated cities and make for a happier populace too.

Photo Credit:
Burj Khalifa“, formerly known as “Burj Dubai” Source http://www.flickr.com/photos/nlann/4266235290/ 2009-12-23 Nicolas Lannuzel
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0


Profile photo of Bill Adams About Bill Adams

Bill Adams is the founder and chief editor of UrbDeZine. He is also a partner in the San Diego law firm of Norton, Moore, & Adams, LLP. He has been involved with land use and urban renewal for nearly 25 years, both as a professional and as a personal passion. He currently sits on the Boards of San Diego Historic Streetcars, The San Diego Architectural Foundation, The Food and Beverage Association of San Diego County, and The Gaslamp Quarter Association Land Use Planning Committee.

Norton, Moore, & Adams, LLP is a boutique land use firm which handles a wide range of land and building related matters, from permitting to litigation, including:

- Discretionary use applications and appeals, including alcoholic beverage sales, entertainment, industrial, social services, educational, hospitality, etc.
- Zoning variances
- Municipal code and regulatory amendments
- Litigation, including eminent domain, access and easements, CEQA, environmental, and preservation
Professional website: www.nmalawfirm.com

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