Skyscrapers ‘saving the city’?

The recent Atlantic Magazine showcases articles that suggest skyscrapers to be the salvation of the city. At the beginning of the 21st century, a good century after the construction of the first skyscrapers in various cities in the United States, this seems a curiously belated bit of news, — after all, wasn’t that what did ‘save’ the cities, allowing their densities in terms of people per unit of surface area to increase so prodigiously? Well. There are some new skyscrapers to report upon – newsworthy, because of their sheer size and height, so we’ll let that one go. But the part about ‘saving the city’ — well, that is sticking in my craw, and warrants some curmudgeonly critical comment. Because the role of sky scrapers in the well-being of cities has been studded with question marks for quite a while.

It was the dismal winter of 1967 when I played the role of hopeful immigrant to the US, stepping ashore in a foot or more of snow and traipsing up some deserted Brooklyn industrial areas to find the nearest subway entrance — the only means of public transportation that was still working reliably after the big blizzard that had just struck the city, killing about a dozen of its citizens in a directly attributable manner. I have to qualify that one. Because emerging out of the comfy subway into the cold air at the corner of 34th and Broadway, looking down 34th Street that was totally deserted due to the snow, I was nevertheless assaulted by an incredible cityesque noise. Turning around, I realized that Broadway behind me had been cleared, and anything driving in New York city that fateful February 8th was driving up and down Broadway, honking horns crazily. I enjoyed the unique possibility of being able to walk down the middle of 34th towards Sloan House (my cheap immigrant’s destination) with my two bags of earthly possessions, as the only user of that street that afternoon. At Sloan House, I was of course gobbled up by the very contraptions that I had come to the States to denounce as a Thing of the Past, a mistake, indeed a Dead End. For in my meager baggage I carried some drawings and pamphlets that proposed a very different vision of what cities of the future might, should be like.

I had earned my diploma of engineering in architecture at the stolid Technical University of Munich some years earlier, with some misgivings that prevented me from joining my friends in the boisterous post-war building frenzy of West Germany, and instead going to work in the office of a visionary fellow who was a member of a group led loosely (intellectually) by Yona Friedman called GEAM — ‘Groupe d’Étude d’Architecture Mobile’. Friedman had proposed large pilot-supported structures of space frames spanning over existing cities, its individual spaces filled in according to changing needs by users. In Schulze-Fielitz’ office, we had studied the space frames needed for such projects (I found out, for example that Friedman’s basic structural unit would never work structurally, something he never admitted), and we had a lot of fun entering competitions with visionary schemes of space frames — a proposal for the Bochum University, for example, a joint (with Friedman) proposal for a bridge across the Channel; an entry for the German Pavilion for the Montreal ’67 Expo. One insight that emerged from all this was that both the skyscraper solution (vertical extension of city space) as well as the Friedman ‘horizontal’ space frame city above existing ones suffered from the same problem that their transportation systems were essentially ‘dead ends’: changing from the horizontal street at ground level (which, for all its shortcomings, offered considerable flexibility in accommodating different modes of transportation from pedestrian to vehicular) into a vertical elevator system that ended at the (usually inaccessible to the public because reserved for the penthouse owner of the place..) top: dead end, as far as the public life of the city was concerned.

Our conclusion was the ‘diagonal city’. It would consist of a network of inverted (truncated) pyramids that on the outside would contain apartments with garden terraces (looking down on an area of public green space on the ground) and covering, entirely or partially, a common city space on the other side. It would be served by a three-dimensionally continuous transportation network in the corners of the pyramids:from any point in the structure, one could go to any other point by three different routes: the horizontal grid flanking the horizontal road grid on the ground; the ‘diagonal’ (escalator) network in the corners of the pyramids; the continuous horizontal pedestrian grid at the top of the interconnected inverted pyramids (perhaps better called ‘funnels’) and any vertical elevators and horizontal passages at levels in-between. I had calculated achievable densities for such schemes, sketched details and plan solutions, pictures of models of such cities in my portfolio. (I still have some of those pictures…)

I had realized that architecture school had not taught me everything I’d need to even begin to get involved in the realization of such schemes. So I had decided to go to the U.S. — to work and go to graduate school (to pick up the needed tools, I thought would be mainly methodological) because I had somehow gotten the impression that not only were there people — architects, even — who were working along such lines, but also potential clients who might be interested in these visions; the diagonal city, to my mind, had much more to offer to the individual dweller (residential space close to urban work and civic space, with terraces for outdoor activity and even modest gardening); high density; the possibility of even higher densities at the intersection of the pyramids (accommodating conventional high-rise office buildings if such were really needed); highly efficient public transportation systems in three dimensions; their efficiency guaranteed, like that of the structural systems and infrastructure, by the necessity of compatibility and therefore large-scale production and dimensional coordination; and the possibility of continual adaptation to changing needs by the separation of structure and infill, so that the latter could be changed out as needed.

It turned out that I has seriously mis-estimated the conditions in the U.S. (and everywhere else, for that matter). For one, the possibility / probability of getting every owner of land to agree to the degree of cooperation needed for such schemes turned out to be nil. Of course, the massive public resources needed to ‘provide’ or even help finance the common, coordinated infrastructure (that in our schemes would include not only utilities but even structural support) was not feasible given the rules governing public versus private construction.

But the real problem, it turned out, was a quite different one, — as I learned in the graduate studies where I was expecting to pick up the wherewithal to implement such visions): what the owners of skyscrapers really wanted was a phallic symbol. Each and every time. It just had to be TALLER than everything else around. And of course, something like either Friedman’s ideas nor the diagonal city schemes would never be able to deliver that.

We may have to accept this as one of the realities of the world, like gravity. But we don’t have to rationalize it as something that ‘saves’ the city: there are both cost, functional, and other civic interaction considerations (I have written about) that puts big question marks on to that proposition. So do we have to wait for women to take over the boardrooms of corporations to introduce some different common sense criteria about what might save cities? Or can we discuss that as a separate issue from that of satisfying the strange quirks of the egos of male CEO’s?


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