The Skyscraper Problem

Like it or not, skyscrapers are here to stay.
Appears in Summer 2014 Issue: The Other Side of the City
June 1 st 2014

"Everything's up to date in Kansas City;
They gone about as fer as they can go;
They went an' built a skyscraper seven stories high:
About as high as a buildin' orta grow."

Was Oscar Hammerstein II correct? Is seven stories about as high as a building ought to grow? People who care about cities should care about the answer to this question, all the more as developers and their architects seek to build ever-taller towers in historic London, emerging cities in China, and in the Middle East.

The question is not, simply, how tall is too tall? The questions we need to ask are more varied and more fundamental: are skyscrapers an integral part of flourishing cities? Are they arrogant assertions of power? Indeed, a thoughtful Christian might well wonder: are there skyscrapers in the New Jerusalem? And if there are, are they more than seven stories tall?

The Bar Chart Problem: Are Skyscrapers Inevitable?

Leaving eschatology aside for the moment, at a very simple level, tall buildings are basically a three dimensional bar chart of real estate values. When real estate costs are measured in the hundreds or thousands of dollars per square foot, as in New York or Tokyo, real estate investors need astronomical floor area ratios (a number that expresses built area as a multiple of site area) to make financial sense of centre city land. This bar chart is what we commonly think of as a skyline, and cities as modest as Wichita and Des Moines have them, just as New York and Tokyo do.

Skyscrapers are a rational response to the problem of real estate value. As land costs go ever higher, tall buildings follow as night follows day. To wish this situation otherwise is to indulge in wishful thinking of a high order. Mandated height limits, as one finds in Washington D.C. and, until recently, Philadelphia, merely distort the market equation and result in higher rents, artificial constraints on land value, limits on tax revenue, and so on. When markets are distorted, people suffer, often in unexpected ways.

That is not to say that communities should have no right to impose limitations on development. It is only to observe that those limitations, when imposed, distort the market and result in any number of unintended consequences. There is something reassuring about the bar chart nature of a skyline. It tells you in an unambiguous way where the centre of town is. And for this reason, most people's fear of Manhattanization is misplaced: towers very seldom grow where the real estate values don't warrant them. Even in no-holds-barred Houston, city of famously nonexistent zoning, towers don't tend to spring up willy-nilly, but rather respond fairly rationally to the variables of the real estate market. So the bar chart problem, in my view, isn't really much of a problem at all.

The Commodity Problem: Single Use Buildings

One problem the skyscraper shares with its shorter brethren is the problem of monofunctionality— buildings that serve only a single purpose. Office buildings are a prime culprit among skyscrapers, but residential towers have the same problem. Like zombies, these buildings are only half alive—most of their day is spent waiting for their occupants to return. This problem was first caused by zoning, but now continues on its own momentum because of the commodification of real estate.

As the Brookings Institution's Christopher Leinberger has pointed out, real-estate ownership gets bundled just like those hated mortgage-backed securities that played such a major role in the last recession. A bundle of properties is a collection of real estate—actual buildings—that is packaged and sold on financial markets like any other commodity. And bundles of real estate, purchased by retirement funds and other huge sources of capital, want to be like-kind, that is, bundles of office buildings or shopping centres or apartments. The institutional real estate market is, unfortunately, ill-equipped to deal with skyscrapers (or really, any urban building) as they should be: mixed-use mash-ups of ground floor shops, lowerstory professional offices, and apartments or condos with spectacular city views.

Though they don't bundle well, mixed-use buildings make more efficient use of parking, are active twenty-four hours a day, and create at least the theoretical possibility that you could do most of your living, working, and shopping without ever going outside. Though, in reality, this rarely happens. A mix of uses means these buildings are alive throughout the day, that residents and workers can rub shoulders, and that the shops at street level have a decent chance of surviving because they serve more than one population—but only if the streetlevel shops exist in the first place.

The problem, as we have said, is that institutional real estate investors don't know what to do with these mixed-use buildings, as they are neither fish nor fowl. So what turns out to be best for the city is seldom built because our banking and financial systems can't figure out how to effectively bundle them. A desire for conceptual simplicity works against the vitality of urban living. Let's hope that (and those younger among us, let's work toward) in the future, the geniuses who set up the infinitely complex financial structures we call the market figure out this relatively simple conundrum. Because whatever else a skyscraper ought to be, it ought to be a mixeduse building.

The Density Problem: Little Boxes Stacked To The Sky

A more practical concern with skyscrapers is their density: the number of people they can pack into a very small piece of real estate. In New York, an emerging trend is the "sliver building": a residential high-rise built on a lot better suited to a townhouse. Sliver buildings disrupt not only the scale but even the equilibrium of an urban neighbourhood like a cymbal clash in a violin sonata.

But is the density problem a real problem? In a culture that has historically viewed ownership of a single family home on a green lawn as one of its most cherished goods, the vision of apartments stacked to the sky strikes some as horrific. I don't share that horror, but I understand it. If your vision of the good life includes mowing grass as a crucial ingredient of human flourishing, then density is clearly the devil's tool. My vision of human flourishing is not so much about trimming lawns as it is about bumping into neighbours while stopping by the patisserie on a Saturday morning— conditions that are more likely in areas with higher densities.

In many mid-sized cities, "Manhattanization" is a description intended to invoke fear and loathing, and in many cases it succeeds (despite the fact that most people love Manhattan, even if they have no wish to live there). While it is possible to build towers that are too dense individually (sliver buildings being a good example), the more serious problem is with towers that are too dense collectively, evident in cities like Hong Kong and Singapore where land is scarce and housing is growing ever upward.

But the argument from density is an argument I would very much like to discard. As much as suburbanites loathe density, it is not the number of people per square mile that makes a neighbourhood habitable or not. Some of the most desired real estate in North America is in neighbourhoods of extraordinary density, from Park Avenue to Vancouver. What makes neighbourhoods great is not low density. In fact, low density is the enemy of great neighbourhoods. If you think about places in North America that are beloved, valued, and, by the way, crushingly expensive to reside in, the mind goes not so much to Elm Street but to places like Greenwich Village, Chicago's Gold Coast, South Beach, Santa Monica, and Boston's Back Bay. All of these neighbourhoods have densities that would horrify the zoning board in a flyover state. But sheer density aside, it is attention to details at the street level, like shops, stoops, doorways, and flower boxes that make these urban neighbourhoods great. As Jane Jacobs explains so beautifully in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it is the intricately choreographed ballet of street life—the businessman bare-handing a foul ball hit by kids playing in the street under the watchful eye of the shopkeeper—that creates vital, livable cities. This ballet requires a carefully designed setting that activates the street for a large swath of the day. And although Jacobs spelled out the recipe in 1961, both urban planners and architects often seem immune to its wisdom, even now. Given the right amount of attention, even a sliver building could be made lovable, although few receive this sort of careful street-level treatment. In any event, density is nearer to the solution than it is to the problem.

The Babel Problem: Skyscrapers And Hubris

The biblical account of Babel is the first indictment of the skyscraper. In the familiar Genesis account, God confounds the language of the builders of a huge tower. By seeing it as an origin story for languages, readers often fail to consider the tower itself. Was the tower of Babel too high? How high was it? We have no idea, but it was apparently high enough to be a matter of concern to God.

I think we have at this point disabused ourselves that we can construct a tower to heaven (although some engineering nerds are still speculating about an elevator that goes into space). As Soviet cosmonauts ably demonstrated in the 1960s, God does not reside just above the earth's atmosphere.

So what was God worried about? It's hard to say. Perhaps his decision to confuse our language was an indictment of one world government, or of any project that had such a singular aspiration. Perhaps God prefers his people to work at smaller scales, an intuitive notion that finds consonance with any number of Bible stories as well as certain less-than-fashionable economic theories.

Have you considered the possibility that Babel was not a curse but a blessing? Could it be that by confusing our languages, God was prodding us in the direction of specificity over universality, smaller over larger, and local over global? My aim is not to construct a sociopolitical theory on this one brief biblical account, but to wonder if our globalizing, universalizing tendencies weren't (and aren't) the problem God addressed at Babel.

But I suspect, and agree with many commentators, that the sin of Babel was idolatry: specifically, making an idol of human ability ("There's nothing we can't do if we put our minds to it!"). Human ability is a truly amazing thing, and humans are gifted in all sorts of remarkable ways. But our ability is always and everywhere subject to God's. When we begin to treat human ability as an ultimate thing, instead of the good gift that it is, it becomes an idol subject to God's wrath, which is exactly what happened at Babel.

Do I therefore expect God to demolish the rather dangerously named Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, if and when it tops out at 3,284 feet—or more? Probably not. But I'm not on the waiting list to ride the elevator to the top of it either.

The Phallic Problem: Skyscrapers And Sexuality

Speaking of absurdly tall towers, for as long as we have been erecting skyscrapers, comparisons have been made to male anatomy. The sexuality of skyscrapers has been remarked upon since the turn of the last century; not leaving out my own city's Liberty Memorial. Lord Norman Foster's recent tower in London, dubbed "The Gherkin," has certainly earned its share of sexual comparisons.

Perhaps these analogies have some merit. Perhaps skyscrapers are phallic symbols: certainly the race to build the tallest "whatever" is male competitiveness writ very large. If this is the case, then Christians ought to be wary of skyscraper projects, which can become idols just like the Asherah poles so detested by God in the Old Testament.

The critical question is the degree to which a building's height is, in and of itself, an assertion of power. Augustine recognized the will to power centuries before Nietzsche, and to many, tall buildings look like the desire to dominate given physical form. I'm ambivalent on this point, though. Certainly when a crazed dictator proposes the world's tallest building as a tribute to his own awesomeness, Augustine's libido dominandi is in play. But as an architect who as a child stacked wood blocks as high as they would go, I also recognize a technical ambition in the tower as an experiment: How high can we make this thing? Will it stand up? This is not so Liberty Memorial, much a naked assertion of power as it is of technical ability. And I think it is the latter ambition as much as the former that often motivates the builders. That, and the ability to say, when it's done, "Mine's bigger."

The Sustainability Problem: Can A Skyscraper Be Green?

As I have written elsewhere for Comment, there are good arguments to be made both for and against the sustainable qualities of very tall buildings. To briefly summarize, skyscrapers are inherently green because they conserve land, a most valuable natural resource. And because they are not single story buildings (as so much construction in America is), they reduce the quantity of interior surfaces exposed to the climate, which is also inherently efficient. But because of architects' fetishes for glass, exposed steel, and concrete structure, skyscrapers are often designed, it would seem, to squander their inherent efficiency on details that are anything but. Nevertheless, let us adopt a hopeful posture and say that skyscrapers can be very efficient, as long as we are willing to follow through on the details.

The Paris Problem: Are Skyscrapers Beautiful?

On the other hand, one city that functions as an eloquent argument against the skyscraper also happens to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Paris has very few skyscrapers in its central core, which developed over a millennium but came to maturity in the nineteenth century with Baron Haussmann's exceptional boulevards and a practical limit of five or six stories. The one central city skyscraper (excepting of course Mr. Eiffel's extraordinary tower) is the widely despised Tour Maine-Montparnasse, an eloquent argument for the prohibition of skyscrapers altogether.

Moreover, once one moves outside the beloved central quarters of Paris, one is confronted with all manner of awful skyscrapers, most notably in the neighbourhood known as La Defense, just a few kilometers from the Arc de Triomphe, where Manhattanization is in full, inglorious flower. This jumble of towers says nothing about Paris, and seems only to have imported the worst ideas about tall buildings from the U.S. and elsewhere. The only real argument about La Defense is who hates it more, Parisians or the city's millions of visitors.

Paris stands as a rebuke to the skyscraper, one that is difficult to argue with. If La Defense is the counter argument, it is a staggeringly weak one.

Yes, individual skyscrapers can be beautiful, Mont Montparnasse notwithstanding. A list of beautiful skyscrapers would begin with Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building in St. Louis and continue right to the present day. But Paris reminds us that a beautiful object, like the Eiffel Tower, is only beautiful when it remains an object, set against a contrasting backdrop. When it becomes a crowded jumble of objects, as at La Defense, its beauty is greatly diminished.

The Human Problem: The Limits Of Stairs

One surprising reason that Paris is such a beautiful city is stairs. Most of Paris (or what we think of when we think of Paris) was built before Mr. Otis's mechanical lift became commonplace. Given the popularity of Paris then as now, buildings were built as tall as possible, which is to say about five or six stories, with declining rents as you went higher—opposite how things are today. The trope of the starving artist freezing in an attic flat in Paris is the result of stairs, and our dislike for too many of them. Before electric elevators, stairs were the limiting force on skyscrapers, and perhaps the reason why Oklahoma's Will Parker thinks seven stories is about as high as "a building orta grow."

Stairs, it turns out, are good for us, and the human-centred design movement is now trying to make the forlorn fire stair more inviting for people to use. But skyscrapers beg the question of stairs. No one, no matter how fit, wants to carry a bag of groceries to the fiftieth floor.

Elevators, then, are both a solution and a problem: they have allowed us to build towers of dizzying height, like Burj Khalifa, sating, for a little while at least, our desire to build ever higher. But they also make us dependent on elevators (and hence electrical power) to a dangerous degree. As 9/11 tragically demonstrated, evacuating a 110 story building on foot is extremely difficult, and takes far longer than we would like to think. And a skyscraper doesn't need to be struck by a hijacked plane to lose power, an inconvenient truth that could make an act as simple as leaving work in a high-rise a gruelling, sweaty ordeal. Elevator dependency may, in the long run, be the Achilles heel of the very tall building.

In your post-apocalyptic fantasy world, no one lives higher than the fifth floor. It is possible, even likely, that elevators will become ever more efficient, but never so efficient that they can run without adding energy from somewhere. If you live in a hydro-powered region like the Pacific Northwest, maybe that's not a problem. For coalburning regions like most of North America, it's a real concern. And as such, true skyscrapers are, ecologically speaking, living on borrowed time.

The Cube Problem: Skyscrapers In New Jerusalem?

A curious data point, and one I have never heard discussed in any depth, is the biblical description of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city to which all believers are headed, as having the dimensions of a giant cube: miles by miles by miles. Assuming that the new creation does not dispense altogether with gravity, there must be some very tall structures in this heavenly city. Either that or the description of the heavenly city is purely metaphorical, always a possibility with the Apostle John.

But assuming that the Apostle was not being merely metaphorical, what are we to make of the cubical city? Even Manhattan, forested with skyscrapers, is far more horizontal than vertical when viewed as a whole. Is it possible to conceive of a city as tall as it is wide?

It must be. John did it in the first century, and so must we, if we are to give him the attention he deserves. Is New York in some feeble, distorted way a precursor of the New Jerusalem?

Perhaps. Think for a moment about extraordinary films that represent cities not found in the present world: the Star Wars series, for example, or Blade Runner, or even Minority Report. The art direction in those films always tends toward vertiginous verticality, which simultaneously thrills and terrifies us. Is it not at least a possibility that the New Jerusalem is just like that, thrilling and terrifying and astonishingly vertical? Well, not terrifying: that won't do at all. But thrilling and vertical, maybe? Maybe, indeed.


David Greusel has worked as an architect for more than thirty years with several Midwestern firms of varying sizes. He is founding principal of Convergence Design, a Kansas City-based practice specializing in places where people gather. While with another firm, he was lead designer for two major league ballparks: Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 2009, David was named a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects.