When it comes to skylines, bigger isn’t always better

What the skyscraper debate means in Boston

Fifteenth in a series

When Boston College Dean W. Seavey Joyce flew over Boston in the mid-1950s for the first time (he was a fearful flyer), he looked down upon the city and remarked “Where’s Boston?” The question he posed was a reaction to his astonishment that the city had no distinctive skyline or other features. The Custom House Tower, all 496 feet of it, was the tallest building in the city from its construction in 1915 until mid-century. The Yankee rulers of Boston were content with leaving the gaudy showmanship to New York, with its iconic Woolworth Building, the elegantly designed Chrysler Building and the big-man-on campus, the tallest of them all, the Empire State Building. The Empire State became an iconic emblem of American wealth and power, making many people wealthy and a few (Fay Wray and her furry protégé Mr. Kong) famous.

Boston since then has, of course, built a skyline. Beginning with the Prudential Center in the mid-1960s, Boston went on a skyscraper spree in the 1970s and 1980s, demonstrating that this was indeed the “New Boston,” a place of consequence meant to be taken seriously. That is what the skyline meant for a city like Boston – the skyline represented something that could not be proven by statistics or articulated in a marketing pitch. It was visible evidence that the city was on the rise, on the move, and worthy of investment.

Fast forward to the current debate in New York City about lifting zoning restrictions to allow the development of tall buildings in East Midtown. Anyone who has recently been to an office building in East Midtown understands the problem. These buildings, which are nicely scaled and evocative of a time when businessmen actually downed a martini or two at lunchtime, have been the victims of neglect as larger, more exciting and taller buildings have displaced the tenants who can afford to pay the highest rents. The office buildings in East Midtown are a bit shabby, and great cities don’t do shabby.

A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by Columbia Professor Kenneth Jackson made the case for more tall buildings in a re-zoned East Midtown. Jackson’s essential point is that New York is a unique urban environment that thrives on celebrating the future and defining modernism. He challenged New Yorkers to consider the limitation that preservation of older buildings will mean for a city that thrives on high (very high) density and jammed subways, and revels in the cultural icons that are most visibly expressed by skyscrapers. Jackson compared New York with several cities, including Boston – asking whether New Yorkers really wanted to become more like Boston “in emphasizing its human scale, its gracious streets, and its fine, historic houses?” Heaven forbid. New York has greater ambitions than worrying about human scale. New York aspires to “competing on a global scale” because, Mr. Jackson posits, “a vital city is a growing city, and a growing city is a changing city.”

This July, urban planner Tanzeel Merchant, writing in Forbes India, took a very different view of the importance of tall buildings. Merchant observed the global race to the top – not a race for better education or healthcare, but a race to build the tallest buildings – and found it wanting. One would have thought that the race was finished following Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, but Dubai would have none of that, and trumped the world with the Burj-al-Khalifa. I have seen the Burj and it is a memorable structure, but it did not entice me to explore its heights nor did it make me feel differently about Dubai than I would have without a Burj. It left me thinking: “What’s the point?”

Merchant cites a Barclay’s report tracking global skyscraper building, noting that such activity takes place wherever a global economy is reaching its peak. And, Merchant warns, this “almost always marked the edge of a cliff of economic collapse.” In short, the race to the top might cause economies to bite off a bit more than they can chew.

Merchant’s observation is compelling contrasted with Jackson’s thesis. Jackson worries that without a re-zoned East Midtown, without the tall buildings that will follow, New York is threatened to become a humanly scaled backwater like Boston. Merchant, on the other hand, believes that “we still do foolish things driven by base competitive instincts, and do not learn. The false strength of hubris is what empires have been lost to. The skyscraper may be the sword of our times on which we will fall.”

Those are strong words, but they reflect a point of view about urban planning and city building that provokes caution when urging a city to embark upon yet another orgy of building tall to make a point. Why is it that cities cannot benefit from re-imagined business districts, places where elegant and modestly scaled buildings offer workers a more pleasant, individual experience? In an increasingly techno-centric world, will the most productive people really need to have a bird’s eye view of the harbor? Or will they revel in the gritty confines of a restored early 20th century industrial building? Who are we building these corner office views for anyway?

In this age of the i-Everything, where we have embraced the power and utility of technology to change the way we live and alter our expectations about how to manage our day-to-day lives – in this age, is the future of great cities really going to depend upon the development of taller buildings? Or should we return to a more humanly scaled environment where what’s important is not quantity but quality, actuality rather than impressions? The skyscraper was an important invention of the 20th century, a way for cities to manage density within a limited footprint and reap the benefits of modern engineering and building materials. These buildings – buildings that used lighter materials, stronger steel, new ways to carry and distribute loads – were important innovations for their times. But a tall building today seems as predictable and passé as a music video. The time has come to re-think how we can re-make our great cities into places that need not rely on showmanship to prove their importance. For me, that means restoring older buildings, improving multi-modal mobility, and making the city truly “smart” by exploiting technology to make everyday living more informed, interactive, and reliable than it ever has been. Those are the qualities that will attract a younger creative class of people who will be the next generation of jobs creators and innovators. These are people who care more about what they do than what they see out their office window.

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Jackson’s concern about East Midtown reveals an inherent insecurity about the future of New York, an insecurity that I don’t believe will be resolved simply by re-zoning to allow more tall buildings. Merchant’s observation that skyscraper building presages decline cautions us to take a deep breath and consider the folly of the “bigger is always better” set. Bigger is not better when it comes to fast food (“super-size me” has become a proxy for “kill me sooner”), and it may well not be better when it comes to urban building.

Paris is a great city, a city of charm and elegance and scaled in a way that uplifts. It responds to people, it fulfills their desires and dreams – in short, it works. And its tallest structure is a 19th century gem that makes the heart beat faster than Dubai’s Burj-al-Khalifa ever can. Boston is not Paris, but it has made large steps in the past decade to humanize itself. Tearing down the old Central Artery and replacing it with the Rose Kennedy Greenway is perhaps the best expression of what Boston aspires to – being an important liveable city. It is not perfect, but it works.

Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation. His most recent book is The Vidal Lecture.