Skyscraper vs. skyscraper

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City beautiful? Rem Koolhaas’s iconic skyscxraper poster. (rialnodesigns.com)

Hats off to Kristen Richards of ArchNewsNow.com for publishing a denunciation by CityLab of the (Toronto) Globe & Mail’s critic Eric Reguly’s piece “Why skyscrapers are killing great cities.” Otherwise we might not have seen the latter essay, which flies near to flawless in its critique of skyscrapers.

Its logic is why it irks CityLab’s Kriston Capps, a lickspittle mouthpiece of modern architecture and its corporate overlords. Capps’s reply, “Of course skyscrapers aren’t ruining cities,” is filled with the usual claptrap you get when a running-dog lacky critic hits his PC’s “save/get” for a random defense of the typical modern architect’s work product, usually generated by playing 52-card pickup with the shards that constitute the modernist tool kit.

“No building is as ugly as inequality,” writes Capps, summing up the fatuous, indeed, the supercilious non-sequitur that constitutes the nut graf of his response to Reguly’s essay. I’ve linked to Capps’s piece for the amusement of readers, but I really want to address the one flaw in Reguly’s piece:

The problem isn’t modern architecture per se. When the modern complements the old, it can enhance a city — the Blackfriars station, the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery and even the glass pyramid at the Louvre are all examples. But when the scale is enormous, and when it has no connection to the features that have given the city its personality for hundreds of years, it overshadows that city’s character. The new look is bland and homogenized.

Wrong, Eric. The problem is modern architecture per se. Modernism aims precisely to contradict and overshadow beauty in the city. And P.S., the Shard is not “strikingly elegant.” It is an eyesore, perhaps literally so for God.

Throwing the spotlight on a few blessedly muted modernist structures such as the Sainsbury Wing and the Louvre Pyramid – the former a rare elegant twist on classicism, the latter nicely sequestered in the courtyard of the Louvre (the Blackfriars Station: Not!) – merely makes the contrary case.

The problem is not the very few bearable modernist buildings but the flood of typically tedious modernist buildings that are homogenizing the built environment while blindsiding the natural environment. Capps argues that skyscrapers enable density that’s good for the environment, but that is not so. Any serious plan to address climate and sustainability would replace all skyscrapers with medium-rise masonry buildings. That’s not going to happen, but the facts are the facts. Paris’s central districts provide higher density than Manhattan at far less cost to the climate.

Furthermore, modernist skyscrapers have been shown up in Manhattan as greater wasters of energy than older skyscrapers. That’s because all the gizmo green high-tech nincompoopery simply cannot make up for the fact that glass curtain walls make heating and cooling systems work much harder than they’d have to work in masonry towers.

In fact, swap all the modernist skyscrapers in Manhattan for the Big Apple’s lovely old skyscrapers – the Woolworth, the Flatiron, and the rest of the old lovelies. Alas, that’s not going to happen either, and nobody knows what is going to happen. But readers of this blog can click on those two essays picking a fight over skyscrapers for a skyrocketing good time.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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