Why "Tallness" Isn’t Good for Cities

Is “tallness” really an urban quality cities should care about?

This article, by Guy Horton, originally appeared on ArchDaily as “The Indicator: What Goes Up Does Not Come Down.

We all know what architecture “critic” Banksy thinks about 1 World Trade Center. He infamously called it a “shyscraper” in an op-ed piece the New York Times declined to publish. But that hasn’t stopped the article from circulating and pissing New Yorkers off. In true Banksy form you can find it on his website, mocked up to appear like a front page headline.

In it, he writes, “It reminds you of a really tall kid at a party, awkwardly shifting his shoulders trying not to stand out from the crowd. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a shy skyscraper.” Of course, this didn’t stop the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) from recently celebrating it as the tallest building in this here United States of America. Yippee ki-yay!

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But, who cares? New York has many other things going on urbanistically and architecturally that render tallness less significant than it used to be, if not outright pointless. Infrastructural interventions of the more horizontal sort, a la the High Line for example, seem far more significant. In the face of real urban complexity and uneven development, grasping for tallness is a simplistic go-to, while the real problems remain down on the street, unrelated to air rights, view corridors, sunlight access angles, and blocked horizons.

And yet cities of the world continue to privilege tall towers as icons of economic and political might.

We are living in the era of the ubiquitous chamfered highrise. Perhaps NYC should have simply rebuilt the original towers and been done with it if what the city gets is just another chamfered skyscraper. At least when OMA does a high rise it tries to do something a little different, whether bending it back on itself like CCTV, which the CTBUH recently named the best tall building worldwide; lifting the podium up in the air to redefine ground conditions as in the Shenzhen Stock Exchange; or just mashing up a half-century worth of modern office towers at the firm’s recently completed De Rotterdam complex.

Then there are all the twisty, curvy high-rises, and different sorts of cylinders. As development strategies they are quite narrow—sometimes literally as in the case of SHoP Architect’s Super Tall Tower, a sliver of a skyscraper poised at the foot of Central Park. And this is because what goes up does not necessarily come down, or trickle down.

The point is that whatever the design, culture is so saturated with the trope and sculptural drama of the highrise that it seems meaningless to valorize them anymore. Especially if all we can say is, “Wow, ain’t they tall!” Tallness should be judged in accordance with how it influences culture on the ground.

Many cities have active anti-highrise coalitions that fight to protect views, the skyline, and the spatial character of older city centers. Take Hamburg, Germany, for example, where it is generally accepted that no new buildings shall be taller than the highest church tower. Despite the fact that it is one of the EU’s fastest growing cities and serves as a hub for technology and new media, it remains, for the most part, a low-rise brick city—and happy to be that.

Vertical urbanism needs to be more than just about verticality. If highrises continue to go up perhaps they would function best in more hybrid forms as mixed-users, or as those farms in the sky we see renderings of, or generators of alternative energy. Let them be tall in order to serve grander functions, and then they might actually be worth celebrating.


Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring “The Indicator”, he is a frequent contributor to The Architect’s Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.

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