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Thursday, November 1st, 2012

Shock and Awe


Felix Baumgartner’s record setting jump from 120,000 feet. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

Last month I attended a supper club event in Indianapolis were the topic was urban design in the city. We started the conversation by having people give their personal pick for best and worst urban design. My choice for worst design decision was changing the zoning to allow skyscrapers. I believe that for many years Indy restricted building heights such that nothing could be taller than the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, similar to other restrictions in DC, Paris, or Philadelphia.

My argument was that skyscrapers function very poorly in smaller, auto oriented cities. This is because skyscrapers require huge parking pedestals or attached garages to put all the cars. Each skyscraper thus ends up taking up pretty much an entire city block, which produces horrible urbanism and isn’t even very dense. The perfect example in Indy here is the American United Life Building. It consumes an entire city block, the building is set back from the street on all four sides and sits dead center on the block, and it is surrounded by many surface parking lots. The planned Block 400 project I heavily criticized is converting one of these blocks – into a big parking garage with nothing at street level. These buildings basically create huge dead zones, especially after 5pm when the buildings empty.

This past weekend I was with my friend Kristian, who organizes the supper club events, and he asked me why I’d said that. I explained my rationale. He countered by asking whether there wasn’t value in the overwhelming power of an urban skyline to announce a city.

This reminded me of a post I previously ran called “Saint Jane” by Will Wiles. He makes a similar argument saying:

The Nurbanist vision of carving up the city in this way is as diagrammatic and retrograde as Moses’ planning – and, similarly, it’s an assault on the complexity of the city, the city’s ability to generate its own fabulously complicated internal patterns that defy cursory inspection. The emphasis on little neighbourhoods, the stoop, local shops and walking distances, the “human scale” only tells part of the story of the city – after all, these things can be found in villages and small towns. All cities need sublimity, a touch of holy terror, a defiance of human scale that asserts connection to the greater urban whole. Elevated highways, crowds, tall buildings, interconnection and confusion – these things can be to some people dismaying and unpleasant, but the awe they strike is the overture of accepting the condition of living in a city. The Tube roundel is vaguely holy to Londoners – intensely reassuring – because it is a sign of connection with a system of vast complexity and importance.

Kristian and Will haven’t convinced me that skyscrapers in auto oriented cities are a good thing. European cities like Paris and Barcelona have proven that you can build real cities and great density without them.

But there is something to this idea that cities need to contain structures, systems, and symbols of overwhelming dominance and power, shock and awe. It’s notable that from earliest days, cities were set around immense temples and palaces that served this very functions. Skyscrapers can do this well, but so can stadiums, massive airport complexes, rail yards or ports, vast flyover interchange complexes, or huge industrial parks or buildings.

In our quest to humanize every element of the city, we have in a sense dehumanized it, by robbing it of the primal human longing for the transcendent, to be part of something larger than or outside ourselves, to find the limits of existence and go beyond them. Our obsession with Mars landings or Felix Baumgartner’s jump shows this uniquely human quest in action.

Creating a link to the transcendent is one of the most important things cities do, and perhaps more than anything else what separates them from a town. I believe this is at some level the fuel that powers so much else that happens there, why they are the locus of innovation, etc.

Part of this is by creating structures and systems that not only overwhelm, but at some level cannot be understood or grasped. It is one of the under-recognized virtues of megacities like New York, Sao Paulo, and Mumbai that it is impossible for any single human being to comprehend them.

In a secular age, the idea of the transcendent has little currency. Most people lack even the awareness to engage with the concept. Yet engage we must. To sever a city or society of its link to the transcendent by “humanizing” it or applying overly rigorous cost/benefit analysis to everything is perhaps to drain it of its lifeblood. The extravagant, incredible, overwhelming, and almost seemly pointless and impractical gesture may in fact be the most practical of all.

16 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design, Urban Culture

16 Responses to “Shock and Awe”

  1. Chris Barnett says:

    Here’s a concept from the secular world that might work to replace “transcendent” to describe your thought, Aaron:

    Scale.

    I have to admit, though, that my first mental analogy was “compare a country clapboard church to Washington National Cathedral in DC.” One is local, supportable by a village or rural population. The other can only be supported by a diocese or nation. It’s a scale difference.

    It is also true that the scale of Washington National Cathedral is what helps it to be transcendent: all that detailed and intricate carved stonework, the massive cruciform sanctuary, those magnificent windows, the grand pipe organ.

    In the spiritual realm, though, the country church can also be “transcendent”…indeed, that’s the purpose of any church. And that’s why the word doesn’t work so well.

    Scale does define the difference between cities and towns precisely. It is essentially scale that urbanists argue about when we rank cities as tier 3, tier 2, tier 1, and “world” class: at what geographic scale are the specialized features of a particular city replicated. For example, New York’s transit, finance, museum, entertainment, and infrasructure functions are replicated in only a handful of other cities worldwide.

    It has always been the “shock and awe” of New York’s scale that has turned first-time visitors from the hinterlands into slack-jawed gawkers. (Myself included.)

  2. “Creating a link to the transcendent is one of the most important things cities do.”

    I have never once thought of a city this way, which is probably why the idea intrigues me very much. I was in Boston a few weeks ago and commented a few times to a friend how much I don’t like cities; how I feel naive and clumsy, like the the only guy who doesn’t know all the secret rules about how to walk and interact with the streams of people and cars.

    But after a day and a little calming of my inner anxiety, I felt a part of something larger, and perhaps even the sense of transcendence that you refer to. Perhaps the reason I haven’t liked cities is that I can’t keep “everything out in front of me” like a spreadsheet, neat and tidy. WIth a town, I think you can do this. You can drive through and notice a trash barrel or bench slightly askew. You have a sense of control and knowledge with a town, while a city’s very identity is found in its being beyond your grasp and its ever-changing behavior.

    Maybe it’s not so much that I don’t like cities. Maybe I just love control.

  3. Michael, thanks. I’m sure there’s a link in here somewhere to all the discussions we’ve had about control.

  4. the urban politician says:

    Great and interesting point you’ve brought up.

    Cities certainly DO need to inspire. Walkable urban streets do not necessarily carry out that function. A skyline is worth something.

  5. James says:

    It seems that your objection skyscrapers in small cities is poor design rather than overall philosophy. The idea of a tower with setbacks and open lot parking and not mixed use or no ground level retail is certainly not conducive to a vibrant urban environment. But is that the result of building a skyscraper? Aren’t these small auto centric cities just as likely to make the same design mistakes in a two floor building?

  6. Matthew Hall says:

    Fascinating argument. The special appeal of the urbane. It certainly explains how downtown and midtown Cincinnati just keeps attracting people and businesses despite the great recession while area just a few miles away sit emptier as they have ever been.

  7. George Mattei says:

    Interesting how urban planners have often tried to evaluate a city in terms of how to control it-but Jane Jacobs Urbanists believe that the planners’ ultimate calling should be to foster an ecosystem that naturally relinquishes control to the masses-that is to foment a bit of chaos.

  8. Dan Wolf says:

    Picking up with Matthew’s thought concerning Cincinnati,the city IS vibrant I think due to the combination of many factors that give Cincy its zest and identity that is attractive to people and businesses. The city is a blend of tall and large buildings towering over plenty very old 6-8 story romanesque commercial buildings, 19th century church buildings, earliest 20th century commercial sky scrapers and art deco style buildings. The many tall buildings built in the last 40 years are almost all attractive; especially the the Procter and Gamble twin headquarters towers of approx 24 stories with its extensive lawns and arbors in the heart of downtown on two city blocks. The Ohio River is a half mile south with its many parks and open spaces and stadiums. Beginning at eighth street going north the buildings are much shorter,thus providing a break from tall buildings. There are about 35 city blocks of tall and big buildings so it is not overwhelming structurally, but impressive. The expansive Queensgate rail yard is to the west. Uptown is the largest historic district in the nation; the “Over The Rhine” 110 block 1840s to the 1890s true mixed use urban center of long ago. It’s continued restoration of hundreds of two to five story buildings will be one of America’s greatest urban triumphs. It will provide an opportunity to compare tall buildings of 150 years ago to today’s sky scrapers only four blocks to the south. In one city the comparison can be made concerning scale and human feeling about buildings and the built environment.
    The people of Cincy are uniquely friendly and the streets are clean. Friendliness and Cleanliness are positive attributes to make a city with tall buildings more welcoming and agreeable . The large and tall buildings certainly are monuments of Cincinnati’strength in economics, community confidence and arch’l design.( most all of them are attractive. To me the people of a city are it’s real strength. What people value and their combined leadership is what makes cities. The many old buildings in downtown are a reminder to the people of Cincy that they are standing on the shoulders of the businessmen, community leaders and industrialist before them. I think Cincy residents understand this. And this fact adds to the continuity and appreciation the native people have for their city. Being in downtown Cincy, I believe the natives love their city and are very pleased with its granduer on the River and the six tall bridges that span the river connecting the city to Covington and Newport, Ky. They add beauty and balance to the tall buildings.
    Come visit and see for yourself and make your own evaluation.
    There is more to talk about concerning the people of a City.

  9. Barcelona certainly has density, but that’s not to say it’s lacking in skyscrapers. It just has no skyscraper nodes. Many large European cities these days have skyscrapers yet still lack real skylines due to the decentralized placement of their contemporary commercial buildings. But Barcelona seems even more decentralized than most.

    While I can respect that Will Wiles’ “defiance of human scale” endows a city with a monumentality that can elicit slack-jawed awe, the ambiguity of the emotions behind the sublime realization suggest that this reaction isn’t purely positive. Most reasonably sized US cities have a skyline, but, after penetrating the heart of the municipality, all too often the skyline is the closest a visitor will ever get to a since of wonder. It may be the only thing it has going for it. Barcelona has no discernible skyline that one can easily capture in a single photograph, but it is far more likely to impress visitors well beyond the initial “wow” that Dallas might offer with its glittery skyline. Too many American cities fail to deliver after the initial one-two punch of their skylines (which, in turn, aren’t even that impressive compared to many Asian cities).

    Maybe an insistence on height is the problem–maybe American downtowns cluster their skyscrapers too much. You’re certainly right that they often result in ridiculous large parking pedestals, especially in auto-oriented cities like Indianapolis. But Chicago has a considerably superior public transportation system to Indy, and most of its downtown skyscrapers still most devote huge amounts of space to garages at the lower levels, like Lake Point Tower that I blogged about a few months ago: http://dirtamericana.blogspot.com/2012/07/emperor-might-have-beautiful-clothes.html .

    I can’t help but agree with James that, far too often, American cities make the same mistakes with mid- and low-rise buildings downtown as well. An auto-dependent city tends to have lower land values and property/housing costs in general. Developers in cities like Indy have little incentive to invest in costly underground parking, since they’d never be able to lease out their space to get the needed ROI after devoting so much money for the hidden garages. Thus, the few structures with buried parking in cities the size of Indy tend to have depended on huge municipal subsidies in order to get off the ground.

  10. Dirt, I believe almost all of the skyscrapers in Chicago on parking pedestals – and there are a lot of them – are residential, where significant parking is required by law. I don’t know a new commercial building in the Loop that has incorporated parking in a while.

  11. Chris Barnett says:

    Dirt, the most awe-inspiring spot in Indy that I’ve found (in the NYC sense of being surrounded by tall buildings in the middle of the city) is the top deck (9th floor) of the parking garage in the first block of North Illinois attached to the back of the Wellpoint building.

    And, of course, all that’s going on there is car parking. But at least it’s difficult or impossible to see a surface parking lot from that spot. :)

  12. John says:

    I agree with most of this post. It scares me that people in DC want to abandon the height requirements. They really add a lot towards making the significant monuments and public buildings stand out from the crowd. It also creates a much more uniform density and more of a focus on the design of the building at the street level, where it matters. Of course, with better design and parking maximums, skyscrapers could potentially work better too.

  13. Benjamin Hemric says:

    Aaron, I realize your topic in this post is whether skyscrapers [“in-the-parking lot”] in medium-sized, auto-centric cities can be good for such cities in a limited way, or whether they are invariably bad (and that your topic is not whether skyscrapers are good or bad when they are built without parking lots in larger cities). But since you’ve linked to an old post, “Saint Jane” by Will Wiles, which seems to imply that Jane Jacobs was supposedly blindly pro-small scale structures and anti-“schock and awe,” I hope you won’t mind my quoting four of Jane Jacobs’ very own appreciations of schock and awe. (There are others, some even more pointed, but these four are the ones that are handy at the moment.) Quotes are from “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Modern Library Edition.

    1) While criticizing a plan for introducing more housing into the Wall Street area of Manhattan (pg. 206):

    “Whatever it is that attracts this infusion of new people [into Lower Manhattan] must also be attractive to people who work in the district. At least its presence cannot bore or repel them . . . . this new use (or uses) ought to be in accord with the district’s character, certainly not at cross-purposes to it. It is the character of lower Manhattan to be intensive, to be exciting, to be dramatic, and this is one of its greatest assets. What is more dramatic, even romantic, than the tumbled towers of lower Manhattan, rising suddenly to the clouds like a magic castle gridled by water. Its very touch of jumbled jaggedness, its towering sided canyons, are its magnficience. What vandalism it would represent . . . to dilute this magnificent city presence with the humdrum and the regimented [like the proposals for housing projects that she was criticizing].”

    2) In the chapter “Discussing Visual Order: Its Limitations and Possibilities” Jacobs discusses the usefullness of city landmarks (of all sizes) on page 500:

    “Landmarks, as their name says, are prime orientation clues. But good landmarks in cities also perform two other services in clarifying the order of cities. First, they emphasize (and also dignify) the diversity of cities . . . . Second, in certain instances landmarks can make important to our eyes city areas which are important in functional fact but need to have that fact visually acknowledged and dignified.”

    3) Later in the same chapter, Jacobs discusses the usefullnes of great size in creating landmarks (but cautions that differences in use are also helpful, especially when a landmark is experienced up close (pgs. 502-503):

    “Sometimes attempts are made to give a building landmark quality simply by making it bigger than its neighbors, or by turning it out with stylistic differences. Usually, if the use of such a building is essentially the same as the uses of its neighbors, it is pallid — try as it might . . . Indeed, it tries to tell us that what is important in the order of cities are mere differences in size or outward dress. Except in the very rare cases of real architectural masterpieces, this statement that style or size is everything gets from city uses, who are not so dumb, about the affection and attention it deserves.

    However, it should be noted that some buildings which depend on size for their distinction do provide good landmark orientation service and visual interest for people AT A DISTANCE [italicized, lower-case in the original — BH]. In New York the Empire State Building and the Consolidated Ediston Tower with its great illuminated clock are examples. For people seeing them from the streets close by, these same buildings, inconsequential in their diffrences from neighboring buildings, are inconsequential as landmarks. Philadelphia City Hall, with its tower surmounted by the statue of William Penn, makes a splendid landmark from afar [and really shocked and awed me when I first saw it — BH]; and its true, not superficial, difference within its intimate matrix of city also makes it a splendid landmark from close by. For distant landmarks, size can sometimes serve. For intimate landmarks, distrinction of use and a statement about the important of differences are of the essence.”

    4) Also, another nod from Jacobs for shock and awe from a footnote on page 305 where she is discussing the pros and cons of gigantic outdoor advertising:

    “What would Times Square be without its huge outdoor advertising?”

    Benjamin Hemric
    Tues., Nov. 6, 2012, 9:40 pm

  14. Benjamin, thanks. While he talks about Jane Jacobs, I think he is really taking issue with New Urbanism and the way it has distilled Jacobs insights.

  15. Benjamin Hemric says:

    Aaron, although Wil Wiles may indeed be taking issue with the way New Urbanism has distilled Jacobs, I think his essay is actually unclear on this matter — which appears to me to be the reason a number of commenters on the original post went out of their way to make the point that Jacobs and New Urbanism are not the same thing (and to further point out that Jacobs has criticized, as well as praised, New Urbanism). In other words, since Wiles doesn’t seem to be saying it in his essay (at least not clearly and well), a number of commenters seem to have felt it necessary to make the point themselves.

    Here are some of the Wiles quotes that come to mind [added emphasis is mine — BH]:

    Wiles starts off with, “[Jacobs] died in 2006 but continues to EXERT INFLUENCE over the urban debate, PRIMARILY [?] via that dreary federacy of messianic dovecote enthusiasts, the ‘New Urbanists,’ who have taken her up as a kind of guiding prophet.” [In other words, is he saying that Jacobs’ main continuing influence is through New Urbanists? — BH]

    He then says, admittedly, “Jacobs could not be held responsible for what has been committed in her name by the New Urbanists and their insipid watercolour view of the city.”

    BUT then he writes, “I am not going to presume to have a deeper understanding of Jane Jacobs than the Nurbanists, and attempt to snatch the relics back -– they are, frankly, welcome to them. [In other words, is he saying that he’s not going to be bothered arguing that Jacobs work is different from, and actually contradicts, New Urbanism? — BH] WE ARE NEVER GOING TO MOVE FORWARD IF WE GET BOGGED DOWN INTO A RECONDITE DISPUTE ABOUT ‘WHAT SHE REALLY MEANT.'” [In other words, is he saying what Jacobs actually wrote doesn’t, in the end, really matter? — BH.]

    So I don’t think it’s clear from the essay that Wiles sees Jacobs’ work as being different from New Urbanism.

    PLUS, in the context of this Wiles essay having been linked to your “shock and awe” article, it isn’t clear from either of the posts how Jacobs’ thoughts about “shock and awe” in particular differ from those that are being attributed to New Urbanism.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sun., Nov. 11, 2012, 6:45 pm

  16. Benjamin Hemric says:

    P.S. — Let me also say that Wiles’ meandering essay seems to me to be somewhat confused and misleading about the meaning of “Death and Life of Great American Cities” in general (leaving aside any supposed relationship to New Urbanism). Some of what he writes is on target, but much of it isn’t.

    He also seems to uncritically accept and perpetuate a number of myths that surround Jacobs’ work. (I hope to write about these myths at some later time.)

    Wiles dismisses (yet admits that he hasn’t actually read) “Economy of Cities.” I think it’s a mistake to dismiss a book that one hasn’t read (and without even giving the detailed reasons of others). Furthermore, I think it’s a mistake for him to discuss, at this late date, the meaning of “Death and Life . . . ” without having read, “Economy of Cities” (or it would seem, any of her other major works — since they are mostly about economics too and he doesn’t mention any of them). I think all of Jacobs’ major books are of a piece, and as one goes through each one of them one sees a pattern that helps one better understand the larger “meaning” of each of them.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sun., Nov. 11, 2012, 7:35 pm

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