Sunday, March 30th, 2014
This post originally ran on November 1, 2012
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.