Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Replay: Shock and Awe

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.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Urban Culture

40 Responses to “Replay: Shock and Awe”

  1. John Morris says:

    “worst design decision was changing the zoning to allow skyscrapers.”

    Is the difference between allowing something and mandating it that hard to understand?

  2. Carl Wohlt says:

    I think it was SOM’s Bruce Graham who once said something to the effect that Midwest prairie cities should build structures as tall as possible to provide visual drama that compensates for the absence of compelling natural features such as mountains. It makes sense. When I had clients in the Willis Tower and other Loop high-rises, it was difficult not to be awestruck by the panoramic cityscapes one could see from the windows of the upper floors.

    What’s been lost from so much post WW II high-rise construction is the sophisticated manner in which many of their earlier predecessors met the street. Chicago’s Palmolive building is a great example.

    It’s Lindbergh Beacon provides a signature postcard feature, but it’s the way that the elegantly detailed store fronts nestle gently into Michigan Avenue that make it a great example of a high-rise functioning at the highest levels of urban design. Rockefeller Center in New York from the same era exemplifies many of the same urban design charms at street level.

    I take your point about high-rise design in auto oriented cities. It’s mostly pretty awful. But it didn’t have to be, and there plenty of quality modern American antecedents that could have been used as models if the architects had been savvy enough to access them.

  3. wkg in bham says:

    @Carl: “What’s been lost from so much post WW II high-rise construction is the sophisticated manner in which many of their earlier predecessors met the street. Chicago’s Palmolive building is a great example.”

    I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but let’s face it. Pretty much everything built since 1940 sucks. I think Tom Wolf sums up the whole situation in his book “From Bauhaus to Our House”.

  4. Roland S says:

    This is definitely an area that I think needs further exploration. I’ve personally tried to take off the Jane Jacobs-colored glasses and look at the last 70 years of citybuilding objectively.

    In Chicago, many urbanists reflexively hate the idea of Lake Shore Drive, that a highway would separate a great city from its lakefront is offensive to them. To me, however, and many others, the experience of driving on that highway is one of the most sublime experiences available in the city. It’s been memorialized in song, movies, and countless photographs.

    It is, however, important to realize that urbanists have other available paths to the sublime besides scale and speed. Culture clash and diversity can also produce this, but people self-segregate to avoid it.

  5. ironwood says:


    You specifically state your concern about skyscrapers is for car-oriented cities. Okay, you’ve already set the parameters of the problem — and the solution: what to do with the cars. I’d be interested in your thoughts on how to solve the car part of the equation so that such cities can have streetscape-friendly hi-rises. This is one place where good, pragmatic design and some functional transportation planning should be able to cut short yet another yawning debate about urbanism. I know you and your readers can come up with some design/program ideas. And I’m pretty sure there are some good examples out there. Build those concepts into Indy’s zoning ordinance and voila.

  6. Chris Barnett says:

    Ironwood, it’s simple: If your development takes up half a block, push the buildings up to at least two street edges, and if possible, wrap the parking structure with offices or housing. Indianapolis’ tallest building (Chase Tower) has an office podium fronting Ohio Street, which screens one side of the parking deck.

  7. myb6 says:

    There are good skyscrapers and bad skyscrapers, no need to outlaw with a broad brush. What matters is the way a super-scaled place is actually interacted with. A skyscraper can be humanized for pedestrians while sublime for those on the observation deck or viewing from across the city. What you have to avoid, and what’s we’ve done almost exclusively for a couple generations now, is to build places where the interaction is homogenously super-human-scaled, robbing that scale of any transcendence and just making it hostile. Your criticism is counter-productive.

    It’s unfortunate when writers condescend to moderate urbanism’s extremes when urbanism is the side that’s currently marginalized and is merely seeking a shift to the middle. A shift back to a traditional pattern no less, the very empitome of small-c conservative.

  8. Brent says:

    Barcelona has as many skyscrapers as Indy…

  9. John Morris says:

    At least as many.

    Aaron never exactly defines “skyscraper”. My guess is both Barcelona & Paris are made up of 6-10 story buildings, many people in Indy might consider in that category.

    He also strongly implies that a tall building = office building- a totally American POV.

    The question never asked is exactly how did the city get this car oriented in the first place- and what role height limits and other anti urban zoning restrictions played in that.

    I guess this better than his sci-fi based anti skyscraper post which also confused allowing tall buildings and mandating them.

  10. wkg in bham says:

    A random thought: The idea of “Shock and Awe” congers the idea of something huge and powerful: a sky scraper or the Golden Gate Bridge. But it can come in small packages too. Witness the Alamo in San Antonio, or a reproduction of one of C. Columbus’s boats.

    Sometimes it comes as a mere anachronism: the delight of an old clock or an Amish Community.

    Awe comes in many sizes and guises.

  11. wkg in bham says:

    Sometimes bigger is just worse. Consider the floating monstrosities of Carnival, or Royal Caribbean. I hate to raise the issue because of the emotional baggage it carries: but the twin towers in NYC – the only redeeming feature was – well they’re really tall.

    Got to admit, we’re really building some nifty bridges now.

  12. Chris Barnett says:

    Working definition of “skyscraper”: too many floors to count from a vantage point on the street.

    wkg, I have to disagree. I think “shock and awe” implies huge, something on a scale too vast for a person to take in at once.

    Diagonally across from the Chase Tower in Indy is the former tallest building, now colloquially called the Regions Bank building. It is done in the 60s-70s superhuman scale, with a “plaza” level set up a few steps from the street, a barrier of planters, and 3-4 story colonnade. That superhuman scale is what conveys the shock and awe.

    Even in nature, it is the grand scenes that convey shock and awe: who can forget that sense when seeing the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls for the first time? Or the Front Range of the Rockies coming into view across the steppes of eastern Colorado?

    Unexpected small things might carry the “awe” to those of us who appreciate engineering or natural detail, but I think they fail the “shock” test.

  13. anonymouse says:

    “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.”

    But that connection happens, mostly, through a human-scale entrance from the street through a building that looks like an ordinary commercial building of the type you’d expect to find on an ordinary commercial street. Likewise, the Empire State Building is a big skyline feature, but at the same time, looks like a perfectly ordinary commercial block if you look at it from the street and don’t look at what’s on top. The magic of the city is that it works at many scales, and the monumental and the mundane are not mutually incompatible.

  14. wkg in bham says:

    Shock and awe moments:

    On a plane from Albany, New York to Birmingham. Our route followed the Hudson River south for quite a while then we swung west as we neared NYC. I had a window seat on the port side of the plane. It was late afternoon on a nice day and visibility was good. As we passed NYC I could Manhattan off in the distance. It just glowed. You’ve heard the expression “great white way”. At least on this day, it really was a great glowing white mass. Awesome.

    Was driving home to Cocoa Beach and pulled off in Daytona to get something to eat. Drove down “Speedway Avenue” which connects I95 to Daytona. The racetrack is on Speedway Avenue. I’ve been in a lot of big stadiums – but this was like nothing I had ever seen before. The grandstand goes on and on and on. I just couldn’t get over how big it was.

    I was driving from Gainesville, Florida to Pensacola in 1971. I had just gotten out of college and was reporting to the US Navy for active duty. My car was my college clunker that could only do about 50 mph without overheating. Stuck to state highways since I couldn’t really do interstate speeds. This took me through a section of the state we call “the big bend”. This area is sparsely populated now. Then it was almost empty. My route took me through Tallahassee. It was a very modest sized city at the time and very compact. I had been driving through a pine forest for at least a hundred miles. The contour of the road resulted in an experience of “woods, nothing, more woods, trees, more trees……”. Then all of a sudden the vista opens up and there’s the capital sitting on top of a hill. Seemingly out of nowhere. The experience was jarring, beautiful and unexpected.

    Was flying back from LAX to Atlanta. Had just finished a cruise from Jamaica to LA via the Panama Canal.We took off in a westward direction over the Pacific Ocean. The pilot then swings it around to head east to Atlanta. So anyway we’ve been airborne for at least five minutes as we recrossed the coast line headed east. Had a good window seat and was enjoying the view. When all of sudden here come these huge mountains into view. Some of the peaks where higher the plane was. Yikes. What we call mountains in the east are a joke. I was breath taken. As an aside, I didn’t find the Panama Canal to be all that big a deal.

    I was working on a storm detail after Hurricane Katrina. Drove down from Birmingham and worked the Mobile area for a week to get it all back up. The damage in Mobile was pretty routine, at least for a hurricane. Then we moved over to work Biloxi/Gulfport, Mississippi. Even that didn’t seem all that bad – until we got down to neighborhood on the coast. It was a sea of mashed up structures, twisted up trucks and cars. The national guard had brought in bull-dozers and cleared the streets. You’d drive down a street and there’d be a wall of rubble on either side 8 or 10 feet high. Ocassionally you’d come across a house that somehow managed to survive. On it would be a big spray painted X with numbers. Someone had gone through these houses to see anyone dead was inside. The X and the numbers were some kind of code. This was shock and awe – and not the good kind.

    Can something provide shock and awe more than once? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

  15. John Morris says:

    I think numbers painted in orange mean a building is deemed beyond repair and slated for demolition.

  16. John Morris says:

    I guess my position is that in large metro areas, some level of “shock & awe” is inevitable but the push and pull of practical economics balances it out. Should politicians be using force to create projects like the “freedom tower” built just to impress? No.

  17. wkg in bham says:

    @john “Should politicians be using force to create projects like the “freedom tower” built just to impress?” Under normal circumstances I’d agree. I think Freedeom Tower is a statement. A response to 9-11.

  18. wkg in bham says:

    @John: I have more of a problem with the big stadium so the city can have NFL team and be up the big leagues.

    An aside: my admiration for the City of Atlanta has really grown in the last 10-15 years. I used to be one of your standard sun belt sprawlbergs. It still sprawls with the best of them – but a real city is growing in the middle.

    Recently the Braves baseball team was agitating for a new ball park. City turned them down flat. Braves threatened to move. City told them to take a hike.
    Braves moving to burbs.

  19. John Morris says:

    I visited Atlanta for the first time in December and was impressed. We stayed in a streetcar neighborhood called Virginia Highland, walked to Midtown attractions- hipster neighborhoods like Little Five Points. Saw the start of nice infill in the Old 4th Ward. Many upper middle class blacks in Buckhead.

    Wish we had more time. Couldn’t get a full feel of things.

    The Michael C. Carlos Museum is now an all time favorite.

  20. urbanleftbehind says:

    Actually, the Cubs should have threatened to move too. They get too much credit for the Lakeview revival. It was actually Lakeview’s location as the closest, densest, most amenity-laden community relative to the then-popular corporate office park centers in Schaumburg and Lake-Cook Road in the early 1980s.

  21. John Morris says:

    We took Marta to Buckhead- Very poor service on the weekends. You can enjoy Atlanta without a car!

    One thing that seemed weird was how rare bicyclists were considering the milder weather & wide streets. I’m not a fanatic, but a lot of the city we saw seemed just right for cycling.

  22. wkg in bham says:

    @ john: virginia-highlands and little five points my two favorite neighborhoods in the city.

    re bikes: now that i think of it you really don’t see much of it. Could be that except for a few select neighborhoods you’d almost have to have a death-wish to ride one.

  23. wkg in bham says:

    @urban….: Cubs moving would be idiotic. It’s the Wrigley connection that defines the Cubs.

    Cubs playing anywhere else would destroy their mystique. People certainly love the Cubs for baseball playing ability.

  24. John Morris says:

    “bikes: now that i think of it you really don’t see much of it. Could be that except for a few select neighborhoods you’d almost have to have a death-wish to ride one.”

    In other words the car culture/ way people drive would make it dangerous. That is my impression. Even so, the layout of the city seemed right for it.

    We basically only saw a pretty small part of the city.

  25. Chris Barnett says:

    wkg: we agree. Shock and awe happens once per place.

    There is some level of “City Beautiful” city design that conveys shock and awe, and The National Mall in DC is possibly the epitome.

  26. Paul Angelone says:

    I wanted to expand a bit on your mention of DC building height and that the restriction is not based on any particular building. The often cited example is that no building can be taller than the Capitol Dome. This simply is a myth. Instead, the legal height of a building is set by the size of the street. So a building can be as tall as the street’s right of way plus 20 feet or 130 feet tall (whichever is shorter). This is so that smaller streets have smaller buildings and larger streets have larger buildings. The height limit is set by Congress which of course the District has no voting members.

    The Washington Post has an interesting article on the recent moves to modify the Height Act: It’s interesting to think about the different styles. One of the concerns I have with having these height restrictions (and bringing this back to your article) is that these restrictions are causing developers to try and build to the entire allowable space. This is resulting in many boxy buildings with very little interesting features. The other issue is that over the next ten years it is expected that the District will gain another 200,000 residents. This is causing the price of already expensive apartments to be even more expensive. Increasing the density is going to be required and there are certain neighborhoods that would not have huge detrimental impacts by building taller buildings. This is something that is occurring in Paris, London, and Philadelphia. Plus this extra taxes collected could help pay for further public transportation expansion and badly needed upgrades!

    While I agree about your thoughts about skyscrapers creating dead zones I think the most important thing is not to go after the size of the building but instead how it relates to the street and strengthens the built environment to more of a “human-scale.” The last think you want is to discourage an active streetscapes.

  27. wkg in bham says:

    @Chris “There is some level of “City Beautiful” city design that conveys shock and awe, and The National Mall in DC is possibly the epitome”

    Wasn’t the 1900-1940 a great period for the built environ ment! I’ll stick to Washington here. But consider the post WWII era. Can you think of anything that has been built since 1940 that is at all iconic? I can think of the Iwo Jima memorial. Maybe the Pentagon. Some might consider the Viet Nam memorial – but I think this is a persorsonal thing and as time goes by it will become ho-hum.

    What we do have is the butt ugly Kennedy Center, the banal Pei addition to the National Art Museum, ……

  28. wkg in bham says:

    @paul: “This is causing the price of already expensive apartments to be even more expensive. Increasing the density is going to be required and there are certain neighborhoods that would not have huge detrimental impacts by building taller buildings.” I’d be curious to get your take on an issue.

    Is there a shorage of developable land in general, or just a shortage in desierable neighborhood? Consider Chicago; it’s my understanding (I’ve been to Chicago and my only experience with the place was to ride the El from the airport to downtown and back) that land downtown and the northside is rediculously expensive. But on the southside the city is buying old industrial sites and “land banking” them as “urban forests”.

  29. Chris Barnett says:

    wkg, I think the Air & Space Museum might qualify for its lightness while still being formal and structured. I almost mentioned the Iwo Jima memorial and the Pentagon also.

    I actually like the I.M. Pei East Wing of the NGA: It shocked and awed me, as did Harry Weese’s Metro Center the first time I walked through it. But then, I learned to like modern architecture as a child in its Mecca, Columbus (Indiana), where the public library was designed by Pei and my elementary school by Weese.

  30. wkg in bham says:

    @Chris: My knowledge of the city is very dusty. I actually lived in Washington until I was about 14. In Prince George’s County. Since then just a couple of weeks on a Naval Reserve assignment and week or so on a business trip about 15 years ago I haven’t been there since.

    In Birmingham we have a Pei building; it’s the Kirkland Clinic. Whenever I bring up the building to others I kind of get this dumb look. I have to explain to them “you know that building with the barren plaza this the big jet of water that squirts water way into the air and pisses everybody off?” Then I get the big ah-ha. “Now I know which one you’re talking about”. People don’t hate it. They don’t even know it exists. It’s totally anonymous.

    Is the Pei addition a bad building? No. It’s OK. (As opposed to the Kennedy Center which I think should be vaporized). But it happens to exist next to the Mellon Building which is a great building.

    I just love Georgetown. I think it is so cool. Ditto the DuPont Circle area.

  31. wkg in bham says:

    I kind of let this one go by: “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.

    How do you explain the Statue of Liberty, the St. Louis Arch, Monument Circle, Or a on a local level, the statue of Vulcan sitting up on top of Red Mountain with his torch. Even such mundane things as the Hollywood sign in LA or the Rocky Statue in Philly?

    I don’t know any fancy words to explain why such things, other than they are.

  32. wkg in bham says:

    Oops that should have been “I don’t know any fancy words to explain why such things are important, other than they are.”

  33. John Morris says:

    But can we know in advance what might be sublime? The Guggenheim Museum was bitterly opposed. The Wall Street Bull traders love was dropped in a park in the middle of the night, illegally.

  34. John Morris says:

    The Hollywood Sign was just an ad for real estate that resonated.

  35. wkg in bham says:

    @John: “But can we know in advance what might be sublime?”

    In a lot of cases you really can’t. Fortunately, for a painting or a sculpture, if you thought something was really neat and upon experience determines that it really sucks, well you can punch the big “undo” button. With a building or a monument it’s not so easy. The best I can offer is: (1) don’t be hasty, (2) look for the judgment of more than the resident entrenched gurus, (3) look for quality workmanship and materials and …….

  36. John Morris says:

    I doubt one can get the sublime without accepting a lot things that suck. We don’t seem to accept that anymore.

  37. wkg in bham says:

    @John: “The Hollywood Sign was just an ad for real estate that resonated.”


    Did Robles (or something like that) know he was builing a masterpiece for the ages with the Brooklyn Bridge?” I think he was just trying to build a bridge. Sometimes life just turns into a “big go figure”.

  38. Chris Barnett says:

    Shock and awe doesn’t have to be good, John. And some of it is anti-urban.

    Mall of America. Any schlocky themed super-hotel in Las Vegas. Think back to the 70s, the beginning of the “super-hotel” era when John Portman was designing downtown Hyatts with 20+ story interior skylit lobbies. Think of the 70s incarnation of the Renaissance Center (with its original 20-foot-high wall at the street)’s “OMG” stuff, but not always in a good way.

  39. Paul Angelone says:

    Except for the rail corridors there is not a lot of industrial buildings within the DC area. I also wouldn’t characterize the city as like the south side of Chicago (although there are great places in that area of town) but the city is rapidly gentrifying and changing the character of neighborhoods. There’s a lot of infill development and low/mid-rise buildings being constructed. Much of the development is pushing out current residents and there needs to be stronger regulations regarding building of affordable housing within new construction. This was a major point of the recent mayoral primary and is a constant issue that is raised in local politics. One of the main ways that additional density can be added — without changing the height limits — is to up-zone neighborhoods in the far Northwest and far Northeast of the city. Much of these neighborhoods are single family detached homes like Meridian-Kessler.

    Regarding your comment on iconic architecture in the city I think it’s important to remember that buildings in DC work to complement the main focal point of the city: the Capitol Building. This is was the reason the city was created. So along the mall the Smithsonian museums work to complement the Mall. So you have interesting and good architecture being built but it’s woven into the city. This includes the Native American Museum as well as the under construction African-American Museum. Then you have other standout buildings like the Canadian Embassy, Dunbar High School, the News Museum, the NPR building, and the United Institutes of Peace. For more landscape architecture you should check out the finalist for the National Mall Design Competition: This could really change how folks use the Mall and enhance the “iconic” nature of the space overall and enhance the view of the Capitol.

    Finally, if you’re interested in checking out the City-Beautiful movement in the city the best place to do it is at Malcolm X Park/Meridian Hill Park ( It’s by far the best example of City Beautiful Movement in the District and houses the only women on a horse statue.

  40. Nathanael says:

    The central train station, usually with a huge tall hall, was one of the traditional “iconic temples” of 19th century small city development.

    And unlike a skyscraper, it does NOT need a zillion decks of parking. For fairly obvious reasons.

    There’s a reason people hark back to the idea of a town centered around its train station. It worked.

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