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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Blog Versus: Architecture, Surrendering the Sky

Just for fun, a debate on our site. Today's topic is Architecture. You can read the Hopeful Pessimist's post here.

Here is an interesting comparison between 1987 and 2013 in two photos. It does seem like the US is slipping behind other countries in the "cool new buildings!" department. Granted, a few cities here have grown and gained some interesting skylines, but New York and Chicago have the two tallest skylines in the country. Two of the four tallest building in New York were built in the 1930s (though to be fair the World Trade Center buildings were taller than either, and the new World Trade Center building is even taller). Many of the tallest buildings are outside of the US, in rising countries like China (or, oddly enough, Malaysia), or oil-rich Middle Eastern countries.

To be fair, we've limited ourselves after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, but still. The reason why I mention this at all is that there is some sense of wonder that goes with building taller towers and reaching higher heights. There is something to be said for the creative imagination of a civilization which bothers to build ever higher buildings, requiring ever more creative methods of engineering and architecture.

It is my opinion that some of the greatest architecture in the world is the Gothic style employed throughout Europe during the high Middle Ages, and a part of this great architecture was the use of the flying buttress to make ever taller buildings. These taller buildings, the skyscrapers of the medieval era, were a sort of prayer in stone and wood, pointing ever upward and drawing the onlooker's attention towards Heaven. Yes, there were other features than merely the impressive new heights achievable, but the ability of these buildings to make the onlooker feel small and unimportant, yet at the same time of infinite worth, this is itself a great feat. Nor was it a fad, as can be seen by the great Cathedral in Cologne, a project which spanned the centuries (began in 1284, complete 600 years later, albeit with some delays).

It's not just church architecture which has grown stale in the last fifty or so years: first the architecture was changed from fancy-looking art deco to boring box-like structures, then the heights became mostly lower. Where is America's Burj Khalifa, or Tapei 101, or Shanghai Tower, or Abraj Al Bait? There was a time when many of the tallest buildings of the world stood in America, and for over 40 years the Empire State Building held that distinction (only to lose it to the Sears Tower in Chicago, which held it until the construction of the World Trade Center buildings).

Small towns and country hamlets are nice and all, but building these newer and larger buildings hardly destroys these. If, as the Hopeful Pessimist claims, the people of the countryside aren't keep on moving into the cities to fill these new buildings, then no harm has been done here. And I'm not advocating that these new building be constructed in new cities, but rather in existing cities to which people are already moving. He should know something about this, living in a city which is experiencing a tremendous amount of growth, and which is in fact seeing rent rates and home ownership costs spike as the city's planners struggle to keep up with the housing demand. Would not building up rather than out help alleviate some of this?

The distinction of buildings which touch the sky once belonged to the US, but not that heritage is being surrendered to other countries, whether China or Malaysia or elsewhere. We have only one of the 10 tallest anymore, which is the building replacing the two WTC towers. We have only two more in the top 20 (though this is after losing the two towers). It is as if we have decided that taller is no longer worth the trouble. The twenty first century may be an era of architectural marvels, but it seems that America will not be home to them.

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