Critiquing Skyscrapers

I make fun of skyscrapers a lot, so I thought I should back up my scorn with some substantive arguments. Here they are:

Their is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.

High buildings have no genuine advantages, except in speculative gains for banks and landowners. They are not cheaper, they do not help create open space, they destroy the townscape, they destroy social life, they promote crime, they make life difficult for children, they are expensive to maintain, they wreck the open space near them, and they damage the light and air and view.

This comes from, Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language, which has been very influential on planning and architecture. These arguments form the basis for Alexander’s Four-Story Limit “pattern,” or design rule. When I say “argument,” I know I’m just quoting the claims, with narry a warrant in sight, but most are fairly intuitive, and the book does reference quite a few studies and evidence — read it!

The one extremely counter-intuitive claim, that skyscrapers do not help create open space, I will expand upon, as this is often the primary reason given for tall buildings. In fact, Le Corbusier’s Radiant City plans, genesis of much of our tall building obsession, envisioned a city consisting almost entirely of skyscrapers juxtaposed with open land. A completely binary built environment, with the Natural and the Artificial perfectly represented.

Corbu’s plans make a lot of sense when your scale is one building. At that level, an architect has to choose how much of the site should be occupied by the building footprint, and as they go higher to meet the client’s space needs, they can leave more of the site open.

At the city scale, this is not how urban development occurs. Planners, upon lining up a new skyscraper for their downtown, do not convert adjacent zones into parks. In fact, since skyscrapers represent the homes or businesses of huge concentrations of customers, there is huge pressure to turn as much nearby open space into more shops and offices to serve said skyscraper.

In theory, tall buildings are a concentrated supply of some good (housing, offices, or in downtown Los Angeles, jails), and thus reduce demand for the good elsewhere. This reduced demand translated into less political resistance to planners appropriating land for open space…or something. This seems like it would be difficult to show and how economic conditions translate into the political environment seems like it draws on a branch of economics that’s even more pseudo-science than usual…but then again, I abandoned my economics studies.

In any case, in the modern planning environment, where one egomaniac individual doesn’t exercise control over density trade-offs, municipalities decide how much park land they are willing to purchase and maintain based on their budget, then allot it (ideally) based on where their people live. They don’t check the city’s density level first.

Skyscrapers do not create open space. Whether they create conditions that one day might, if we’re lucky, allow for their to possibly be more open space, maybe…well I don’t know about that. But this all seems like another example of Le Corbusier straying beyond his natural scale and creating problems.

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