Sky City Fantasies

For the Fallen World of September 12, Visions of a Vertical Future

The base of Soleri's new WTC
illustration: Arco Design

Still, many urban planners feel they're sailing between the Scylla of soulless vertical gigantism in our cities and the Charybdis of suburban sprawl, with its monotony and automobile fetishism. Jane Jacobs warned against both 40 years ago in her ringing jeremiad, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. While she laments the bloodshed, she has derided the twin towers as having been "predators" that devoured public funds. Jacobs tells the Voice that skyscraper competition is "literally very childish, like children playing with blocks."

She sees a World Trade Center that, like many skyscrapers, was insidiously dehumanizing, a corporate version of the housing project. Ideally, skyscrapers prevent glum office boxes from eating up precious acres of pedestrian commons. "They free up space on the ground for things people want and need, like flowers and trees," comments Henry Guthard, chief engineer of the World Trade Center design for the architectural firm Yamasaki & Associates. Jacobs, though, argues the street-level plaza beneath the twin towers was a windswept absence overshadowed by stacks of anonymous cubicles.

Sketch for a new World Trade Center
illustration: Paolo Soleri
Sketch for a new World Trade Center

Jacobs, who left Greenwich Village for Toronto a generation ago, wields tremendous influence still. Her arguments, coupled with security concerns and thin wallets, could add up to blander skylines. Duke University historian and engineer Henry Petroski posits that the pressure to not stand out—as a target or financial risk—could produce skylines "as flat as mesas."

There's a hunger for something more stirring. In posts to the grassroots, amateurs imagineered designs that yearn for the heroic.

Skyscrapers have never been just a fad. They've never faded to the margins—and probably won't—because in their American way they continue a much deeper tradition of upward striving, from East Asian pagodas and the ziggurats of Mesopotamia to the pyramids of Egypt, Central America, and Angkor Wat. The last standing shard of the World Trade Center stood as morbid testament to the cultural ties between foes at ground zero: Leading the eyes to smoke and nothingness were pointed arches, a legacy of Arab culture and engineering passed on to Europe.

The symbolic power of skyscrapers to put the world on notice is obviously still potent today. Asia has famously taken up the torch, with the twin Petronas Towers reigning as the world's tallest, albeit by a needle. They're seconded on that continent by the Jin Mao building in Shanghai. A plan for a Korean unification railroad would boast the world's tallest building as its golden spike, and other plans back-burnered by the recession could be revived in a few years' time.

Skyscrapers become the face of a city to outsiders, but do they inspire residents? Would David Byrne have become a Talking Head without the towers that defined True South for Manhattan? "Down El Paso way things get pretty spread out," he sang. "People got no idea where in the world they are./They go up north and come back south./Still got no idea where in the world they are."

Byrne didn't like what he saw out west, and the highway's daughter, the Internet, is a force for decentralization again. In a Wired magazine piece, Steven Johnson, Internet journalist and author of the new Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, asserts that breaking cities into nodes might cut our losses in the event of a chemical or biological attack, or simply another explosive one. He admires the "distributed density" of the "hill towns of northern Italy."

Johnson doesn't advocate satellite cities of office parks, or even the "garden cities" in which last century's New York planners dabbled. His thesis is that urban vitality can be birthed in hubs of 100,000 moderately neighborly people separated by parkland. New York started that way, in fact, and we're seeing smaller enclaves once again come into their own as artists and immigrants get priced out of Manhattan. Painters wander the wilds of Long Island City and Williamsburg, and Asian businessmen fly into Kennedy or LaGuardia and do business in Flushing without ever leaving Queens. But Johnson places a lot of faith in technology to weave together the creativity of these myriad street lives. Besides, it's a bit late for New York to revamp itself into vineyard villas. A single neighborhood here can exceed 100,000 inhabitants.

Even so, it takes more than an East Village to raise a Byrne. The twin towers may well have fed off subsidies, but their impact flowed far beyond rent collections. The most talented people in business wanted to be near them, if not in them. If they were trophies, it was to New York's advantage to have such trophies, such lures, to offer. The salaries those workers took in, and the wealth they produced, poured into the city through taxes, restaurant tips to waiters who are really actors, gallery purchases, theater tickets, cash donations to nonprofits, and book sales. That all eventually gets recycled into cover charges at CBGB.

Plans for the Ultima Tower
illustration: Tsui Design and Research Inc.

Henry George, a political economist and populist who in the 19th century was twice nearly mayor of New York (Tammany Hall apparently made sure ballots in the first election wound up in the East River, and George died of natural causes days before a predicted victory in the second), would have reveled in our crowded streets, massive libraries, and especially our breathtakingly tall buildings. His landmark work, Progress and Poverty, tossed aside the squeamishness over the press of flesh with which Thoreau marked American philosophy, writing of the city, "Here are the granaries of knowledge. . . . Here intellectual activity is gathered into a focus and here springs that stimulus which is born of the collision of mind with mind."

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