Why skyscrapers are overrated

At TEDxPhilly, Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron argues that subtlety, not skyscrapers, is the way to urban innovation.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

PHILADELPHIA -- Skyscrapers may be in vogue among architects and financiers as the prominent path to urban innovation, but city officials should look to less ornamental means to make an impact, Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron said yesterday.

Speaking at the TEDxPhilly conference, Saffron admitted that people are in love with the skyscraper, and citizens and officials alike measure their hometown's worth by how many they have and how tall they reach.

"We tend to, as a nation, associate cities with the dystopian failures of public housing. We talk about concrete jungles and high-rise barracks. But then that began to change," she said. "Suddenly, cities became cool again."

The problem? "When Americans visualize a city, they always imagine skyscrapers," she said, adding that affluent citizens see prestige and progressive city planners see density in height.

"Superheroes used to leap from tall buildings," she said. "Now, skyscrapers are the hero to save [cities]."

Though the skyscraper was invented in the United States with seven- and ten-story structures in New York and Chicago, the latest trend is no more apparent than in emerging economies such as China, India and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom have appropriated the form to signal their intentions to the world, she said.

"For these up and coming societies, skyscrapers are a way of stating their ambition: 'Hey, we're modern too,'" Saffron said. "They also have a billion people to house, and [skyscrapers] are a good way to do that."

But too often, skyscrapers are a one-size-fits-all approach. Saffron argued that while skyscrapers can be a useful tool for growing urban areas, they are just one of many ideas that can address a city's most pressing problems.

"They're one way, but often not the best way," she said.

Take Philadelphia, for example. Earlier this year, the 1,510-ft.-tall American Commerce Center -- expected to be the city's tallest building by a long shot -- was quietly and indefinitely shelved after developers failed to find enough tenants.

"Philadelphia shouldn't waste any time feeling bad about that," she said.

Why, you ask?

"Different cities need different densities," she said. "Or actually, they need a range of densities."

There must be something in-between skyscrapers and farmland, she said. Why not mid-rise buildings?

"You can fit a lot of people in a block of rowhomes," she said, using the local term for a townhouse.

In emerging economies in Asia, the upwardly mobile seek to jump into a great apartment in the sky. But in developed America, where poverty may not be as widespread, it may not be the best option, Saffron said.

"Asians are like adolescents; they grow a foot a month," she said. "Americans are like adults: they've stopped growing."

So while a city like Philadelphia still dreams about billion-dollar skyscrapers, more pressing planning problems remain unsolved, such as access to the city's extensive waterfront, long-blocked by Interstate 95.

Skyscrapers don't create neighborhoods, Saffron argued, but "isolated islands of habitation."

"If you want a neighborhood, you need to build laterally," she said.

As cities tighten budgets and shut down public schools, perhaps smaller, cheaper but more impactful improvements should be pursued: creating bicycle lanes, improving an existing public transit system, building parks in neighborhoods where green space is lacking.

"Instead of focusing on the grand vision, we need to focus on the grand adjustment," Saffron said. "We need to stop measuring our worth by skyscrapers and mega-projects."

A grand adjustment is harder for a politician to capture in a photo-op, but has a much longer lasting effect on the livability of a neighborhood than a skyscraper, Saffron said.

"The best way to increase density in Philadelphia?" she asked. "Build the amenities that will make people want to live here."

Photo: Kevin Monko

More from TEDxPhilly 2011:

Related on SmartPlanet:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards