IN THE 20TH CENTURY, experts told cities across the country they needed in-city highways to successfully compete with modern metropolises. In the 21st century, “iconic towers” like the Shard are the new freeways. “Paris lost 170,000 jobs to Lyon,” they whisper (suggesting somehow that Cleveland or Orlando might become the new financial capital of North America). “Your city will lose out in the global marketplace unless you build shiny, new mega-towers like Shanghai and Dubai.”
Now, we’re tearing down some of those old freeways, and we wish we could afford to tear down more of them. Pulling down 100-story towers will be even more expensive and difficult. We could save ourselves a lot of bad urbanism and future expense if we simply don’t build them.
Mayor Bloomberg, REBNY and Commissioner Burden tried to sell the city 5 new Iconic Towers in midtown Manhattan just before Mayor Mike left office. “Innovative, challenging design, keeps a city young, and vibrant and compelling,” Burden said. “It shows that a city importantly is open to change, entrepreneurial thinking and creative engagement. Density, diversity, tolerance and aspiration are all quintessential New York City qualities, that are translated through the language of city design, and are key to attracting city investment.”
That all sounds good, I have to admit. But it’s easy to disagree when you look closely. Essentially, that takes the old Bilbao strategy and blows it up to a mega-scale. The original idea was that every city would benefit from a daring new cultural building designed by a Starchitect. The Bilbao Guggenheim is a great building, but that theory turned out to be nonsense. The failure of one of the Starchitect centers that followed in Bilbao’s wake, Peter Eisenman’s City of Culture (also in Spain), was so spectacular and costly that it brought down governments. There were many more modest failures all over the world, and there probably never was “another Bilbao.”
Britain’s architects, developers, and bankers were the first to take the theory to the next level. Instead of small, Starchitect-designed cultural monuments, they talked about Starchitect-designed mega-towers. British architect Richard Rogers sold the Labour governments of Britain and London on the importance of Iconic Towers and “the WOW Factor” (John Norquist: “It’s only a short step from Wow to Bow Wow”). The developers liked them because the glass-skin towers were cheap to build and very, very profitable. The bankers liked them because they were very profitable and easy to invest in. New towers have formulas for predicting return on investment similar to the bundles of real estate investments Wall Street is used to trading. The individualized, more particular renovation of individual old buildings don’t fit as easily on a spreadsheet, and the renovations don’t bundle together like quantifiable commodities such as shopping centers with national tenants.
There are other lessons to take away from the Shard: Londoners don’t want to live in the tower, and they apparently don’t want to work there, either. The apartments sell almost exclusively to foreigners who don’t want to live in London but who want to park their money in the city’s real estate. The office floors haven’t been renting, and London nevertheless suffers from the despoiling of the London skyline. Someone should tell them the old Chicago joke about the Sears Tower: It has the best views in the city (because you can’t see the Sears Tower when you’re inside it.)
One drawback for potential tenants is the Shard’s location, on the opposite side of the Thames from London’s financial center, the City. The lessons of the Shard probably contributed to Mayor Mike’s strong arm tactics in trying to push through the unpopular rezoning of East Midtown. But New York City can learn different lessons: the Iconic Towers in the City have destroyed the pleasure of walking along many of the City’s once-beautiful streets, like Bishopsgate. As the Starchitect Rem Koolhaas points out, the iconic towers don’t play well together, so they don’t make good streets.
New Yorkers expect that the question of rezoning Midtown will come up again, probably this year. REBNY will once again say we need Iconic Towers. Why? Does anyone believe that Dubai is more likely than Cleveland to take away New York’s position as financial capital of North America? Or that New York will no longer be able to compete with London if we don’t put our own Shard next to Grand Central?
Or do these towers enrich a a handful of the richest developers and their investors at the expense of the city and its residents? Most New Yorkers would say, “Yes,” including most of the workers in Midtown (you can look it up). I believe Bloomberg, Burden, and REBNY are sincere in what they say, but what they say is a distinctly minority opinion.