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Today’s Skyscrapers Assault the Skyline and the Street

Why do we dislike modern skyscrapers? Well, most of us do, at least.

The architects, as well as the reviewers for fashionable architectural journals, tell another story: These buildings—the recently completed LinkedIn building in San Francisco, for instance—are expressions of the time in which we live, are full of the energy and defiance of the Internet society, are the presence of youth in the decaying structures of the past, and… Well, you can fill in the gaps for yourself. Just remember to use the buzzwords—vibrant, exciting, challenging, cutting edge—and you will have produced an impeccable work of architectural criticism, suitable for even the glossiest magazine.

But those buzz words provide the real answer to my question. “Cutting edge,” for instance: Is that not a perfect description of the edges of the LinkedIn building, which neither bend to accommodate the neighbors nor retreat from the line of the street, but simply cut and slash their way to domination? And is that what we want from a vast building in the centre of a once beautiful city? “Exciting,” “vibrant,” and the other millennial clichés: Do we really want to live among buildings with attributes like those?

Think of the old center of Boston: not an excitement to be found, only quiet, polite façades standing side by side in conversation, symbols of a world at peace with itself—except, of course, for the 1968 Boston City Hall, that chunk of vibrant concrete that has created all around itself a desert of disaffection.

The Chrysler Building (Wikimedia Commons)

It is not the cutting edge that we ordinary observers want, but the gentle and retreating edge, the cheerful pinnacle and the polite façade. Look at the first generation of skyscrapers and you find those things in abundance. The lovely pinnacle of New York City’s Chrysler Building, for example, which does not assault the sky like an angry fist, but proudly stands above the city like a cathedral spire, puncturing the sky but also gently repairing the injury. Those old skyscrapers followed the line of the street, so that their edges did not jostle their neighbours aside, but simply rose beside them, conceding space at street level. And the meeting of the building and the street was not, as it now so often is, an abrupt horizontal, like a crushing block of concrete on the toe, but a collection of colonnades and arches, a busy labyrinth of welcomes, that blended with the doors and windows to either side.

We learn from those old skyscrapers that the height of a building does not in itself detach it from the city. There are critical points where building and city meet, and where it is good manners rather than “cutting-edge” excitement that are most required. These points are three: the skyline, the street line, and the vertical order that unites them.

Study those things and you will quickly find an answer to my question. The modern skyscraper has no skyline: merely a blunt fist thrust above the city, without grace or courtesy. It has no façade at street level, but merely an opening somewhere, marked if at all by some garish logo, and surrounded by characterless steel and glass. And the two extremities are not joined together in any meaningful way, since the only vertical lines are the sharp forbidding edges of the building, brandished like threats towards the buildings to either side. Top and bottom are simply the first and last of a stack of trays, producing an effect of accumulated horizontals in which all vertical order—all true posture towards the city—is lost in a vision of junk.

Roger Scruton is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow [1].

Follow @Roger_Scruton [2] Follow @NewUrbs [3]

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Today’s Skyscrapers Assault the Skyline and the Street"

#1 Comment By I Don’t Matter On March 8, 2018 @ 10:55 pm

TAC – do you have to keep publishing random people’s rants about architecture? These are worse than opinion pieces, what with the authors grandiosely confusing their personal tastes for universal truths. “Not the cutting edge we ordinary observers want” – speak for yourself, why don’t you?

#2 Comment By Aaron Paolozzi On March 9, 2018 @ 12:22 pm

In response to the previous comment by “I Don’t Matter”:

I believe their series of articles on architecture is a continuing line of thought towards the New Urbanism they are trying to endorse. I, for one, agree with the sentiment, though I’m open to argument. I enjoy the pieces and enjoy the comparisons to older architecture. Not to say I find all modern buildings gloomy and soul sucking, I enjoy Seattle’s current trend of modern buildings, but I equally enjoy the old brick and feel of “old town” anywhere.

#3 Comment By DennisW On March 9, 2018 @ 1:08 pm

Says “I Don’t Matter”: “…do you have to keep publishing random people’s rants about architecture?’

Leave aside that this article was no mere “rant”. The fact that you dismiss Roger Scruton, one of the finest and most accomplished writers and thinkers around on a wide variety of subjects (including aesthetics and architecture), as some “random” person, indicates that you are either utterly clueless or just a troll being provocative for the sake of it.

However, you are right about one thing: You truly don’t matter.

#4 Comment By I Don’t Matter On March 9, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

No, I don’t matter. But do you find it funny that your only argument is that Roger Scruton is “finest and all that”, and therefore deserves deference? Consider: if he published anonymously, you would have anything to defend his pretence that he represents some encompassing “we” who prefer Chrysler Building over glass towers? Or would you maybe find his lazy lumping of all “modern skyscrapers” together as a soulless heap, despite quite a variety of designs and uses, a little bit lacking?
Words on the page matter. Nothing else does. Thank you for validating my screen name so pointedly.

#5 Comment By Eric K. On March 9, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

I think this short blurb could have done with more pictures showing examples of to what Mr. Scruton is referring. I think I get a general idea, but show me the colonnades and arches…show me what a building that’s “edges did not jostle their neighbours aside” looks like compared to a square, class skyscraper or the Boston City Hall.

#6 Comment By johnhenry On March 9, 2018 @ 2:17 pm

Sir Roger Scruton has so much more wisdom and insight into “universal truths” than does the hillbilly commentator @10:55 – or I for that matter.

I’ve missed him (RS, that is) on this side of the Atlantic for many a year (but I’ve not just a few of his books and essays to keep me company) and I’m glad he has accepted this TAC slot.

“The lovely pinnacle of New York City’s Chrysler Building, for example, which does not assault the sky like an angry fist, but proudly stands above the city like a cathedral spire, puncturing the sky but also gently repairing the injury.”

Beautifully put. Worthy of – I don’t know – Thomas Hardy?

#7 Comment By I Don’t Matter On March 9, 2018 @ 6:03 pm

“Hillbilly” – sounds kinda cool. If I mattered, I’d start using it as my posting handle.
Look, the Chrysler Building is beautiful, I think. It’s also a very dated Art Deco piece. Some people love Art Deco. Others hate Art Deco. Most don’t know or care. The author’s argument in this piece collapses to “straight and glass bad, curved and brick good”. Really. Where’s a discussion of masses and symmetries, light and shadows, useability, etc. that would at least make an attempt at an architectural analysis. Otherwise, this is just a run of the mill “10 reasons you should hate modern buildings if you don’t already” clickbait. There’s plenty more on Medium, if this this the kind of thing one likes.
Really, Sir Roger, you should be able to do better than that.

#8 Comment By Jack On March 9, 2018 @ 7:35 pm

It’s wonderful to see the great Roger Scruton finally making a contribution to this site. Long may he continue to do so.

#9 Comment By Samadhir On March 9, 2018 @ 9:01 pm

Right on point. Hillbillies are well-known for their love of Neo-Futurist/Postmodern architecture, and if we don’t follow Scruton’s advice those yokels will soon storm out of their Appalachian hovels and drown us in their steel-and-glass dystopian nightmares!

And like you, I swoon at his description of the Chrysler Building. Why should the sky be subjected to being punched by fists when it can be elegantly stabbed with needles and then gently slapped with a band-aid? Truly a simile worthy of the great Hardy himself!

#10 Comment By AlexS On March 9, 2018 @ 10:19 pm

johnhenry, the commenter @10:55 might just be a bitter young modern architect, angry at the beauty that he instinctively detests.

#11 Comment By Todd On March 9, 2018 @ 10:25 pm

It admittedly doesn’t matter much, but for the record, I am with you “I don’t matter”. Too often a person will establish a name for themselves and, on that name alone, too many other slavishly fall into line and affirm what they say simply because, well, they have a name. Personal taste is not equivalent to truth.

#12 Comment By Matt On March 10, 2018 @ 10:20 am

A beautiful building is always useful and desirable, but a building that is purely utilitarian in conception does not stay useful. I learned that from Scruton.
Roger I’d like to get today’s examples of beautiful architecture that will stand the test of time, or do we have to go back hundreds of years.
What’s an example of architecture done right these days, architecture with beauty in mind?

#13 Comment By Ed On March 10, 2018 @ 10:20 am

johnhenry, “hillbilly commentator”? Why would an ignorant opinion tell us he must be some country idiot?

The irony of your snobbery is that a “hillbilly” would be less likely to defend modern urban architecture than some urban hipster. But let us not offend urban hipsters.

#14 Comment By Kodiak On March 10, 2018 @ 11:01 am

To “I don’t matter”:

You betray yourself in your original comment. Only someone truly ignorant of conservative philosophy would refer to Roger Scruton as “random people.” Aside from Alisdair McIntyre he is probably the best known non-American conservative philosopher alive. Furthermore, his work on aesthetics and beauty is a crucial framework for thinking about art and how the polis is arranged.

You may take issue with his post but we are all lucky he is signed on to write for TAC.

#15 Comment By grumpy realist On March 10, 2018 @ 3:40 pm

Seems to me that the author is almost a century late in his complaints, considering that a lot of this stuff was started in the 1920s or even earlier. Le Corbusier’s Brutalism?

Plus, Tom Wolfe dissected the problems of modern architecture already much better in “From Our House to Bauhaus”.

If the author really wants to get more Chrysler Building-like constructions, he should start pushing Steampunk in architecture. That, at least, would have a chance of being a new concept and possibly adopted.

As it is, it sounds like someone grumbling about How No One Uses Finger Bowls Anymore and Whatever Happened To The Fried Oyster Server. It’s over, man. Let her go.

#16 Comment By the pepperpot On March 10, 2018 @ 4:04 pm

Roger Scruton is a welcome addition to any venue, but it is an especial pleasure to hail him in TAC…if only because I will find more of his current writing than I might otherwise. IDM likely is not familiar with Scruton, or he could hardly refer to him as “random writer”.

#17 Comment By Tom On March 10, 2018 @ 4:43 pm

This is a boring, overgeneralized piece. Sure, there are ugly modern skyscrapers. There were ugly buildings in old Boston.

But I live in Austin, Texas, where the downtown skyline was almost entirely built in the last twenty years, and is full of energetic, interesting, and human-scaled buildings. I think this is because most of them are residential, and thus have to have more features that appeal to people rather than to business. Whatever, it is a wonderful skyline. Instead of writing a grumpy rant, Scruton should get out and about a bit.

#18 Comment By Liberty&Virtue On March 10, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

@I Don’t Matter–except this isn’t a “rant,” and it was not published anonymously–Scruton has considered, written about, and been recognized as an authority on aesthetics more than any of the commentors on this site, it’s safe to say.

Of course, you are right to point out that much of aesthetics is subjective, and whether Scruton is right about what “we ordinary” people want in architecture, I think both you and he are getting to the same point: there isn’t much consult

Architecture is kind of an outlier in the market, and especially the arts world, because a) it’s one of the few forms of art that is impossible to avoid, and b) there’s a precious small customer base. The vast majority of people who interact with built spaces are never asked what they want in one, but rather, a small group of tastemakers, bureaucrats, and the few people who are in a position to have buildings/spaces commissioned play a huge role in determining what aesthetics will be used.

Revealed preference is thus a lousy judge of what people value in architecture, because it’s a very small group of people doing the buying and very few people have the means to choose between a wide variety of aesthetics.

The upshot of all this is that it’s very important to cultivate an ethical approach to architecture that’s grounded in what kinds of environment and atmosphere are most conducive to human flourishing.

#19 Comment By Liberty&Virtue On March 10, 2018 @ 5:17 pm

End of second paragraph wasn’t finished–meant to say “consulting of ordinary people.”

When I was younger I was captivated by the tall, glittering all-glass exteriors of many buildings downtown. They spoke to me of sophistication. But now I see them as empty, soulless, places–“cool” but meaningless. There’s also something disturbing about the fact that they only show a reflection of what’s outside, but I can’t put my finger on it…

I think it’s interesting to think about the “cutting-edge” interior design of office buildings as well. Open-floorplan spaces definitely evince a particular ideology, one that advocates unlimited communication, collaboration, and movement–and interchangeability (“no desks, sit wherever you want/can”).

These things are all good, but can easily be taken too far, and come at the expense of other values. For example, open floorplans can be immensely distracting, and as maligned as cubicles are (partly rightly so), they do give employees a space to make their own, to call “theirs” and to reflect their personality–a source of stability and comfort in an often stressful environment.

Thankfully, it seems there is some pushback against the cult of the open floorplan.

#20 Comment By I Don’t Matter On March 10, 2018 @ 10:04 pm

Tom – Austin skyline is a direct repudiation of this piece by Mr. Scruton: it is full of fascinating shapes, owing in no small part to the Capital View Corridors. And – I dare anyone to walk down 2nd Street and claim it’s not friendly and beautiful at the same time.
Ya’ll – no, I had no idea who the author was when I wrote my comment – and to further Todd’s point, this only made it more relevant. For what does it matter who the author is, if all he can manage is a bundle of banalities devoid of substance.
No, AlexS, I am neither young, bitter, or an architect. I don’t matter – focus on the words.

#21 Comment By grumpy realist On March 11, 2018 @ 10:37 am

Liberty&Virtue–also, one major complaint about the modern, glass-sheathed skyscraper concept is the greenhouse effect. You need an immense amount of electricity for active cooling systems for a large portion of the year.

(I was offered the opportunity of buying a condo in one of those glass-sheathed thingamajigs in downtown Chicago and turned it down because I could already see it would be murder to keep it habitable in the summer.)

Forget the aesthetics–the engineering on these behemoths stinks!

#22 Comment By I Don’t Matter On March 11, 2018 @ 3:04 pm

Grumpy realist – this complaint is not based on actual data. Many of these new glass towers achieve LEED Gold certification. This doesn’t mean you were wrong about the building in Chicago, but as a generalization this is not correct.

#23 Comment By Len B. On March 14, 2018 @ 8:52 pm

God bless Russell Amos Kirk for championing such a cause, a generation earlier. RIP, Dr. Kirk, on your centenary. Long may you (and the sainted Mrs. Kirk) live in the hearts and minds of us all!

#24 Comment By ex_ottoyuhr On March 18, 2018 @ 5:23 pm

Another thing I’d add is that these giant glass boxes age gracelessly. The whole appeal of gleaming Star Trek buildings is that they’re built with materials, probably fictional but then again maybe not, that will never age or die. A “cutting-edge” “space-age” building built out of ordinary steel and glass, with visible rust running down the sides, is sad in the same way that a flight-control tower built out of sticks and grass is sad. Kunstler likes to bang the drum on a point that goes further than this: our current flight of skyscrapers won’t just age gracelessly, they’ll age un-economically, and will probably be pulled down in 30-40 years.

@grumpy realist:
No idea is over until people stop fighting for it, and this should be really obvious in 2018. If the forces of evil can fight for Hitler, why can’t the forces of good fight for pre-Corbusier architecture? Say what you will about John Ruskin, but at least he didn’t have any concentration camps.

#25 Comment By Dominique Watkins On March 21, 2018 @ 9:21 pm

Just returned from NYC last night. Have you seen the “Jenga” building?

That thing is anything but timeless. Fanciful at best. More likely dated in a decade. No matter they can just tear it down and rebuild some other trendy thing I suppose.

Count me with Scruton. I have yet to see a modern skyscraper surpass the Chrysler in class.