Downtown View:Better Skyscrapers

By Karen Cord Taylor

Consider Los Angeles. It’s enjoying an upgrade. With refurbished hotels, new residential buildings, a spruce-up of its gorgeous library and all the services and restaurants that come with a dense population, LA’s downtown is finally full of vitality.

It also looks good. One reason is the tops of some of its new buildings. In 2014, after much complaint from Angelenos about the city’s boring skyline, LA officials rescinded an ordinance that required its skyscrapers to have flat roofs to accommodate a rooftop helipad.

What’s Boston’s excuse?

Now consider Chicago. As much as Boston boosters brag about the many cranes dotting this city, Chicago is on steroids compared to Boston. Fifty-two high rises, such as the stacked Vista Tower, are under construction, and other gems —River Point and Aqua, for example—have recently opened.

The Second City has a reputation for gun violence. It is second, I’m told, not because New York is first, but because Chicago had to be built a second time after Old Ma Leary’s cow kicked over that lantern and burned the place to the ground.

But guns and its 19th-century rebirth are not its whole story. It’s the many beautiful new buildings, sculptural, reflective, light-filled that spread through the Loop and beyond. One building perches on a thin, horizontal line on the ground, with support beams rising at angle. It looks as if a toddler on a ladder could push it over. Even the Trump building, whose developer is not known for his aesthetic, is beautiful. Not all the buildings have interesting tops, but some do. I don’t know how Chicago seems so light and airy with all those tall buildings, but it does. From afar, part of the reason is its varied tops, some featuring steps, others points, some crowns.

Now consider Boston. Flat tops everywhere. Recently when I quizzed friends about a Boston high rise they liked, they came up with nothing.

We can do little about the buildings already built. But we can insist that buildings now proposed do better at the top.

That’s why I want to bring up Millennium Partner’s Winthrop Square project. The controversy over this building has been all about its shadow. But now that the Boston City Council has sent a home rule petition to the legislature that would exchange this building’s shadow for the shadows in the shadow bank, it is one step closer to being built.

If the legislature changes the shadow law, we’ll have little time to consider what has been ignored so far—the design—a clunky, rectangular box with a flat top scored by vertical protrusions. Surely, there are no helicopters in its future, so why must it have a flat roof?

Millennium uses the same architects, who employ glass and slight angles on the tops, over and over again. Some of the vertical setbacks on the new, dark Millennium Tower are nice touches, but this third tallest building in the city does nothing for the skyline. If Winthrop Square is going to get built, it is time for Millennium to do better.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency is partly to blame for making Boston’s skyline so dreary. It has paid attention to the ground level. But it acts as if tops don’t exist. The BPDA could issue directives to encourage more interesting design at the top. Like New York City did in the 1920s and 1930s, it could require some buildings to taper to reduce the amount of shadow on surrounding buildings.

After all, whenever a skyscraper is deified, extolled, copied and featured in books, lectures or other programs, it’s almost always a building with a great top. The Mies van der Rohe boxes are typically mentioned only as a style of a particular time. But neither Boston’s Pru nor its John Hancock nor the tall, banal boxes lining the Avenue of the Americas get attention.

When New York’s skyline is featured, the focus is still typically on the old, pointy-topped Empire State and the Chrysler building, although One World Trade Center gets some recognition. Other pictures feature the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The flat-topped, bulbous Walkie-Talkie building in London gained notoriety for melting a car with its convex reflecting glass, but in 2015 it was also voted the UK’s worst new building. When London skyline is pictured, the focus is on the Scalpel, the Gherkin and the Shard, all with distinctive tops.

So what makes a successful skyscraper? Chicago’s skyscrapers demonstrate many of the qualities—using excellent materials, taking advantage of perspective, employing colorful glass, reflective glass, good lighting, interesting shapes, good ground level activity, often step-backs, a middle emphasizing verticality and interesting tops. Boston needs to up its game.

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