Picture the skyline of Los Angeles. How about Minneapolis, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Phoenix, even Chicago?
You can’t? Oh, well.
Now picture Washington D. C., Seattle, Toronto or New York. You know those skylines, don’t you? There might be a gimmick—Seattle’s Space Needle; Toronto’s CN Tower with the scary glass floor.
Or there might be the building that defines a city, one that cameras capture, one that ensures identity.
I thought about this when I viewed the proposals eight developers submitted for perking up Winthrop Square, the financial district parcel with the crumbling garage.
Take a look. None of these disappointing skyscrapers will become iconic. It is as if the same architect designed them all. Mostly the same material—glass. Mostly the same design—John Hancock clones, but with a protrusion here, a slash there, a bit of color, all bowing to hackneyed architectural trends. Who cares how tall they are? They are all alike and forgettable.
Architects and developers have gotten better at meeting the ground in Boston. But at the top—dullsville. And that’s the place that makes a building go down in history. Look at skylines, peruse the many books about skyscrapers—materials count somewhat. But more than materials is shape.
Ninety percent of the pictures of skyscrapers in tourist pamphlets, movies and books have the same thing—a top, a dramatic, pointy top, stepped back to allow more light to reach the ground as the building rises. Perhaps the same primeval instinct that built obelisks, pyramids, pagodas and church steeples remains if a structure is to become a symbol for a city.
So, Boston real estate developers, if you want to be remembered, give your building a top. Step it back for interest. It will etch you in history. It will make your creation the icon every city needs. It will ensure your legacy. Otherwise you are doomed. A timid slant won’t count. Your building will be indistinguishable from its neighbors, even if it is 60 stories tall.
Then why don’t real estate developers do this?
Blame architectural trends obsessed with new technology, materials and cheap flourishes to cover up that it is just a box. Blame the ease and cost savings when architects can design one floor plate and continue it to 30 stories, 60 stories—heck, make it 100 stories. Too tall? Doesn’t matter. Cut it down. Cheap.
Blame the BRA. Planning director Kairos Shen said last fall that he considers how buildings perform as a group, complimenting adjacent buildings. I guess that means nothing should stand out. In most cities, nothing does, there is no sense of place. Every skyline looks like Hartford. Is this really what Bostonians want?
Blame the financial hit when the floors get narrower as the building rises. The top floors of the Empire State have less rental space than its lower floors.
It’s also a resistance to creativity. Contemporary buildings are only tall boxes, sometimes twisted to show that the architect has knows Frank Gehry. They are clad in predictable materials and dotted with a quirk or two. Not much originality.
The icons that define American cities are different.
New York City’s are familiar. The Empire State and the Chrysler Building are in 99 percent of every skyline picture of NYC. What do they have? Stepped back design. Pointy tops.
The Empire State’s top was designed so dirigibles could tie up and disgorge their passengers. That didn’t work out, but the design lasted anyway. Even “Hog Butcher for the World” boosters ignore Mies van der Rohe’s creations and feature the Chicago Water Tower.
Remarkably, the icons are at least 80 years old. The newer ones, including New York’s One World Trade Center and the entire Sixth Avenue can’t be recalled. (One World Trade Center does have an antenna. Hard to tell how that will play in 100 years.)
In Washington the White House confers a sense of place, as do presidential memorials. But two structures take precedence in pictures. One is the Capitol, with its step-backs and pointy top. The other honors our first president.
Even banal examples define cities. If there is one American city that should never have had skyscrapers, it is San Francisco. I once lived across the bay. When I first laid eyes from the Berkeley Hills on the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought I had experienced art at its finest.
Then I noticed the other work of art, the crowded city on its left with its low white buildings roving over foggy hills. It evoked a sense of place San Francisco lost as high rises rose. But even in San Francisco’s forgettable skyline, one building stands out. The pointy-top TransAmerica building has become that city’s icon, even if it is clunky.
Let’s return to the Boston skyline.
From the south you see a jumble on the right and the one-dimensional weirdness of the John Hancock building.
Approaching from points west, the jumble tumbles into the Atlantic Ocean.
From I-93 north, there is no skyline. The Pru is on the right, then empty space, then the John Hancock. To the left is a tall mass of indistinguishable blobs.
From the harbor, you’re confronted with Harbor Towers and the jumble behind.
Consider pictures of Boston and its icons. What building appears most frequently in tourist-attracting pictures? The Custom House Tower.
Is any skyscraper featured? The State Street Bank buildings? Dewey Square? One Beacon? Sixty State? 33 Arch? Any excitement over the Nashua Street Residences, now under construction?
They are all the new nothings. Big boxes in different clothing. Even my favorite skyscraper, Hugh Stubbin’s Federal Reserve Bank, is barely noticed. No wonder Bostonians don’t like tall buildings.
So here is the lesson for you developers: the buildings you are proposing are unlikely to be remembered or even noticed, except as they block someone’s view. If your creation is to become iconic, history has lessons. Step it back to allow more light to reach the street. Give it a delightful, well-lit pointy top that we can see from afar.
You too can go down in history.