Skyscrapers and the City

Due to the height restrictions imposed on the District of Columbia over the past century since the Heights of Buildings Act was passed, in response to the construction of the Cairo Apartments, D.C. is mercifully devoid of skyscrapers and massive office towers. This ban keeps our streets from turning into the dark, chasm-like gulches that suck out the air and light of much of Manhattan. Although I enjoy visiting New York, I try to stay out of areas with very tall buildings as much as possible, as they always seem to depress the spirit.

This is not to say, however, that the Washington metropolitan area is entirely devoid of lofty structures. In fact, we are about to get quite a large one by D.C. standards. Construction is about to begin on Central Place, a 30-story glass tower which will become the tallest building in the metropolitan area when it is completed in 2013.

The site is located in the Arlington, Virginia neighborhood of Rosslyn, which is immediately on the other side of the bridge over the Potomac River from Georgetown, where this writer lives. Rosslyn is already the home of a number of tall buildings within easy sight of Georgetown, the Kennedy Center, and the Lincoln Memorial. When walking along the Georgetown waterfront park, the view of these buildings is very appealing (particularly in the evening), and the effect of their illuminated if undistinguished skyline on the high, cliff-like shore on the opposite side of the river, with Theodore Roosevelt Island inbetween, makes them seem even taller than they are. Central Place will dwarf them all, and has the added benefit of featuring an interesting pyramid roof to add to what is otherwise a series of uninteresting – and in some cases, unattractive – rectangles stood on end.

The effort to try to keep these towers out of an historic core and concentrated in one area is a laudable one, and I would hope that Washington continues to be free of these structures, much as one can admire the view from a distance. There is nothing worse than looking at an historic city center, and seeing the view marred by the presence of an ugly high-rise built without much thought or care for the neighborhood that surrounds it. For example, views of the Ramblas and old port area of Barcelona are ruined by the awful 1970’s Edificio Colón, a 28-story office tower which stands close to the Drassanes, the oldest standing medieval shipyards in Europe, with their grand vaulted bays and undulating tiled rooflines. I can remember a time when the building was prominently featured on posters and postcards of this neighborhood of the city, but more frequently these days it is cropped out of such images.

Aside from certain iconic towers, like the Empire State or Chrysler Building, most skyscrapers are, frankly, not very interesting aesthetically; some are simply awful. Attempts to add interest by putting something quirky on top are often nothing more than kitsch, and not very good kitsch either. A very well-known example is Philip Johnson’s appalling 1980’s Sony Building (formerly the AT&T Building) in Midtown Manhattan, with its giant broken pediment top.

An additional issue is that, despite their great size and bulk, many of these giant structures are, in fact, ephemeral buildings. They are made of glass and metal, even if sometimes partially clad in a stone veneer for effect. This does not bode well for their survival. Leave a 13th century stone bell tower and a 20th century steel office tower alone for 100 years without maintenance, and see which one is still standing and doing fairly well.

In any case, while Washingtonians – or at least we Georgetowners – will soon be able to enjoy an attractive, interesting, and modern glass tower on the other side of the Potomac, I am very glad it is on that other shore.

Barcelona’s historic port district, with the
hideous Edificio Colón office tower in the center-left background
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