Tag Archives: skyscrapers

Better skyscrapers

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 In 2014, after much complaint from Angelenos about the city’s boring skyline, LA officials rescinded an ordinance that required its skyscrapers to have flat roofs to accommodate a rooftop helipad.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.

Shade or shadow?

When I was 19 years old, I went to Wall Street. It was narrow, dark, secretive—worthy of the cash that I imagined rested behind those vault-like façades. It was my first encounter with shadows bestowing a sense of place, in this case a sense of importance.

Shadows affect people in other ways. They hint of secrets. They evoke menace, as in film noir or in “The Shadow.” Caravaggio used them to bring drama to his paintings.

In Boston, shadows are the bogeyman used to whip real estate developers into shape, causing them to lower the height of their buildings.

But shadows are complicated. If we like them, we call them shade.

The Friends of the Public Garden persuaded state legislators to pass a law in 1990 restricting new shadows on the Boston Common and Public Garden. This year New Yorkers urged their lawmakers to pass similar legislation protecting Central Park from such effects. Shadows on parkland can limit the kinds of vegetation that will survive, and they can also detract from users’ enjoyment of a park in which people seek sunlight as well as shade. That all seems reasonable.

But even the relationship between shadows and gardens is complex. Roses need only six hours of sun daily. Many other flowers and trees, not that much. Shade gardens are easier to maintain—less weeding needed. And consider my city garden. This 40-by-16-foot plot gets a one-hour sliver of sun that steals slowly around the garden walls, mostly in June. Yet everyone who visits it pronounces it beautiful. (I agree.) So much for the benefits of sunlight.

Another prime shadow location is on the southern side of Boston’s east-west sidewalks. The sidewalk across from my building has not seen sunlight since at least the 1890s. Five-story tenements cast it in total shadow. No one notices, and certainly no one has complained.

Massachusetts has passed other shadow legislation—Chapter 91, for example, addresses shadows. But Boston didn’t invent antipathy to shadows, and this city didn’t pass the first legislation about them. In 1901 New York City limited height in residential areas in the Tenement House Act, partly to reduce future shadows. In 1915, New York passed zoning that spelled out how commercial buildings would step back, narrowing as they rose higher, so they would cast less shadow. This zoning felicitously determined the graceful shapes of the Empire State and the Chrysler Building.

Later zoning was not so kind to the eye or the pedestrian. By 1961, architects were smitten with the International Style, and New York changed its zoning again. This time, instead of old-fashioned step-backs, the city used “floor-area ratios” to control height and shadows, but provided height bonuses to skyscrapers that gave the public “open space.” The plazas around such buildings did reduce some shadows, but they also increased wind, destroyed street life and presented a barrier to entering a building. Boston officials have been trying for years to eliminate such plazas and bring buildings back to the sidewalk.

Not all skyscrapers are known for shadows. My favorite is London’s “Walkie-Talkie,” a bulky, top-heavy, 525-foot leaning glass tower, the reflection of which was so strong that it melted a Jaguar on a nearby street. Some now call it the “Fryscraper.” Be careful what you wish for.

I have my own sunlight-creator. A large, newish, glass-clad building behind my house reflects sunlight every April and October for a few days, bringing sun into a couple of my north windows. It creeps me out.

Rather than tweaking design, New York style, Boston has typically, after contentious neighborhood processes, asked developers to take off several top floors. HYM Investments agreed to lower its 600-foot Government Center building by 75 feet. Did this benefit anyone?

Measuring shadows involves many subtleties, but reducing the height of a 600-foot building by 100 feet would typically mean its shadows would be reduced by one-sixth, according to Matt Littell, architect and principal with Utile Design and a consultant to the Public Realm and Watersheet Activation Plan and Municipal Harbor Plan for the Downtown Boston Waterfront.

One-sixth isn’t much in a city where most shadows land on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. Moreover, this project will bring new sunlight to Congress Street, which we’ll probably complain about when we’re walking along on a hot summer day.

Other new projects are coming up, and they’ll all cast shadows, even if they are only three stories. The 600-foot TD Garden tower along Causeway Street will cast the most shadow over the TD Garden and North Station. Some will even increase sunlight in certain places. The Harbor Garage developers say their proposed buildings, one of which is 600 feet tall, would cast only fleeting shadows off-site and actually bring more sunlight on the ground at the site itself, compared to the current condition. Should more sunlight mean a developer can build higher?

It’s not that we shouldn’t consider shadows. But we should realize their presence is more nuanced than they have been made out to be. And if we insist that a building get shortened by 100 feet, or changed in some other way that affects shadows, it should actually matter.