Grab Bag: Over the River and Through the Skyscraper

About a year ago I started working on an article about the use of vertical space in cities, confused over why, beyond the ground floor, most buildings are totally inaccessible except to their occupants. Without much confidence and convinced that I should engage in further exploration, I abandoned the piece and bottled up my frustration over what I perceived as a fundamental problem of urban design. I’ve spent the last year studying cities, and haven’t made much progress regarding this issue, so here we are. I’ve gone public with my complaint.

The problem is simple: most cities contain tall buildings (though, ironically, I’m writing this from Los Angeles), and yet despite sharing scale and parallel planes, these buildings rarely connect or contain any physical relationship to one another. The average city dweller only really enters vertical space for specific purposes, whether to go from his 16th floor apartment to his 42nd floor office or from his friend’s basement flat to the observation deck on the top of Rockefeller Center. That is to say, from private space to private space. This isn’t about rooftop restaurants or mid-building showrooms, but rather the problem of urban circulation that forces pedestrians down a stairwell, across the street, and up an elevator—ultimately and forever bound to move over a singular plane at the feet of the city.

With arguments abound over the state of public space in urban environments, especially in light of the recent mid-brow pop fascination with Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, these discussions have been limited to basic ideas about development, preservation, and the ever-present demand for parks. Why, though, does no one look up in cities to see the wealth of space and potential that looms overhead?

This silly rhetorical question is indeed that. Countless architects and planners have tried to conceive of ways to utilize above-ground space through a diverse range of measures. In the 1950s and 60s, just as Corbusian ideals of modernist planning were stroking the want of our rational selves, smaller movements of frustrated designers were forming across the globe. From England’s Utopianists and France’s Situationists to Italy’s Superstudio and Japan’s Metabolists a diverse array of designers were devising urban forms that proposed new networking systems to connect cities from the ground up.

Buildings would be connected by sweeping, dramatic bridges and pedestrian walkways. Pompidou Center–like stairs would span blocks and would begin at one building’s 20th floor and end at another’s penthouse. Bucky Fuller offered modular cities that could grow with need but within a pre-existing structural system that allowed buildings to float hundreds of feet over the ground. It was the city that might be born of a union between Jacobs herself and the creative team behind the Jetsons. These plans represented simultaneously everything that was right about what are known as “Paper Architects”—intellectuals whose radical designs are seldom realized—and everything that was wrong given their impossibility of execution. But comparable plans need not be so unattainable.

Highline[Projects such as New York’s High Line present dynamic examples of off-the-ground development. An existing elevated railway cutting through 1.5 miles of New York’s West Side, shown in the picture on the right, is presently under renovation and will link to various galleries, apartment buildings, and hotels.]

Two years ago I saw a thesis at Wesleyan University where a student designed a fantastic proposal for a derelict waterfront neighborhood in Worcester, Massachusetts. The project addressed these issues with phenomenal clarity and pragmatic foresight. In it, a public park comprising a pedestrian walkway, gardens, and athletic facilities was incorporated over and through several adjacent warehouses, factories, and office buildings. Park-goers would enter one building and walk through floors of retail and restaurants, onto roofs where basketball and tennis courts were thoughtfully planned, and along (though above) the waterfront.

The simplicity of the proposal was remarkable: the traditional notion of the sidewalk with storefronts and services was stretched and pushed; in a sense rendered three-dimensional. This was no elevated pedestrian system, however. Those exist, without much success, in cities around the world. Two that spring to mind are constantly derided for their detrimental effects on the surrounding neighborhood, those in Minneapolis and in Los Angeles. These systems, though, do not a vertically-integrated city make.

On two recent trips, one to Shanghai and the other to Istanbul, I found interesting solutions to this problem of vertical space. Shanghai is host to an interesting phenomenon where restaurants, bars, and clubs are located on upper floors of office buildings. Not, like in America, the marketable roof-top venue, but rather on middle-floors, soaring thirty stories over the ground but under twenty others, sandwiched between offices. Here I found a convenient, profitable, and novel solution to the problem of desolate commercial neighborhoods in cities, a subject of constant study and debate. By attracting night-oriented retail, whole blocks that would be otherwise deserted were teeming and vibrant.

Istanbul, situated on a hilly landscape, features amenities and retail on atypical floors as in Shanghai, but complements this integration by bringing pedestrian circulation through buildings, connecting to others above and behind and forming mini-pathways up steep inclines in the topography. These developments have come about through a seemingly organic process due both to the store owners and nature of the urban economy of these cities. This same process has yet to occur here in the US, and likely won’t as the buildings in question are usually operated by corporate owners none too concerned with innovation.

And the issue becomes clear that what’s really preventing the realization of these types of developments is the issue of funding and responsibility. I’m sure many of you figured out this obvious problem from the get go. Barring any unforeseen hullabaloo, however, businesses would do well to let certain floors to retail. New York is a perfect example: while new office buildings continue to languish with unfilled vacancies, empty storefronts downtown continue to rent for far higher prices and are rare to encounter.

Simple policy strategies could finance the infrastructure needed for this type of system, and policy should support these types of endeavors. If you read the strategic plans of most major metropolises—I can say with certainty this is true for London, New York, and Los Angeles—you know that, increasingly, local governments are seeking out measures to encourage and ensure greater density in central urban spaces. In addition, a recent emphasis on the benefits of greenroofs has introduced a new playground, as it were, of experimentation in public space.

Before building taller and taller buildings, however, we should determine better ways to connect them efficiently and in a way that takes acknowledges and takes advantage of scale. While we’re in the midst of enormous construction booms across the globe, now seems as good a time as any to re-imagine how cities can work, how we can reduce sprawl, and how we can realize a future so idealistically conceived in the past.