The estimable Yglesias: “I often walk around town frustrated by how short all the buildings are.”
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Maybe, Alan, you have to live in D.C. to have this experience and have it not feel like a quirk of massive wonkery. To have the tallest building in the District be a 12-story apartment building, and then to walk around beneath dozens or hundreds of other buildings straining hopelessly against a height limit (inspired by the 12-story apartment building) that has forced architects to create a whole city of identical 10-story boxes…well, you find your self thinking, even if you’re not a wonk, this beautiful city could be so much cooler. As it is, the architecture of “downtown” D.C. is roughly that of a suburban office park. On the plus side, I suppose, parking is less terrible than it would otherwise be.
I don’t know, Matt. I work in Manhattan, so I’ve got plenty of experience with “tall.” I’ve never spent much time in D.C., but I travel to London very frequently for business. I never walk around London and say, “gee, things look so much better now that the city has skyscrapers.” When the first couple of skyscrapers went up, they looked awful and the city looked disfigured. Now that there are a bunch of taller buildings, the effect is less odd, but on the whole there’s a Disney-ish feeling to the London skyline (the gherkin and the London Eye certainly don’t help in that regard) that is not, I think especially flattering to the city.
Cities like Chicago and New York that were tall from the beginning look good tall. Cities like London and Paris that grew up short and then had tall grafted on, not so much.
I agree that new-tall is typically sterile and charmless – as against the sublime old-tall of much of Manhattan – but my theory re. D.C. (completely unencumbered by fact, as usual) was always that without the height limit (which really does create an unbroken line 110 feet above the ground that can extend for blocks) there would have been a diversity of heights, and the ability to build higher decades ago might have discouraged the rampant and almost uniform rebuilding of sterile new boxes over the last 30 or 40 years. At the same time, I sort of cringe at thought of what new building in D.C. would look like if they removed the height limit. A bunch of new-tall buildings, in other words, probably wouldn’t improve things, aesthetically. But, as for the other wonky considerations, Yglesias has a point.