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We shouldn’t abandon the cities we have for some amenities in the clouds

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Raffles City Chonqing, an eight-skyscraper project designed by architect Moshe Safdie and under construction at the meeting of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, would be just another megaproject in another Chinese megacity were it not for one thing: a ninth skyscraper that’s more like a “sidescraper.”

The roughly 980-foot-long tube, pleated like a lampshade and transparent like a greenhouse, houses a hotel lobby, restaurants, and a public viewing deck, and lies on its side across four of the lesser skyscrapers.

What Safdie began in Singapore with Marina Bay Sands, where three towers are capped by a long, suspended infinity pool, he amplifies in Chonqing. And an architectural conversation that was once explicitly linked to luxury one-upmanship—a pool in the sky—has now taken on a gloss of public-mindedness.

“In these dense cities like Chongqing there’s no room for big public parks [on the ground], so we have to lift them into the sky,” Safdie told the Guardian. Raffles City also includes a “landscaped platform” at a mere six stories, connected to its transit- and retail-rich podium.

In Chicago, where competition between sky decks is fierce, and the Willis Tower’s glass-bottomed “Ledge” was considered state of the art, the third-tallest Aon Center tower recently announced the “Sky Summit,” a barrel-shaped glass pod that will pivot on a swing arm away from the building. Cue the screams.

Visitors check out the view from the Ledge, a glass cube that juts out from the 103rd floor Skydeck of the Sears Tower.
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In Portland, Oregon, William Kaven Architecture (WKA) proposed twin towers linked by a “botanical bridge” for the former U.S. Postal Service site in that city’s Pearl District. WKA’s proposal, which didn’t make the final cut, was a sort of potpourri of architecture memes, including the sky bridge (seen at SHoP’s American Copper Buildings in New York) and the vertical forest (seen at Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale in Milan).

“The city of Portland, currently, is devoid of iconic buildings—at least any that a tourist or foreign architect might recognize,” wrote Daniel Kaven, co-founder of WKA, in an editorial in the local Daily Journal of Commerce. In other words, Portland needs a Space Needle.

Manhattan’s Hudson Yards will have an observation deck on the 100th floor of 30 Hudson Yards, shaped like a point for maximum drama. Los Angeles has the SkySlide. London’s hideous Walkie Talkie tries to atone for its sins with the Sky Garden.

Sky this, sky that. The only word more popular in urban branding right now is “line” (as in “High Line”), and there’s already a Skyline Drive. Why the sky? What is the benefit to putting parks, play equipment, cafes, trails, forests up high?

People slide down the Skyslide, a 45-foot glass slide 70 floors up on the outside of the US Bank Tower, in Los Angeles, California.
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The list of elements elevated skyward sounds like a list of public goods. (Only an architecture critic could hate on a park.) But every story they rise above ground level—just like every step they fall below the street, or float offshore—makes that visible public good less accessible, often literally, in that people with mobility disabilities, or strollers, or luggage, have to start hunting for the elevator. If the garden is only reachable by elevator, then there’s likely to be a line, and a security check, each a tax on time and attention. There may be even a charge; in these cases, “public” doesn’t mean free or all-access.

When in the ’60s the architects at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had to elevate the lobby of New York’s Union Carbide Building at 270 Park above the street to avoid a clash between elevator equipment and the train tracks below the avenue, they made sure the escalators came with a view: a red elevator core, like a piece of modernist sculpture and a rotating set of exhibitions, open to anyone, not just employees. From the public plaza on Park Avenue, everything was visible, an easy visual and physical leap.

Today, that elevator core is neutral, the building’s piano nobile and plaza off limits to those without a pass from security. It will be easier for owner JP Morgan to demolish the tower, as it desires, because it has been excerpted from the public imagination behind the bollards of security theater. Will skythings also, eventually, recede behind reflective glass, off limits to all but a few?

A view of the architectural complex designed by Studio Boeri, the “Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) in the Porta Nuova area in Milan.
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The narrative of skythings is luxury—the penthouse—with its door thrown wide open, welcoming us in. The reality is that there will always be another, taller building, a higher floor. These sky amenities attempt to recapture the thrill of “world’s tallest building.” Maybe we enjoy visiting them because we imagine we might be able to own height ourselves one day. We tax the rich insufficiently because we believe we will eventually become so ourselves. In the meantime, here’s a taste, but it is never really enough.

Now, not all skythings are bad. You can leave a few up there. Each city is allowed, say, three observation decks, but they are not to open in the same decade. A redundant gondola, like the one to Roosevelt Island, may be built with private funds. Skywalks are acceptable in extreme climates and when part of networks, doubling the sidewalks, not replacing them.

In their book on the history of skyways, Parallel Cities: The Multilevel Metropolis, Jennifer Yoos and Vincent James tell a very different history of cities and covered, elevated streets, beginning with the “street-galleries” of reformer Charles Fourier.

Fourier’s Phalanstère was a kind of giant, communal house, wrapped in elevated walkways connecting one public space to the next. When early-20th-century planners began thinking about how to separate people, traffic, and sanitation, they adapted his ideas to the larger scale of the city.

But in these cases, as well as famed future examples like the “streets in the sky” of Robin Hood Gardens, or Paul Rudolph’s A-frame over the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the emphasis was on connections, not uniqueness, passage, not entertainment. These were sidewalks, not resorts, in the sky.

This is the history Safdie refers to when he suggests Raffles City may replace the ground, but who is he kidding? It is in his client’s interest to have the sky be the drawbridge, and to control the landscape in and around the towers. He wants to see Marina Bay Sands and Raffles City as part of the lineage of Habitat 67, a mountain of moveable residential cubes.

Habitat ’67.
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But if you visit Habitat today (as I did, in April) you can only look at it from the narrow public sidewalk on one side. To go under, around, or through is off limits. Even the more public lower podium of Raffles City shows a highly regulated “park” environment. Sit here. Splash there. There is not room for demonstrations.

The other aspect left unaddressed when our leisure centers take to the sky is what, exactly, is left on the ground. Why are we so anxious to leave a surface so versatile? Just as a park on the ground is less expensive and more flexible than any “line,” so is public provision on terra firma. Yes, some of these renderings are fantasy, but they represent the desire lines of money, lines pointing away from the many toward the few with a view. In the science-fiction cities of the future, where skybridges and flying cars abound, the ground is often a battleground, abandoned long ago to the battlers or the trash.

Taking to the skies seems like an abdication of responsibility for a cityscape that can make you ill, is armoured to the teeth, or needs to make a quick buck. Is the filter provided by difficulty of access precisely what the owners of skyspaces desire? (Yes.) What happens to the ground below when its richest occupants leave it? (Wall-E?)

This is my fear for the future of the ground plane in general: Earth becomes second-tier real estate. Anyone with means ascends, and those who don’t keep their eyes trained upward. Let’s not look skyward to avoid looking at ourselves.

Alexandra Lange writes the Critical Eye column for Curbed, covering design in many forms: new parks and Instagram playgrounds, teen urbanists and architectural icons, postmodernism and the post-retail era. Her latest book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, was published by Bloomsbury USA in June 2018.

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