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Cities Find Fault With Skyscrapers : American Architects Face High-Rise Backlash

May 10, 1987|RICK HAMPSON | Associated Press

NEW YORK — The skyscraper, one of American architecture's greatest achievements, has become one of biggest headaches for American architects. In the central cities where it was born, controversy goes with height as surely as form follows function.

"The trouble is, most of these towns don't want big buildings," said Philip Johnson, the architect who, over the last decade, has been most responsible for the rise of the "designer skyscraper."

This year, after a four-year struggle with architectural preservationists and community residents, Johnson was replaced as designer of the second phase of the New England Life Insurance Co. headquarters in Boston.

"It's a problem we're finding everyplace," said John Burgee, Johnson's partner. "The big projects are getting shot at. When people say, 'The best development is no development,' there's not much you can say."

An unprecedented demand for new office space in the older big cities is pitting developers and revenue-hungry municipal governments against preservationists, environmentalists and neighborhood organizations.

Disadvantages of Height

The tall office building, once praised by architect Louis Sullivan as "a proud and soaring thing," is widely faulted for blocking sunlight, distorting wind currents, flooding the streets with crowds and creating canyons that trap air pollution.

- San Francisco voters have passed a referendum to limit new office construction in the next 14 years to 475,000 square feet a year. That is the size of just one medium-sized building.

- In Manhattan, a West Side community group has raised $100,000 to stop developer Donald Trump's Television City, a collection of skyscrapers planned for the Hudson River shoreline that would include the world's tallest building.

- In Philadelphia, the tradition that no building stood taller than the statue of William Penn atop City Hall has been shattered with construction of one skyscraper and plans for three others. The resulting uproar led to development of a Center City Plan for protecting downtown neighborhoods and preserving City Hall's vista.

Architects like Johnson are in the middle of such battles. They often are asked to provide aesthetic solutions to what essentially are political and economic problems.

Developers Make the Rules

"The parameters of projects are set by developers, and some of the parameters are outrageous," said architectural historian James Marston Fitch. "There can't be any architectural solutions to (building) programs that are so hostile to the city. It seriously distorts the values of the profession."

Robert Stern, Johnson's replacement in Boston, had only praise for the 80-year-old dean of American architects in his 1986 Public Broadcasting Service series, "Pride of Place."

By reacting against the modernist, glass box high-rise and reviving historical detail, Johnson-Burgee "have prompted a Renaissance in American skyscraper architecture," Stern said.

He pointed to one Johnson-Burgee skyscraper in Houston that has gables, and another with a super-scaled church steeple, and to their AT&T building in Manhattan, which features a split pediment that evokes for some the charm of Chippendale furniture.

In Boston, Johnson and Burgee had accepted a particularly tall order: to design 1.7 million square feet of office and retail space--equivalent to the Empire State Building--next to the elegant old brownstones of Back Bay and the architectural masterpieces of Copley Square.

Some critics said that Johnson's solution, two 35-story buildings, would look like twin tombstones. Others likened them to a pair of old Philco radios.

Not 'Bricks and Bays'

"We're saying, 'We are a unique city. We are Boston,' " said Richard Nemrow, an opposition leader. "New architecture should accentuate what's conservative and conventional and appropriate to what's here, like bricks and bays."

Burgee, however, insisted that the towers were designed to fit the Back Bay section "like an old shoe." The design team agreed to lop off several stories, set the towers farther apart and widen the sidewalks.

In the course of more than 70 public meetings and hearings, size, rather than style, emerged as the real complaint. Back Bay residents said that even the amended project would drastically aggravate traffic, air pollution, noise, winds and shadows, and would lead to even more development.

Finally, the developers agreed to reduce and revise the second building in return for city permission to erect one of Johnson's towers. It was under construction until last week, when the city said that excavation was causing underground movement that might harm neighboring Trinity Church.

Johnson, contemplating the construction of only half of what had been a symmetrical design, linked his defeat to the opposition of his own colleagues:

Architects Were Critical

"You expect it from the critics," he said, "but it's unusual for other architects to come out against you."

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