Why Europe Has So Few Skyscrapers

Guy de Maupassant ate lunch at the restaurant in the base of the Eiffel Tower nearly every day, that being the only place in Paris where he wouldn’t have to look at the Eiffel Tower. 130 years later, the observation deck of the Tour Montparnasse is known to offer the most beautiful vista on the French capital — thanks precisely to the invisibility of the Tour Montparnasse. Spare a thought, if you will, for that highly conspicuous building, quite possibly the loneliest in Europe. Since its completion in 1973, it has stood as the sole skyscraper in Paris proper, its famous unsightliness having inspired a ban on the construction of buildings over seven stories high in the city center.

Paris isn’t alone in its lack of skyscrapers, a condition travelers from Asia and America notice in cities all over the Continent. In the video above, construction-themed Youtube channel The B1M explores the reasons for this relative paucity of tall towers in the capitals of Europe. “When skyscrapers first rose to prominence in the 19th century, first in Chicago and later in New York, many European cities were already firmly established with grand historic buildings and public spaces that left little room for large new structures,” says its narrator. At that time, a growing sense of cultural competition between America and Europe also meant that “each continent became wary of adopting the other’s concepts.”


Then came the Second World War, in the wake of whose devastation of Europe “an overwhelming desire to restore what had been destroyed took hold.” Few Continental cities held off the kind of demand for floor space that drove skyscraper construction in America. In the east, the Soviets built mostly “mid-rise, repetitive structures that sought to rehouse much of the population”; in the west, the restrictive phenomenon of “Brusselization” took hold in response to a wave of bulky postwar-modernist structures “that had little regard for architectural or cultural value.” This led to “a general dislike for modern buildings across Europe, with many seeing them as bland or soulless.”

No one who’s spent time in American city centers built up predominantly in the 1960s and 70s can dismiss those European detractors’ fears. But it would be a lie to claim that European cities have avoided skyscrapers entirely: even Paris has simply pushed them a few miles away, into unromantic business districts like La Défense. Ever-taller buildings have symbolized modernity for well over a century now, and no civilization can afford to keep modernity at too great a distance. Taking note of how attitudes toward skyscrapers have been “softening across the Continent” in the 21st century, this B1M video speculates on the possibility of a “skyscraper boom” in Europe. But even if that should happen, the Tour Montparnasse will surely continue standing alone.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch the Building of the Empire State Building in Color: The Creation of the Iconic 1930s Skyscraper From Start to Finish

Ambition is not unknown in the New York City of the 2020s, but the New York City of the 1920s seems to have consisted of nothing but. Back then, where else would anyone dare to propose the tallest building in the world — much less end up with the job twelve days ahead of schedule and $9 million under budget? The construction of the Empire State Building began in January of 1930, just three months after the Wall Street Crash that began the Great Depression. Though economic conditions kept the project from attaining profitability until the 1950s (and stuck it with the nickname “Empty State Building”), it nevertheless stood in symbolic defiance of those hard times — and, ultimately, came to stand for New York and indeed the United Sates of America itself.

You can see footage of the Empire State Building’s construction in the compilation above, which gathers clips from contemporary newsreels and other sources and presents them in “restored, enhanced and colorized” form.


These images showcase the history-making skyscraper’s technical innovations as well as its marshaling of labor at an immense scale: at the height of construction, more than 3,500 workers were involved. That most of them were recent immigrants from countries like Ireland and Italy reflects the popular image of early 20th-century America as a “land of opportunity”; the sheer scale of the skyscraper they built reflects the previously unimaginable works made possible by America’s resources.

The Empire State Building set records, and over the 90 years since its opening has remained a difficult achievement to surpass. Only in 1970 did it lose its title of the tallest building in New York City, to Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center — and then regained it in 2001 after the latter’s collapse. Today, one can easily point to much taller and more technologically advanced skyscrapers all around the world, but how many of them are as beloved or rich with associations? Back in 1931, architecture critic Douglas Haskell described the Empire State Building as “caught between metal and stone, between the idea of ‘monumental mass’ and that of airy volume, between handicraft and machine design, and in the swing from what was essentially handicraft to what will be essentially industrial methods of fabrication” — as good an explanation as any of why they don’t build ’em like this anymore.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

New York’s Lost Skyscraper: The Rise and Fall of the Singer Tower

New York is never just one city; it’s always several, interacting with – or pushing out – each other. This goes for the city’s architecture as much as for its population. Its strata of public works projects, cultural institutions, department stores, hotels, hostels, housing, and skyscraping office buildings tell the story of its evolution. Now, artists, urbanists, and architects protest faceless condos and big box stores. In decades past, they fought the faceless towers that rose into the atmosphere and blocked the sun. Such opposition stretches back well over 100 years, to the turn-of-the-century New York of the Flatiron Building and Beaux Arts wonders like Penn Station, a building, The New York Times writes, that “once made travelers feel important.”

“In the 1890’s,” writes Christopher Gray, Paris-trained architect Ernest Flagg “denounced the growing crop of skyscrapers, and by the turn of the 20th century he was horrified by the darkened streets and raw side walls produced by such buildings.” Flagg’s opinions were of little interest to his New York employers, so he “shifted his focus to reforming skyscraper design” instead of decrying them outright.


The endeavor produced a modern marvel, “a one-of-a-kind tower” rising above the New York City skyline, notes the video above, “a total masterpiece of architecture and engineering unlike anything seen before” — the Singer Tower, built for the Singer Sewing Machine Company in 1908.

So impressive was it for its time that Flagg’s building won comparisons to the pyramids of Ancient Egypt. For a brief moment, between the years 1908 and 1909, it was the tallest building in the world, until it lost the title to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower, another unusual building unlike the rectangular skyscrapers against which Flagg railed. Unconcerned with maximizing available real estate, he “urged that skyscraper towers more than 10 or 15 stories high should be set back from the property lines, so that the tower occupied only one-quarter of the lot,” writes Gray. “All four sides could then be treated architecturally, and ‘we should soon have a city of towers instead of a city of dismal ravines.'”

Working in a Beaux-Arts style, Flagg put his theories to the test in the Singer Tower, also called the Singer Building, expanding an original 10-story base to 14 stories, then building a smaller 33 -story tower atop it. Capped by a dome with a lantern and flagpole rising from it, the tower’s “bulbous top became one of New York’s best known landmarks.” Its lobby had the ornate luxury “seen in world’s fair and exposition architecture of the period.” But Flagg’s vision of “a city of free-standing towers” would remain the dream of a single architect. Despite his work for legislation to curb skyscrapers that took up entire city blocks, such buildings, including the 34-story City Investing Building, would continue to rise around the distinctive Singer Tower.

Finally, Flagg’s quirks proved too much for New York’s real estate elite. When the Singer company moved its headquarters in 1961, interest in the Tower remained low “because the small square footage of the building’s narrow tower was antithetical to the booming growth of modern business, which demanded more, not less, office space,” writes Katie Hiler. Deconstruction of the first skyscraper “ever to be peacefully demolished” began in 1967, five years after the demolition of Penn Station. In place of the Singer Tower would rise the 54-story One Liberty Plaza, a harbinger of things to come in the city’s new financial hub, the World Trade Center.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When the Colosseum in Rome Became the Home of Hundreds of Exotic Plant Species

The Colosseum is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, and thus one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Europe. But the nature of its appeal to its many visitors has changed over the centuries. In the Atlantic, novelist and podcaster Paul Cooper notes that, “the belief that Christian martyrs had once been fed to the lions in the arena,” for example, once made it a renowned site of religious pilgrimage. (This “despite little evidence that Christians were ever actually killed in the arena.”) But in that same era, the Colosseum was also a site of botanic pilgrimage: amid its ruins grew “420 species of plant,” including some rare examples “found nowhere else in Europe.”

Notable tourists who took note of the Colosseum’s rich plant life include Charles Dickens, who beheld its “walls and arches overgrown with green,” and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote of how “the copsewood overshadows you as you wander through its labyrinths, and the wild weeds of this climate of flowers bloom under your feet.”


Cooper quotes from these writings in his Atlantic piece, and in an associated Twitter thread also includes plenty of renderings of the Colosseum as it then looked during the 18th and 19th centuries. He even selected images from Flora of the Colosseum of Rome, or, Illustrations and descriptions of four hundred and twenty plants growing spontaneously upon the ruins of the Colosseum of Rome (readable free online at the Internet Archive), the 1855 work of a less well-known Englishman named Richard Deakin.

A botanist, Deakin did the hard work of cataloging those hundreds of plant species growing in the Colosseum back in the 1850s. The intervening 170 or so years have taken their toll on this biodiversity: as Nature reported it, only 242 of these species were still present in the early 2000s, due in part to “a shift towards species that prefer a warmer, drier climate” and the growth of the surrounding city. In its heyday in the first centuries of the last millennium, the arena lay on the outskirts of Rome, whereas it feels central today. Pay it a visit, and you both will and will not see the Colosseum that Dickens and Shelley did; but then, they never knew it as, say, Titus or Domitian did. In recent years there have been moves to restore and even improve ancient features like the retractable floor; why not double down on the exotic flora while we’re at it?

via The Atlantic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Introduction to the Chrysler Building, New York’s Art Deco Masterpiece, by John Malkovich (1994)

No old stuff for me, no bestial copyings of arches and columns and cornices. Me, I’m new.  
             — architect William Van Alen, designer of the Chrysler Building

Many people claim the Chrysler Building as their favorite New York City edifice and actor John Malkovich is one such:

It’s so crazy and vigorous in its execution, so breathtaking in its vision, so brilliantly eccentric.

Malkovich, who’s not shy about taking potshots at the city’s “violence and filth” in the BBC documentary short above, rhapsodizes over Detroit industrialist Walter P. Chrysler’s “latter day pyramid in Manhattan.”

Malkovich’s unmistakable voice, pegged by The Guardian as “wafting, whispery, and reedy” and which he himself poo poos as sounding like it belongs to someone who’s “labored under heavy narcotics for years,” pairs well with descriptions so plummy, one has to imagine he penned them himself. (No writer is credited.)


After showing us the open-to-the-public lobby’s “delicious Art Deco fittings,” ceiling mural, and intricate, veneered elevator doors, Malkovich gives us a tour of some off-limits upper floors.

Unlike the Empire State Building, which bested the Chrysler Building’s brief record as the world’s tallest building (1046 feet, 77 stories), you can’t purchase tickets to admire the view from the top.

But Malkovich has the star power to gain access to Celestial, the seventy-first floor observatory that has been closed to the public since 1945 and is currently occupied by a private firm.

He also has a wander around the barren Cloud Club, a supper club and speakeasy for gentleman one percenters. Its mishmash of styles represented a concession on architect Van Alen’s part. The building’s exterior was an elegant modernist homage to Chrysler’s hubcaps and hood ornaments, but between the 66th and 68th floor, the Cloud Club catered to the promiscuous tastes of the rich and powerful — Tudor, Olde English, Neo-Classical…

The New York Times reports that it boasted what “was reputed to be the grandest men’s room in all of New York.”

Duke Ellington soundtrack and vintage footage featuring Van Alen costumed to resemble his famous creation supply a taste of the excitement that heralded the building’s 1930 opening, even if those with a fear of heights may swoon at the sight of pretty young things reclining on high beams and performing other feats of derring-do.

Malkovich, ever the cool customer, displays his lack of vertigo by casually propping a foot on the rooftop’s edge to commune with the iconic eagle-headed gargoyles.

The building’s unique flourishes caused a sensation, but not everyone was a fan.

Malkovich clearly savors his swipe at critics who decried the new building as too shiny:

Fortunately these critics are long dead so we can’t even call their offices and taunt them as they should be taunted.

He’s more temperate when it comes to author and social philosopher Lewis Mumford, whose beef with the skyscraper is understandable, given the historic context — the stock market crashed the day after the secretly constructed spire was riveted into place:

Such buildings show one of the real dangers of a plutocracy: it gives the masters of our civilization an unusual opportunity to exhibit their barbarous egos, with no sense of restraint or shame.

Nearly one hundred years later, barbarous egos continue to erect skyscraping temples to their own vanity, but as Malkovich points out, they’re far blander, if taller.

The Chrysler Building is now widely recognized as one of New York City’s most magnificent jewels, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission recently approved plans to construct a public observation deck on the Chrysler Building’s 61st floor, just above its iconic Art Deco eagles, though it’s too early to tell if it will be ready in time for a centennial celebration.

Until then, the general public must content itself with exploring the Chrysler Building’s lobby during weekday business hours.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why Do People Hate Modern Architecture?: A Video Essay

This month brought the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, which prompted people around the world to remember all that was lost on that day. The fallen Twin Towers of Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center have only gained symbolic resonance over the past two decades, despite having been unloved when they still stood. “They often appeared to New Yorkers like a pair of middle fingers — to good development, to good economics, to good taste,” writes Gothamist’s Henry Stewart. “They brought all, high and low, rich and poor, together to hate.” Some critics of the World Trade Center made complaints rooted in politics, finance, and urban design; most just didn’t like how the thing looked.

For 28 years, what the World Trade Center in general and its Twin Towers in particular symbolized was all that the American public detested about what it thought of as the outlandish scale, aesthetic dreariness, and sheer inhumanity of “modern architecture.” But as Betty Chen of ARTiculations points out in the video above, there’s modern architecture, and then there’s Modern Architecture.


“A truly Modernist design,” she says, “adheres to a strict set of formal rules that upholds Modernism’s fundamental principle: form follows function.” Such Modernists as Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier subscribed to the notion that “architectural design should be disassociated from historic reference, be free of unnecessary ornamentation, and be simplified to the essentials of function.”

As versions of these principles for rebuilding a new postwar civilization — vulgarized versions, some might say — caught on in the middle of the 20th century, cities around the world set enthusiastically about putting up “empty boxes of nothingness.” Or so argued Modern Architecture’s detractors, who gained the cultural upper hand shortly thereafter. “If the first half of the 20th century is considered to be the age of Modern Architecture,” says Chen, “then the latter half of the century can be defined by a continual, unrelenting assault on Modern Architecture.” That assault included the demolition of another of Yamasaki’s mid-century projects, the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, which began on March 16, 1972. Though carried out without murderous intent, it did involve a notable death: the death, as architect Charles Jencks famously declared, of architectural Modernism itself.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Roman Colosseum Has a Twin in Tunisia: Discover the Amphitheater of El Jem, One of the Best-Preserved Roman Ruins in the World

Image via Wikimedia Commons

When Rome conquered Carthage in the Third Punic War (149-146 BC), the Republic renamed the region Africa, for Afri, a word the Berbers used for local people in present-day Tunisia. (The Arabic word for the region was Ifriqiya.) Thereafter would the Roman Empire have a stronghold in North Africa: Carthage, the capital of the African Province under Julius and Augustus Caesar and their successors. The province thrived. Second only to the city of Carthage in the region, the city of Thysdrus was an important center of olive oil production and the hometown of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who bestowed imperial favor upon it, granting partial Roman citizenship to its inhabitants.

In 238 AD, construction began on an amphitheater in Thysdrus that would rival its largest cousins in Rome, the famed Amphitheater of El Jem. “Designed to seat a whopping crowd of 35,000 people,” writes Atlas Obscura, El Jem was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. Built entirely of stone blocks, the massive theater was “modeled on the Coliseum of Rome,” notes UNESCO, “without being an exact copy of the Flavian construction…. Its facade comprises three levels of arcades of Corinthian or composite style. Inside, the monument has conserved most of the supporting infrastructure for the tiered seating. The wall of the podium, the arena and the underground passages are practically intact.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

 

Although the small city of El Jem hardly features on tours of the classical past, it was, in the time of the Amphitheater’s construction, a prominent site of struggle for control over the Empire. The year 238 “was particularly tumultuous,” Atlas Obscura explains, due to a “revolt by the population of Thysdrus (El Jem), who opposed the enormous taxation amounts being levied by the Emperor Maximinus’s local procurator.” A riot of 50,000 people led to the ascension of Gordian I, who ruled for 21 days during the “Year of the Six Emperors,” when “in just one year, six different people were proclaimed Emperors of Rome.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

From such fraught beginnings, the massive stone structure of the El Jem Amphitheater went on to serve as a fortress during invasions of Vandals and Arabs in the 5th-7th centuries. A thousand years after the Islamic conquest, El Jem became a fortress during the Revolutions of Tunis. Later centuries saw the amphitheater used for saltpetre manufacture, grain storage, and market stalls.

Despite hundreds of years of human activity, in violent upheavals and everyday business, El Jem remains one of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world and one of the largest outdoor theaters ever constructed. More importantly, it marks the site of one of North Africa’s first imperial occupations, one that would designate a region — and eventually a continent with a dizzyingly diverse mix of peoples — as “African.”

via @WassilDZ

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Build Wooden Models of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Great Building: The Guggenheim, Unity Temple, Johnson Wax Headquarters & More

Frank Lloyd Wright had his eccentricities, in not just his personal and professional conduct but also the very language with which he described the world. Among the enduringly fascinating elements of his idiolect is the word Usonian, which refers to things of or pertaining to the United States of America.  Wright didn’t coin the term: its earliest recorded user is the early 20th-century writer James Duff Law, who declared that “We of the United States, in justice to Canadians and Mexicans, have no right to use the title ‘Americans’ when referring to matters pertaining exclusively to ourselves.” The most famous architect in American history took Usonian further, using it to label an American architectural sensibility — of, naturally, his own design.

Though Wright did envision an ideally Usonian city, his clearest expressions of the aesthetic stand today in the form of the Usonian houses. Built between 1934 and 1958, these sixty or so residences take advantage, as Wright saw it, of the range of distinctive settings offered up by the landscapes of the United States.


Designed with features like garden terraces, clerestory windows, flat roofs with wide overhangs, and easy visual and physical passage between the indoors and outdoors, these urban-rural hybrids still today draw the admiration of architects and non-architects alike. But truly to understand a Usonian house, perhaps you must build one yourself: luckily, the Little Building Company offers a model kit that lets you do just that.

Their Wright lineup also includes miniature wooden versions of his 1908 Unity Temple in Oak Park, his 1937 Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, and his 1937 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The differences in scale and complexity between these buildings make for a natural model-building difficulty curve: once you’ve done a Wright house, you’ll be ready for a Wright temple; once you’ve done a Wright temple, you’ll be ready for a Wright corporate headquarters, and so on. Not only will the effort hone your manual dexterity, it will heighten your appreciation for the American architecture-defining innovations Wright pulled off in the early 20th century. But do you have to be from the United States to understand the Usonian? Based in Australia and selling to the world, the Little Building Company suggests not.

via MyModernMet

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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