Justin Davidson: Why Glass Towers are Bad for City Life – And What We Need Instead (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Justin Davidson’s Talk: Why Glass Towers are Bad for City Life – And What We Need Instead at TED conference. 

Justin Davidson – Architecture critic

Imagine that when you walked in here this evening, you discovered that everybody in the room looked almost exactly the same: ageless, raceless, generically good-looking. That person sitting right next to you might have the most idiosyncratic inner life, but you don’t have a clue because we’re all wearing the same blank expression all the time.

That is the kind of creepy transformation that is taking over cities, only it applies to buildings, not people. Cities are full of roughness and shadow, texture and color. You can still find architectural surfaces of great individuality and character in apartment buildings in Riga and Yemen, social housing in Vienna, Hopi villages in Arizona, brownstones in New York, wooden houses in San Francisco. These aren’t palaces or cathedrals. These are just ordinary residences expressing the ordinary splendor of cities.

And the reason they’re like that is that the need for shelter is so bound up with the human desire for beauty. Their rough surfaces give us a touchable city. Right? Streets that you can read by running your fingers over brick and stone. But that’s getting harder to do, because cities are becoming smooth. New downtowns sprout towers that are almost always made of concrete and steel and covered in glass.

You can look at skylines all over the world — Houston, Guangzhou, Frankfurt — and you see the same army of high-gloss robots marching over the horizon. Now, just think of everything we lose when architects stop using the full range of available materials. When we reject granite and limestone and sandstone and wood and copper and terra-cotta and brick and wattle and plaster, we simplify architecture and we impoverish cities. It’s as if you reduced all of the world’s cuisines down to airline food. Chicken or pasta? But worse still, assemblies of glass towers like this one in Moscow suggest a disdain for the civic and communal aspects of urban living. Right?

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Buildings like these are intended to enrich their owners and tenants, but not necessarily the lives of the rest of us, those of us who navigate the spaces between the buildings. And we expect to do so for free. Shiny towers are an invasive species and they are choking our cities and killing off public space. We tend to think of a facade as being like makeup, a decorative layer applied at the end to a building that’s effectively complete. But just because a facade is superficial doesn’t mean it’s not also deep.

Let me give you an example of how a city’s surfaces affect the way we live in it. When I visited Salamanca in Spain, I gravitated to the Plaza Mayor at all hours of the day. Early in the morning, sunlight rakes the facades, sharpening shadows, and at night, lamplight segments the buildings into hundreds of distinct areas, balconies and windows and arcades, each one a separate pocket of visual activity. That detail and depth, that glamour gives the plaza a theatrical quality. It becomes a stage where the generations can meet.

You have teenagers sprawling on the pavers, seniors monopolizing the benches, and real life starts to look like an opera set. The curtain goes up on Salamanca. So just because I’m talking about the exteriors of buildings, not form, not function, not structure, even so those surfaces give texture to our lives, because buildings create the spaces around them, and those spaces can draw people in or push them away. And the difference often has to do with the quality of those exteriors.

So one contemporary equivalent of the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca is the Place de la Défense in Paris, a windswept, glass-walled open space that office workers hurry through on the way from the metro to their cubicles but otherwise spend as little time in as possible.

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In the early 1980s, the architect Philip Johnson tried to recreate a gracious European plaza in Pittsburgh. This is PPG Place, a half acre of open space encircled by commercial buildings made of mirrored glass. And he ornamented those buildings with metal trim and bays and Gothic turrets which really pop on the skyline. But at ground level, the plaza feels like a black glass cage I mean, sure, in summertime kids are running back and forth through the fountain and there’s ice-skating in the winter, but it lacks the informality of a leisurely hangout.

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