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

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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