Skyscrapers in Rome? No, Grazie!
A decade ago, the last place anyone wanted to be was in a skyscraper. The whole world had watched the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York, and it seemed that the romance of the tall building had been erased by the trauma of that event and fear of future terrorist attacks. Then, as these anxieties began to fade, proposals for new towers appeared, only to be slowed down by the global economic crisis.
The Santiago Calatrava-designed “Spire” on the Chicago lakefront was placed on what is likely permanent hold, and around the world completed towers, like the Burj-Kalifa in Dubai, stood empty. But this proved a temporary setback, as construction nears completion of Richard Rogers’s “Shard” in London (billed as the tallest building in Europe) and pressures mount to relax limitations of building height in historic cities that, unlike London, had retained their more modest vertical scale.
Skyscrapers were banned from the center of Paris following the completion of the hideous Tour Montparnasse in the early 1960s, but now President Sarkozy and Mayor Delanoë are pushing for a new generation of towers — no longer restricted to skyscraper zoos like La Défense and Paris Rive Gauche, but now within the center itself, within view of the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.
Citizens in Paris; Washington, DC, and now Rome are rising in protest to fight what seem to be the implacable forces of global real estate speculation and to preserve these historic cities from new construction that is not only unsustainable and unnecessary, but would permanently alter their architectural identity and character.
The arrogance of the pro-skyscraper lobby is typified by a remark by star architect Renzo Piano, when asked what he would say to critics of his 39-story glassy Intesa San Paolo tower in Torino, now under construction and set to alter permanently the skyline of that elegant classical city. Piano said simply, “They are afraid of the future.” So the future is synonymous with skyscrapers, the power of leading financial institutions and, without doubt, the whims of Renzo Piano.
Not to be outdone by London or Paris, the mayor of Rome appointed a Commission on Skyscrapers this past fall. Members of the commission include architects Daniel Liebskind and Massimiliano Fuksas. Neither of these architects has realized a skyscraper of his own, so their purported expertise is entirely based on their status as “starchitects.” The commission was given the task of identifying sites for new tall buildings in Rome’s suburbs, recognizing that large swaths of the dreary Modernist fringe of Rome need to be rebuilt because structures are literally falling down. Its recommendation: tear down the failing 1970s high-rise buildings and replace them with new ones using the same urban planning ideas and building typologies that failed before, only now with a gloss of “sustainable” features and the stylish clichés of deconstructivist design.
But new towers in Rome did not wait for the findings of the commission. The 28-story Eurosky tower, designed by Franco Purini and Laura Thermes, is now nearing completion in EUR south of the center. The Eurosky is replete with what Stephen Mouzon calls “gizmo green” — features that purport to reduce energy consumption and recycle waste, while ignoring the structure’s impact on public space, traffic and transportation systems, as well as the costs of future maintenance. The imminent completion of this structure must be particularly irritating to Piano, whose project of a few years ago for two towers nearby had to be reduced in height at the insistence of the mayor, back when his honor still thought Modernist towers were not the right solution for Rome.
The proponents of tall buildings typically point out that skyscrapers are justified because they will be more energy efficient than older buildings. These claims have been called into serious question by Michelle Addington, an architecture and engineering professor at Yale, who, examining the data gleaned from post-occupancy studies, finds that claims for reduced energy consumption and overall sustainability of recent skyscrapers are grossly overstated. The actual performance of buildings like Foster’s “Gherkin” in London has been far less impressive than the hype would have us believe.
A second claim made by skyscraper boosters — that they will relieve a housing shortage — is also false, because the primary occupants of the towers are denizens of corporate offices, guests at luxury hotels and very affluent apartment dwellers. The “Pyramide” tower in Paris, designed by Herzog and De Meuron, will house only corporate executives and well-financed business travelers and tourists. Indeed, the tremendous investment required to build and maintain the new generation of towers precludes any but the highest-income-producing occupancies. The idea that these new buildings will ease a housing shortage or rejuvenate urban centers is nonsense.
Opposition to the new towers is also rising. Citizen and international protest managed to prevent the construction of an obnoxious tower to house the Russian natural gas utility that was about to overwhelm the beauty of Saint Petersburg. UNESCO has declared that construction of new towers close to World Heritage Sites could provoke de-listing. This is now likely to be the fate of the historic waterfront of Liverpool, soon to be overshadowed by a row of high-rise towers just approved by the city fathers in the name of economic development and in disregard of UNESCO’s warning.
In Paris, the proposed new skyscrapers are vigorously opposed by citizens and international groups like SOS Paris, which are petitioning UNESCO to issue a similar warning: that the Banks of the Seine could well lose World Heritage Site status if construction of proposed towers proceeds. In Italy, a national campaign against skyscrapers is being led by Italia Nostra, the country’s leading preservation organization, but so far it has been no match for the real estate juggernaut. While these opponents have the proof of centuries of urban splendor in their favor, the pro-high-rise forces are formidable, now that governments everywhere are no longer interested in placing limits on the rapacious global marketplace but, rather, cashing in on it.
My colleague in the Notre Dame Rome Studies Program Ettore Maria Mazzola and Bologna-based traditional architect/planner Gabriele Tagliaventi like to point out the false economics of high-rise development – the latter describes skyscrapers as “the clearest symbol of the economic crisis and of the jungle capitalism that by now everyone agrees must be reformed” — but their opposition is primarily based on urbanism: Because skyscrapers represent intensive development on very small plots of land, they are dependent on external infrastructure to accommodate the thousands of people who enter and exit the buildings at rush hours, contributing to traffic congestion and pollution. They also pollute the landscape visually — dinosaurs in an architectural Jurassic Park, Tagliaventi calls them.
Both architects point out that the real future of our cities lies in transforming the suburban fringe into distinct “eco-quarters” — compact, sustainable and walkable neighborhoods well served by public transportation and capable of engendering loyalty, civic pride and community life. Such neighborhoods match the density of the skyscraper zones but with the advantage of genuinely sustainable construction and the creation of a humane and lovable urban environment.
So far, however, this appeal has fallen on deaf ears as the financial and political elite remain infatuated with the imagery of the new towers and the hoped-for returns on their investments. Whether those returns are realized remains to be seen, but the fate of our most valued historic centers hangs in the balance.