Shimmering boxes do not a city make

Paul Goldberger, writing in Metropolis, sees an opportunity for urbanism lost amidst the gleaming curtain-wall residential towers:

bq. When glass residential buildings were rare, they had a graceful effect on the cityscape: light objects playing off against masonry. But just as the Seagram Building lost some of its luster when its masonry neighbors on Park Avenue were replaced by inferior glass buildings, we are beginning to run the risk of seeing glass become not the appealing counterpoint to the stone city but the new standard. And it doesn’t work well at that. The allure of glass — its brittleness and precision, the way it seems to bedazzle and at the same time keep you at a distance — can sometimes make beautiful buildings, but it’s less likely to make appealing street-scapes. This is not the place to get into Modernism’s urbanistic failings, which involve far more than material choices, but walking alongside a glass building doesn’t provide the subtle embrace that richly textured stone or even brick does. It is a paradox: stone, heavy and opaque, pulls you closer; glass, light and transparent, keeps you at a distance. I have tried to avoid using words like warm and cold, but it is hard not to conclude that glass is cold and masonry warm. A cold object can be stunningly beautiful, but one cannot make a whole street out of them, and streets are the mortar of civilizing cities. Masonry buildings make streets; glass buildings make objects.

Vancouver has partially solved the problem by requiring heavier materials toward ground level while allowing the towers to float into the sky, but not quite: the overall feeling (perhaps intentional) is still far too airy and light, with little of the intimacy one expects of urban spaces. The literal lack of dirt and grit in the glass and steel confines of recent spaces, unrelieved even by the ubiquitous textured cement of Brutalist-era modernism, makes one wonder how these places will age.

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