The cutting edge

It is not the cutting edge that we ordinary observers want, but the gentle and retreating edge, the cheerful pinnacle and the polite façade. Look at the first generation of skyscrapers and you find those things in abundance. The lovely pinnacle of New York City’s Chrysler Building, for example, which does not assault the sky like an angry fist, but proudly stands above the city like a cathedral spire, puncturing the sky but also gently repairing the injury. Those old skyscrapers followed the line of the street, so that their edges did not jostle their neighbours aside, but simply rose beside them, conceding space at street level. And the meeting of the building and the street was not, as it now so often is, an abrupt horizontal, like a crushing block of concrete on the toe, but a collection of colonnades and arches, a busy labyrinth of welcomes, that blended with the doors and windows to either side.

We learn from those old skyscrapers that the height of a building does not in itself detach it from the city. There are critical points where building and city meet, and where it is good manners rather than “cutting-edge” excitement that are most required. These points are three: the skyline, the street line, and the vertical order that unites them.

Study those things and you will quickly find an answer to my question. The modern skyscraper has no skyline: merely a blunt fist thrust above the city, without grace or courtesy. It has no façade at street level, but merely an opening somewhere, marked if at all by some garish logo, and surrounded by characterless steel and glass. And the two extremities are not joined together in any meaningful way, since the only vertical lines are the sharp forbidding edges of the building, brandished like threats towards the buildings to either side. Top and bottom are simply the first and last of a stack of trays, producing an effect of accumulated horizontals in which all vertical order—all true posture towards the city—is lost in a vision of junk.

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