Monday, August 29, 2011

Where Do We Put the Skyline?

Here in the United States, central areas of cites tend to be zoned for high-rise office, apartment and condominium buildings. This reflects pre-zoning practices in places such as New York City where new, larger buildings replaced older structures as market conditions evolved. Zoning laws and, later, preservation rulings have tended to preserve certain older buildings, deservedly or not.

In any case, almost no really large North American city that I can think of has an extensive "old town" district comparable to what can be found in Europe. Yes, a few preserved areas exist including parts of Charleston and Savannah in the South, Boston's Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods, and Qu├ębec's district within the wall. There might be a few others, but they don't come to mind as I write this.

From what I glean from photos I randomly notice, American practice is followed in much of the developing world where skyscrapers sprout like mad. Shanghai's Bund is still recognizable, but it is encroached by a field of megastructures across the river in Pudong.

That leaves Europe which, as I noted, has some major cities with large preserved areas. But how many large European cities actually have extensive areas that are largely untouched by skyscrapers or other significant modernist structures?

[Scratches head, rubs chin] Umm. There's Copenhagen, where much of the skyline in the old part of town is as flat as the terrain. And Vienna, which has a few modernist buildings inside the Ring -- but no high-rise buildings in that area. Both of these cites do have skyscrapers. But high-rise, modernist-style buildings are not permitted in the old city centers; they are segregated in areas a few miles away.

Below are examples of cities where tall, modernist buildings are found and not found in old city centers.


The Paris most tourists experience is the part of the City near the River Seine. The river is, of course, the low point and the ground rises to the north and south where can be found other areas that attract visitors -- Montmartre and Montparnasse. With one exception, there are no skyscrapers here. Otherwise, the only seriously large modernist building is the Centre Pompidou, the museum of modernist art. Skyscrapers are found in the La Défense district to the west, as can be seen in this photo.

That one exception is the building from which someone probably took the top photo. It's the Tour Montparnasse, completed in 1969, and clearly seen in the photo above. It so horrified Parisians that the idea of La Défense was born. Those tall building in the background are near the periphery of the city to the south, and there are neighborhoods in the city outside the main tourist zone with large (but not very tall) modernist apartment houses.

Vienna's main skyscraper district is off to the east by the Danube River and there are other suburban areas with skyscrapers and large modernist buildings.

The same holds for Prague. The above photo was probably taken through a telephoto lens, making the eastern high-rise district seem closer than it is. In the foreground are the Vltava (Moldau) River and the famous Charles Bridge.

Frankfurt (am-Main) also has a cluster of skyscrapers, but unlike Paris, Vienna and Prague it is situated close to the old city center (or what was left of it after World War 2 bombings).

You might have noticed that in the picture sequence, the skyscraper district gets closer and closer to the old city center. In London, skyscrapers are scattered through the heart, especially in The City, its financial district, shown here.

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