When you’re putting up a multibillion-dollar tower that’s a quarter-mile high, there’s not much leeway to make it a work of art. On the other hand, when you’re putting up a multibillion-dollar tower that’s a quarter-mile high, it had damn well better be a work of art. Dozens of supertall buildings are being built or planned, radically redrawing the skyline. If we avert our gaze, we’ll get a bundle of glass stakes fencing off the air above Manhattan. Skyscrapers can be better. The difficulty of making an elegant symbolic presence out of an immense vertical machine has been vexing architects for more than a century. And yet it must be done.
“Problem,” declared the skyscraper wizard Louis Sullivan in 1896: “How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions?” Sullivan knew from experience that in big buildings, aesthetics struggle to assert themselves against the overweening realities of technology, zoning, and real-estate arithmetic. But he also saw that unless the tower could be ennobled, it would do violence to urban life. That remains true, especially now that some spires reach ten times higher than he ever contemplated. ….