Glass and Shadow

The main concern among neighbors of a proposed development taller than most nearby buildings is its shadow. These complaints are frequently ridiculous, such as the Picasso collector who recently claimed that a new nearby 90-story tower would cut off her light and air.

She, of course, lives in one of several 20-40 story towers on an island known around the world for its skyscrapers, as well as being stinking rich by her ownership of several Picassos. Still, New York has gone along way from the days when Astors and Vanderbilts complained about the six- and seven-story tenements cutting off their light and air. The weird thing about New York these days, however, is that the super-tall, super-skinner tower was devised as a way of minimizing shadow complaints.

Never mind that no has ever suffocated or gotten ricketts from being next to any tall building anywhere, rich people must be protected from the scourge of other people, whether they are equally rich or desperately poor.

In Boston, shadow requirements are built into some neighborhood planning guidelines and any project over 50,000 sq ft is required to do a shadow study. Smaller projects also frequently do them, usually to head-off neighborhood complaints.

But you know what? In all the times I’ve been to Downtown Boston or the few times I’ve been to Manhattan, I have never gone away thinking its dark or shadowy at all, especially Manhattan. This is partially because the streets are so wide, but it is also a factor of the design of the building itself.

The last time I was in New York, I remember walking along Fifth Avenue unable to find the Empire State Building, until I realized that a huge mass of people gathered on the sidewalk were waiting in line to go to the top. When you’re on 34th St, you don’t notice that it’s there.

It’s the same with most of the tall buildings in Midtown. The exception is 30 Rockefeller Center, but that was designed to attract attention and command a passerby’s view.

While Boston isn’t dark and drear, the size of the buildings is much more noticeable than in Midtown, although there is a curious exception: the Macy’s at Summer and Washington Streets. The difference is instructive.

A lot of newer skyscrapers are designed from a bird’s-eye view. Seriously. If you look at the renderings you never see a perspective from the street, just ones from 1500 feet in the air and several hundred away, but the vast majority of perople who interact with a building interact with it at or from the street level. It’s a curious neglect.

In New York City, especially with skyscrapers built in the 1920s and 1930s, there’s a lot of activity at the street level. There are restaurants and retail spaces and lobbies and fruit stalls and this, that and the other thing. Not only are there multiple things going on, they’re very busy.

More recent skyscrapers, however, tend to have glass curtain walls that come right down to the street. Some of them even have plazas seperating them from the actual street. There’s rarely any retail or restaurants or anything other than the entrance. Not only does it result in a zone of no activity around the building, but the long curtain wall is actually harmful to one’s health. Street facades need diversity and variation.

Boston is actually worse because in some buildings, instead of a wall of glass or masonry or concrete, the offices will be built over a parking garage so the street-frontage is occupied by the garage entrance, which is worse.

The Macy’s, meanwhile feels more massive and oppressive than it actually is because it lacks windows. There are a few entrances and a few windows at the street, but not enough to really interact with anything. The upper floors lack windows as well, which makes the building very unfriendly when you’re walking towards it. But it does have an arcade, which I think we need more of to protect pedestrians from wind and rain.

And so I’m puzzled by planning regulations that are concerned with shadows that aren’t problems, but take almost no notice of street-interaction, which is important.

One thought on “Glass and Shadow

  1. There’s zoning laws on setbacks and public plazas in midtown. But down by Wall Street? You feel like you’re in a canyon. A canyon of assholes. Thank gods for intelligent city planning.

    Have you seen the monster that is going up on 57th street next to the Art Students League? It looks like a middle finger.

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