High-rise cities can learn a lot from design of the past

Designers of the so-called ‘pencil towers’ should take a leaf out of Da Vinci’s book

The 82-storey residential tower on New York’s West 57th Street

The 82-storey residential tower on New York’s West 57th Street

 

I used to be naively comforted by the idea that, as we get to know more, things tend to improve. It’s an increasingly difficult position to hold when, at the point when knowledge tips over into certainty, all manner of things begin to go wrong. Take design and architecture: on a recent trip to New York, I was introduced to the “pencil towers”, a new breed of building that is rising across the Manhattan skyline. At 111 West 57th Street, SHoP Architects’ 82-storey residential tower, currently under construction, will rise to 435m (1,428ft) from a base which at its maximum is just 17.5m (58ft) wide.

Further downtown, at 303-305 East 44th Street, ODA Architecture’s 183m (600ft) building climbs from a plinth just 14m (47ft) wide. The views from the $100 million penthouse at West 57th will be sublime, but as even the most secure of multi-billionaires won’t want to feel seasick at home, an 800-ton damper will sit on top of the building to reduce sway in the wind.

But what about down below? When one of New York’s first skyscrapers, the 20-storey Flatiron, was built in 1902, the wind-tunnel effect created by both the building’s height (tall buildings suck air down), and the winds drawn up from the adjacent 5th Avenue and Broadway to meet the empty space of Madison Square Park, caused unpredictable gusts. Policemen were drafted to the triangular apex of the building to move along those men hanging out in the hopes of catching a glimpse of women’s knickers as the wind whipped their skirts up.

High and mighty

But in San Gimignano, as with nearby Florence and Siena, they also knew to build their narrow streets on a curve. These gentle bends mitigated the wind-tunnel effects, just as overhanging balconies and arcades gave shade and shelter. Looking at what we used to know, it’s hard to imagine how we came to forget it. Probably because someone decided they could do bigger and better.

“Nature never breaks her own laws,” wrote Florentine genius Leonardo da Vinci, who also pointed out that “the greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions”. To get a sense of just how brilliant da Vinci was, up close and personal, go to the National Gallery between now and July 17th, where you can see 10 da Vinci drawings from the Royal Collection (nationalgallery.ie).

Giving the lie to the more modern idea of specialisation, da Vinci, most famous of course for the Mona Lisa, was also a sculptor, anatomist, botanist, engineer, architect, designer and dreamer. He invented hydraulic systems, imagined a helicopter and an early form of automobile, leaving these ideas in sketchbooks and notebooks which were written in his curious mirror writing – either to keep his secrets, or just because he could.

Ranging from studies for an equestrian sculpture, to a male nude, to the human heart compared to a seed, to his hydraulic studies of the river Arno, the da Vinci drawings are a reminder that the best restless minds don’t stick to one field, and that polymath or Renaissance man (or woman) is a better epithet than the more pejorative “dilettante”. They’re also a subtle nudge against the overuse of jargon within different disciplines. It’s always tempting to have a technical shorthand for use amongst your peers, but what ideas might you be excluding from other ways of looking, seeing and experiencing?

Back in the world of tall buildings, tricky skyscrapers aren’t unique to New York. In Leeds, Bridgewater Place, the tallest building in Yorkshire, caused such strong gusts, it blew an articulated lorry over in 2011, killing pedestrian Edward Slaney. In London, 20 Fenchurch Street, by Rafael Violy, nicknamed “the walkie-talkie”, not only creates the wind tunnel effect, its concave surface also focused direct sunlight, causing beams of light to heat up to 91 degrees, damaging the bodywork of nearby parked cars. Sunshades have since been erected.

As da Vinci observed, “though human ingenuity may make various inventions which, by the help of various machines answering the same end, it will never devise any inventions more beautiful, nor more simple, nor more to the purpose than Nature does; because in her inventions nothing is wanting, and nothing is superfluous.” Designers and architects of our modern cities should take a look again at what they knew more than 500 years ago, and see what we might learn anew.

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