What do showpiece buildings say about our cities?

From the roof of St Paul’s cathedral, visitors can get a great perspective on London – and on the direction in which the city’s architecture is travelling.

八月 03, 2015

The view from St Paul’s takes in the 310 meters Shard, 30 St Mary Axe (aka ‘the Gherkin’, and 180 meters tall), the London Eye (135 meters) and, on a clear day, the Wembley Arch (133 meters). In fact the cathedral, which at 111 meters was London’s tallest building from 1710 to 1962, would now be dwarfed if London’s planners had not introduced ‘protected views’ restrictions to ensure that Sir Christopher Wren’s famous dome could be clearly seen from viewpoints around the capital.

Like many buildings before and since, St Paul’s was built as a ‘showpiece’ – a symbol of a city’s power and prestige and, in this case, its capacity for renewal following the Great Fire of 1666.

“Structures that put a city on the map”

Under different circumstances, many urban authorities have attempted to define their cities through showpiece buildings. With the rapid urbanization of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has come an acceleration in showpiece architecture – with distinctly mixed results, according to Graham Coutts, JLL Head of Strategic Consulting Asia Pacific.

“We think of showpiece buildings as the structures that put a city on the map – places that, if you showed a picture of them in isolation, bring one city immediately to mind,” he says.

“They don’t necessarily have to be tall buildings – think of the Sydney Opera House, which is instantly recognizable but not tall (65 meters) – although there’s no doubt there is a trend towards tall and mega tall buildings. Many ‘Tier 2’ and ‘Tier 3’ cities in China, such as Wuhan, Nanjing or Wuxi, are building towers of 300 meters or more, and there are plenty more elsewhere too.”

City authorities are competing on the world stage, for inward investment but also for prestige and status, and iconic buildings play a part, Coutts says.

“But some – many – attempts at defining a city in this way are unsuccessful. Sometimes a building is so architecturally quirky that it isn’t taken seriously by residents. Sometimes buildings aren’t aligned with the place where they’re built, or fail to meet a business need, and become ghost buildings. Sheer height, in particular, is not a recipe for success on its own.”

Buildings or sculptures?

The Israeli-American architect Moshe Safdie has called some such skyscrapers “objectified, branded ego trips”, closer to giant sculptures than buildings. Writing in the Financial Times, John Gapper described them as “expressions of architectural individuality (which) have the paradoxical effect of making cities look more and more like each other…There used to be no difficulty in knowing whether you were in London or Paris, or which continent you were on, but many cities now resemble a mash-up between London and Las Vegas.”

For Helen Gough, Lead Director – Buildings & Construction at JLL, the key to success for a showpiece building is the same as for less ambitious developments – the ability to combine function with place-building.

“Architecturally-led buildings that change the skyline can be ‘iconic’, but that doesn’t make them successful,” she says.

“People who believe that you can ‘build it and they will come’ are proven wrong as often as they’re proven right. Buildings have to have a value to the people who live and work in and around them, and they have to be adaptable to the fact that people’s lives and the way they work keep changing.”

Gough cites Zhengdong and Chenggong in China as examples of the kind of ghost cities that occur when this value is lacking. “There’s also King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, filled with buildings that are under-occupied – and Norman Foster’s Harman Hotel in Las Vegas, which is unfinished. Showpiece buildings only work when they have a purpose and function as well as a visual impact.”

On the other hand, the refurbishment or redevelopment of an existing building, in Gough’s view, “often does this as well or better than a new showpiece. The British Museum and St Pancras Hotel in London, and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, are great examples.”

Two sides to the coin

In US cities, it’s redevelopment that drives many ‘landmarking’ projects, according to Steve Stratton, International Director, Headquarters Practice Group at JLL, although a building becoming a landmark can be a mixed blessing for owners.

“New buildings in most US cities tend to be designed from ‘inside-out’ – that is, driven by the needs of users, rather than by the egos of architects,” he says.

“That means outside of New York there is less of a trend towards ‘showpiece’ buildings. But when we talk about landmarks, we’re usually talking about historic real estate, which is also often iconic. It could be that a developer is seeking to make it a landmark to drive up value or find an opportunity to reduce tax liability – or it could be that conservationists are making a case that the architecture has particular historic value or want to ‘downzone’ a particular neighborhood or business district.”

The building at 330 N. Wabash in Chicago, for example, is the former IBM Plaza which was renovated to create a Langham hotel and one million square foot of office space. “That’s a successful landmark redevelopment designed by Mies van der Rohe, which benefits from tax abatement. But in other cases, landmark designation can restrict what a developer can do, and reduce value,” Stratton adds.

“The Ornament of a nation”

Coutts returns to the Sydney Opera House as an example of the showpiece building creating a genuine relationship with a city. “It was built as Sydney was discovering and exploring its role in the world, and was part of a change in internal perceptions in Australia about the city and even the country,” he says.

“The opera house helped pave the way for a cultural and economic flourishing. The same can be said of the Guggenheim in Bilbao – and in Abu Dhabi, the city is attempting something similar, using iconic buildings, art, and culture to highlight the city’s depth and breadth.”

It is a theme that Sir Christopher Wren would have recognized. “Architecture has its political uses,” wrote Wren, “publick Buildings being the Ornament of a country; it establishes a nation… (and) makes people love their native country.”