Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why Are Brooklyn's Skyscrapers So Ugly?

Posted By on Tue, Jul 16, 2013 at 12:04 PM

"For all of Brooklyn's hip reputation, you wouldn't know it from the skyline," Anthony Paletta wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, and he has a point—while Brooklyn may be good at art and books and food and such, we're not very good at building skyscrapers. But that wasn't always the case: Downtown Brooklyn last had a skyscraper boom in the 1920s, many of which were landmarked early last year in the city's first protected "skyscraper district." No one could argue the modern majesty of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower. But these things thrusting rudely skyward all over Downtown? Ugh. Skyscrapers of course can be beautiful, as anyone who's ever picked out certain buildings from the Manhattan skyline can attest. So what's going on with these new ones?

388 Bridge Street Downtown Brooklyn
The 37-story Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower became the borough's tallest building in 1929, and it retained the title for 80 years, until the Brooklyner on Lawrence Street was finished in 2009, dwarfing the old record-holder with its 51 stories. Already that building is set to be displaced: when 388 Bridge Street is finished next year, it'll be 53 stories. When the Avalon, around the corner, is finished, it'll be even taller than that. "It is taxing even to describe most of these buildings," Paletta writes, but he tries: "The Oro is an ungainly marriage of glass and brick that, from a distance, looks not unlike lacquered cardboard."

But this isn't simply an issue of aesthetic failure (though these garish buildings particularly stick out in Brooklyn, which traditionally has been an airy low-rise alternative to Manhattan's sun-blocking heights—more Paris than Abu Dhabi). Downtown Brooklyn was one of the borough's last gentrification holdouts, as director Kelly Anderson chronicled in her documentary My Brooklyn. Bloomberg rezoned the area in the early aughts, allowing for the construction of towers five or six times the previous height limits, rapidly transforming the community from a bustling commercial center (that appealed primarily to black New Yorkers) into a luxury neighborhood.

The towers they built to attract new wealthy residents are meant to impress potential renters with their views of Manhattan; they're meant for looking out from, not looking in at; they hold up no mirrors to themselves. Despite its views, 388 Bridge Street—perhaps the ugliest of the new skyscrapers—"doesn't offer much ornament to the neighborhood itself," Paletta writes. "It isn't just civic narcissism to hope that a borough could look at itself admiringly sometimes."

Why are Brooklyn's skyscrapers so ugly? Because they were built for ugly reasons, and they wear their intentions plainly.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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Henry Stewart

Henry Stewart

Henry Stewart is the Culture Editor at The L Magazine and Brooklyn Magazine. He has always lived in Brooklyn.

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