The Skies, The Limits

Pondering the future of tall buildings in Knoxville and America

It would have been hard to blame anyone for misconstruing the title of the lecture at UT's Art and Architecture Building last week. The lecturer was Blake Middleton, a distinguished New York architect of the firm Gary Edward Handel and Associates, which has designed skyscrapers in Boston, Miami, San Francisco, Washington, and New York. Middleton was also intimate with the World Trade Center.

The name of his lecture was "Tall Buildings Reconsidered." The architect opened the talk by reminding his audience that architects often liken buildings to human bodies; what happened to the World Trade Center on September 11, he said, was like getting shot in the head.

The disaster left some national authorities to emphasize a point that had been going around for some years: that maybe the American skyscraper was over. In recent years, some have questioned the skyscraper and its long elevator rides and the fact that most of the business within a skyscraper is, necessarily, invisible from the street. Besides, if we can no longer build the tallest ones in the world, as we did for nearly a century, why build them at all?

But Middleton was not reconsidering whether tall buildings should be built. "I don't think the tall building will go away," he said. He has designed several tall buildings, and intends to design many more. He was reconsidering how they should be built.

He pointed out graphically that skyscrapers combat sprawl in dramatic ways. A tower that includes 50 stories of offices and parking in one block might be comparable to an area of 50 blocks in the suburbs. One of the unabashed skyscrapers his firm designed is Millennium Place in Boston, a mixed-use two-building development with a total of 1.8 million square feet, or about 45 acres, of floor space. Combining offices, residences, retail, a movie complex, and parking, the variegated design of Millennium Place makes it resemble a small, vertically inclined city.

"Density is its own reward," Middleton said, citing Boyle's Law of Physics, which supposes that the greater the density of molecules, the greater the interaction between the molecules. Middleton believes that density works with people the same way.

Some in the audience last week agree enthusiastically, including Middleton's host, architecture school Dean Marleen Davis. "I don't think we can design around something as traumatic as Sept. 11," she says. "As long as land values dictate it, skyscrapers will be built. I think they're good. They concentrate people, give energy and vitality to a city. They're reasonably nice places to work, they have great views. They define a skyline."

She admits she'd like to see more of them here. "It would be great to have more tall buildings in Knoxville, to increase the density downtown."

No question, skyscrapers are probably the most efficient use of an acre of land. They can support more businesses, more employees, more tax dollars per square foot.

And they do make an impression from far away. Especially in a place like hilly, lush, East Tennessee, where downtown vanishes from sight only a few blocks down the road in any direction, an acrobatic skyline might count for something, as a reminder that there's still a city over here.

New urbanists ordinarily rejoice in high-density development because it maximizes civic interaction and streetside commerce. But some add that, impressive as skyscrapers look from a distance, they often overwhelm the pedestrian scale, making workers, shoppers, and residents feel tiny and pointless.

Moreover, many people don't like working in skyscrapers: few relish the long elevator rides, which can push a borderline claustrophobic round the bend. They also discourage casual visits out to the street for a newspaper or a smoke or a pack of gum. Some new urbanists have concluded that a skyscraper, despite its density, can actually suck the life off the street. Some of America's bleakest blocks are around skyscrapers.

There's also the issue of long-range maintenance. When it's no longer fashionable, a skyscraper has the potential to become a major civic liability. A skyscraper can't afford to go seedy, 40 or 50 years hence, as many other well-intended buildings do. If only partially leased and in poor repair, a decrepit old skyscraper could have catastrophic consequences on the city below.

Even before the horrors of Sept. 11, some essayists had predicted the end of the skyscraper era, calling it a 20th-century phenomenon.

Will Knoxville ever build another skyscraper? It's a good question, and one few are bold enough to answer with any certainty.

Last year, the development group Worsham Watkins International proposed to build a 35-story office building on Union Avenue; it would have become the tallest building in East Tennessee history. But it raised serious concerns. Some worried about its scale dwarfing everything around it. Others were skeptical about the views it would block and the long shadows it would cast.

For the time being, the Worsham Watkins tower appears to be in architectural limbo. It may have been doomed less by its aesthetics than by its expense in relation to other aspects of the project which were beginning to seem less feasible on second blush.

Other developers still have as-yet undefined plans to build another tower on Gay Street, where buildings have been out-topping each other for about 100 years.

The definition of skyscraper has shifted several times over the years, always in an upward direction. Back when it was a cute metaphor people rarely pronounced without a smile, any building of seven floors or more was liable to be called a skyscraper. The Arnstein Building, where our offices are located, was Knoxville's first steel-frame building, and arguably our first skyscraper; when it went up, almost a century ago, it had seven stories (nine, if you count mezzanine levels).

Knoxville outdid it in 1908 with the 11-story Burwell (which now fronts the Tennessee Theater). Next came the 12-story Holston Bank Building (now known as the Charter Federal Building), in 1912; the 15-story General Building (now known as BB&T), 1926; the 17-story Andrew Johnson Hotel, 1930. Each took its turn as the tallest building in town. For decades, the word skyscraper was defined by the fact that it was the tallest building in town.

As it happens, most of Knoxville's original, early 20th-century "skyscrapers" are still standing, even as smaller, often newer buildings around them have disappeared. Every one of these one-time champs, as well as most of the also-rans, like the 1919 Farragut and the 1930 Medical Arts Building, are well-kept and occupied. That fact might seem remarkable, in a town not famous for preservation; but then, any one of them would be a bitch to tear down.

Though dwarfed by New York contemporaries (the Chrysler Building, which went up about the same time, has 77 stories), the Andrew Johnson would stand as Knoxville's tallest building for nearly half a century and would be described as a skyscraper for decades, even by well-traveled visitors. Then, in the 1970s, the modernist, 27-story Plaza Tower went up nearby, and after it the 24-story Riverview Tower. Taller than anything in Chattanooga, they're still the tallest buildings in East Tennessee.

It's typical today to define a skyscraper as a building that's more than 90 meters tall: that's about 98 yards, or nearly a football field. By that criterion, the Sunsphere, at just over 81 meters, doesn't make the cut as a "skyscraper," but Plaza Tower and Riverview do, and the Andrew Johnson comes close.

Dutch scholar Egbert Gromsbergen's architecturally acrophiliac website, "The World's Best Skylines," makes a fetish of the world's 5,000-odd skyscrapers and employs a complicated formula to calculate which cities scrape the sky most satisfactorily. With 52 skyscrapers of more than 90 meters, Atlanta is listed as having the 17th best skyline in the world; Charlotte is 50. Tennessee's only entry in the top 100 is Nashville, at 88.

Knoxville appears well down the list, officially the 265th "Best" of the world's 424 skylines. It's not all that shabby, considering that our arch-nemesis Chattanooga is 415th. But as is typical for nearly all such Internet sites, the information is far out of date; the only skyscraper listed for Knoxville is the "United American Bank" as the Plaza Tower was known only until 1983. The other Gay Street monolith, Riverview Tower, erected in the early '80s, is unmentioned.

Our tallest buildings don't compare in height to those of Charlotte or Atlanta, which both have buildings more than twice as tall as Plaza Tower. Crowned with clusters of skyscrapers, these cities have an Emerald-City look, at least when viewed from the interstate or from a jetliner.

Knoxville's dearth of skyscrapers may be embarrassing to civic promoters of a certain age. But some question whether skyscrapers are appropriate in Knoxville at all. UTK architecture professor Mark Schimmenti, a Gay Street resident but also a regionally known urban-design authority now on long-term loan as design director of a downtown Nashville redevelopment project, has mixed feelings about skyscrapers.

"A skyscraper should be the function of the value of the land," he says. "In New York, you need skyscrapers. In parts of Manhattan, the tall buildings are a joy." He thinks many other big cities, though not faced with nearly the same space limitations and land-value issues that send rates soaring on Manhattan Island, want to build skyscrapers in part to say that they can look big, too.

"In Knoxville? I don't see the sense in it," Schimmenti says. "Here, it's hard to justify other than as an ego statement." Of course, that's a purpose skyscrapers serve in many other cities, as well.

Knoxville's skyscrapers, he adds, "don't hit the ground very well." In his opinion, they share that failure with many modern skyscrapers, including Chicago's Sears Tower, the late World Trade Center, and many others that don't have much of a street presence.

Like many skyscrapers, the Plaza Tower has a blank face, offering little clue about the density of activity inside. The mirrored-glass style that characterizes most modern skyscrapers masks interior businesses to such an extent that a pedestrian can walk past a skyscraper and never guess there's activity inside. "You go inside Plaza Tower, and there's all kinds of stuff in there!" Schimmenti says of the dozen or so small businesses, from restaurants to travel agents to cobblers, who do business on its ground floor. "But you don't even know about it, unless you work in there."

Skyscraper architect Middleton hasn't studied Knoxville, but that visibility problem was one of the main points of his lecture last week. "The street is the essential corridor of human interaction," he says. "We need to open internal activities to the street, open external activities to the building."

Schimmenti doesn't think skyscrapers are on their way out, but he doesn't think they should be the marker of a great city. He brings up an interesting comparison first made by author and urban-design guru Ray Gindroz. "Think of Paris. The part of Paris with skyscrapers is miserable. The part we love so much has a maximum height of seven floors." It's a scale similar to most of downtown Knoxville today. Still, Schimmenti adds, "that part of Paris is also higher density than anywhere in our country."

Some American cities, like San Francisco, have legally mandated large skyscraper-free zones that are nonetheless thriving and dense downtown areas. Skyscrapers add density, but don't seem to be necessary for it.

In the end, it will probably be issues of finance, more than urban-design philosophy, that decide whether we'll ever see another skyscraper here. Never mind the Worsham Watkins tower and several other lofty proposals that have gone south over the last 40 years. The fact that the three tallest buildings standing in Knoxville today were associated with bad deals, tangled legal issues and, ultimately, disappointed developers (not to mention prison sentences), may not bode well for the future of the distinctly American form. But maybe, like the older quarters of Paris, we can get along in a lively fashion without them.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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