Jason M. Barr July 25, 2018
From my eighth-floor office in Newark, New Jersey, I have a view of the Manhattan skyline. On a clear day, I can see One World Trade Center and the Empire State Building. I can also see much of downtown Newark, which, in many respects, is a typical central business district in a mid-size city.
A few years ago, Prudential Insurance Company began building a new office building a few blocks from the Rutgers-Newark campus. Prudential has been a vital business to Newark since its founding in 1875. It remained in the city long after other companies fled in the 1960s and 1970s. Their decision to build a second headquarters closer to the campus has helped spur the neighborhood.
But, I found their architectural decision a bit curious. The company erected the plainest of plain glass boxes. Looking east from the Rutgers side, the structure sits like a massive greenhouse (or rather two greenhouses) thrust down amidst old brick townhouses and low-rise buildings. From Broad Street—the business district side—it looks like another generic office building, in a long row of towers.
To me, it sparked the question of why, in the 21st century, companies continue to build glass boxes. The common perception is that they are bad for the city. They dampen the feel of the streets, and are cold and monotonous. And, by turning office space into hothouses, they suck up enormous quantities of energy, increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Justin Davidson, the architecture critic at New York magazine, has recently voiced this complaint. In his TED talk, “Why Glass Towers are Bad for City Life,” he says,
New downtowns sprout towers that are almost always made of concrete and steel and covered in glass. You can look at skylines all over the world—Houston, Guangzhou, Frankfurt—and you see the same army of high-gloss robots marching over the horizon. Now, just think of everything we lose when architects stop using the full range of available materials. When we reject granite and limestone and sandstone and wood and copper and terra-cotta and brick and wattle and plaster, we simplify architecture and we impoverish cities. It’s as if you reduced all of the world’s cuisines down to airline food.
Shiny towers are an invasive species and they are choking our cities and killing off public space. We tend to think of a facade as being like makeup, a decorative layer applied at the end to a building that’s effectively complete. But just because a facade is superficial doesn’t mean it’s not also deep.
The Demand for Glass
According to the National Wildlife Federation an invasive species
can be any kind of living organism…that is not native to an ecosystem and causes harm. They can harm the environment, the economy, or even human health. Species that grow and reproduce quickly, and spread aggressively, with potential to cause harm, are given the label “invasive.”
But if glass boxes are, in fact, bad for cities, why are they still being built? The short answer: the demand from tenants–especially businesses. Glass buildings have many appealing features to the occupants; this appeal appears to be getting stronger as both the nature of work and office culture evolve.
Thus, “invasive species,” a provocative term to be sure, doesn’t quite categorize them. The workers in the buildings are part of the larger economy of cities, and they help benefit the rest of us by increasing economic growth. The glass box is contributing to the health of the broader urban ecosystem, though with negative side effects.
Why are They so Popular?
Glass walls provide an abundance of natural light and views that are pleasing to people. The buildings feel more open, and, visually speaking, they allow for greater connections with the outside world. In short, those who work inside glass boxes seem to be happier and more productive.
While Davidson complains about how isolating it is from the outside, on the inside, glass makes people more equal. The large supply of light and views make them relatively abundant resources, which then, likely, means fewer “battles” among workers to get access to them. Glass is the ultimate democratic material.
According to Bob Chodos of Newmark Knight Frank in Chicago, today’s buildings are designed to maximize the amount of light on every part of the floor—even in the interior. He says,
Some architects used to design buildings from the outside in, with stone on the exterior with punched windows as opposed to spandrel windows. That is the old school building. Today, floor plate geometry with rectangular floors of 25,000 to 30,000 square feet, 45 feet from glass to central core, and column-free spaces with floor-to-ceiling glass curtain walls are the norm. Inside out design is the key. Glass walls on the fronts of offices is the trend today so that light and views go through to all. This also includes setting up furniture in the offices so that the desks do not block the view to the interior.
This is the crux of the glass box paradox (or “parabox”)—inside the buildings people feel more connected to the outside world, but residents of the city, who walk (or drive) past them, may feel more isolated and separated. What is good for one group seems bad for another.
The Changing Nature of Work
Just as important is the changing nature of work. The rise of the intangible economy and the rapid pace of innovation means that office layouts have become more open. Companies provide these spaces for groups to brainstorm and hash out new ideas, which generate knowledge spillovers and promote economic growth (although there is some debate if open floor plans create new, unintended problems).
When Prudential had is official opening in September 2015, John Strangfeld, Chairman and CEO, implied as much when he said, “We concluded what we needed to do was to build a new building to accommodate more than 2,000 of our employees in a new physical setting; in an environment where they can more actively collaborate in some of the new avenues of business we are pursuing.”
Design is the key to this. Mr. Chodos says that, “The collaboration spaces are often in the corners of the floors, shared by all, so that those who collaborate get rewarded with the best spaces.”
How to Resolve the Parabox?
Davidson’s argument is, essentially, that there are negative externalities from the glass box—while they are beneficial to the occupants (and the larger economy), they may harm, in some way, the city and its residents (not to mention the erstwhile “death ray” melting cars).
His response is a call for architects to think more creatively about the materials they use, and to consider the building’s impact on the neighborhood and the aesthetics of the city. These are certainly reasonable goals, but, I would argue, it won’t have much impact. At the end of the day, architects are responding to the requests of the developers, who are responding to the requests of the building occupants. If the people demand glass, then glass it is. And there might not be much one can do up high, where light and views are so highly prized.
Solutions would likely need to come in the form of city policies, which can, perhaps, help improve life at the street level and the urban fabric more broadly. For example, the aim of zoning regulations, in theory (but not always in practice), is to create incentives that get developers to “internalize” the harm they cause to others; that is, to create buildings that better balance the needs of all affected.
The first goal should be to foster streets that draw pedestrians, and who come throughout the entire day. The second goal should be to nudge or incentivize developers to provide street-level spaces that are inviting to these pedestrians; and move developers away from erecting isolated towers-in-the-park. In this case, I would offer three possible solutions.
First is that neighborhoods should be allowed or encouraged to have mixed-uses—with very few restrictions on the types of businesses on the block. One of the problems with the glass box office is that the ground floor facade is part of the curtain wall, with very little to draw or welcome the average pedestrian.
The parabox exists because, ironically, the glass acts as a kind of medieval city wall keeping out the “strangers.” If cities let offices and residential buildings exist side-by-side, then the restaurants, bars, and retail will follow. The street itself will be more dynamic, even if glass is the predominant wall material.
But this, in and of itself, might not cure the problem. I would suggest two possible adjustments to zoning rules. The first is that cities should consider a return to the kind of zoning used in New York City from 1916 to 1961. During this time, tall building were mandated to be set back after they reached a particular height. The setbacks were determined, in part, by how wide the street was, so that on narrower streets the buildings were set back at a lower height. These rules gave us the Art Deco “wedding cake” style of buildings during the Roaring Twenties.
The original intention of these setback requirements were to make buildings thinner at the top to allow more sunlight on the streets. However, they also helped make streets a bit less claustrophobic and canyon-like. These rules can help return something of a human scale to the streets.
Floor Area Bonuses
Another strategy is to provide floor area bonuses. The idea is that cities can nudge developers to include street level amenities that engage pedestrians and make them feel welcome. If developers provide design or building features that encourage mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, than they can build taller than would otherwise be allowed by the law.
The goal would be to incentivize the provision of small-scale retail, public libraries or arts spaces, or open atria or malls that eliminate the boundaries between the inside and outside of the office building. The point is that developers need to better integrate the ground floors of their office buildings into the city fabric; building bonuses can help make that happen.
A word of caution, however. This type of incentive zoning has been tried since the mid-20th century. In New York City, for example, the rules implemented in 1961 gave developers floor area bonuses for plazas. But, a thorough review of these spaces showed they were often underutilized and under-maintained. The point is that if incentive zoning is going to be used to eliminate the “invasive species” feeling of glass buildings, then cities need to learn from past mistakes.
Carbon Dioxide Emissions
Another criticism of the glass boxes is that they are energy inefficient—that they require massive amounts of energy to heat in winter and cool in summer. While this is true, the market is responding to the problem. Today, glazing systems are much more efficient at blocking thermal radiation, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
However, given the dire consequences of climate change, cities need to implement policies that get the producers of CO2 to more directly pay for their harm. As I have argued in another post, a relatively simple (and palatable) way to do this is to implement a kind of “cap and trade” system for building owners.
The plan is that each owner is given an annual benchmark for CO2 emissions levels (per square foot of building space). Emissions above the benchmark are taxed; while emissions below that are rewarded with a cash bonus. Over time, the benchmarks gets lowered. The worst polluters are incentivized to invest in efficiency or buy clean energy.
The Future of the Box?
The glass box is a much a response to globalization as it is to the needs of the work environment. Cities build these structures to lure business and be a part of the international web of finance, production, and commerce. This is driving a kind of commodification of tall buildings—they are becoming supranational real estate for the global human community. The glass box might just be the lingua franca of office buildings.
While developers are also eager to build iconic structures that stand out and provide some distinction, the market forces of universality place limits on this. Likely the need to distinguish a structure drives developers to go taller instead.
Whether the commodification of the office building is good or bad for humanity more broadly will be taken up in a future post. But at the local level, to the extent that policies can promote urban diversity and pedestrian-friendly places, while allowing developers to cater to needs of the modern workforce, then cities can continue to be living and breathing entities, with a robust and healthy ecosystem.
Sameera Jhunjhunwala provided valuable research assistance.