Things are looking up since Austin blocked the construction of what would have been the Texan capital’s tallest residential building. Developers behind the Wilson Tower (pictured), a proposed 80-storey glass and steel skyscraper that would have housed 450 apartments, have been forced back to the drawing board. The decapitation of the too-tall tower has local support and the current plans have now been lopped down to a still-sore-thumb-sized 45 floors.
So why is this scuppering a cause for celebration in a city that still badly needs new homes? The answer is twofold. First, the regulations that come with high-rise buildings mean that tall towers don’t always add to housing density. In fact, they often need significant amounts of space left around them to save some sunlight for those walking on the streets below. For proof, look at what Paris, Europe’s most densely populated capital, has achieved with a relatively humble building height, in most areas, of between five and eight storeys.
The second, and perhaps more significant, point is that tall towers can be good investments for property speculators but tend to have a lower yield when it comes to quality of life and creating a meaningful connection between a city and its residents. “We should make cities six to seven storeys high,” says Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, who quipped that anything higher than this should be the remit of air-traffic controllers rather than city planners. Gehl’s point? Too-tall buildings ruin the relationships between homes, streets and neighbours.
Those in Austin seeking a precedent can take heart from Heartwood, an eight-storey timber building set to open in Seattle this spring. Designed by Atelier Jones architects, it will provide 126 apartments in a building scaled appropriately for the city. Raising standards of living in US cities involves setting our collective sights a little lower.
Nic Monisse is Monocle’s design editor. For more opinion, analysis and insight, subscribe to Monocle today.