The other day while observing the views from the West Side of Manhattan across the Hudson River to New Jersey, it was striking to see how similar the New Jersey skyline looked compared to Manhattan’s. Does Manhattan dictate the ‘look’ of a large city throughout the world? It certainly has influenced every major center in that it is largely credited for inventing and embracing the concept of the skyscraper. George Post’s New York Equitable Life Building of 1870 was the first tall office building to use the elevator, while the Produce Exchange of 1884 made substantial structural advances in metal frame design. The Home Insurance Building in Chicago, opened in 1884, is most often labelled the first skyscraper because of its innovative use of structural steel in a metal frame design. While Chicago was the earliest adopter of the skyscraper concept, Manhattan in my opinion owns the concept.
In this weekend’s Financial Times, a story addresses San Francisco’s concerns that the construction of new very tall buildings will make their City look too much like Manhattan. This is a huge challenge for all cities around the world: how to be distinctive and unique as a City. Often, the buildings we see constructed in New York are simply bland and dreadful. Manhattan should embrace its status as the world’s standard for big city appearance. Now Manhattan has to be careful to maintain those unique qualities and invent new ones that become the instantly recognizable hallmarks of the Manhattan landscape. Other cities around the world should follow suit, drawing on their own cultural and visual references to maintain a sense of uniqueness and distinctiveness. Sameness is a nagging topic that permeates throughout all designers offices: the safety of sameness has to be weighed up against the value of distinctive, bold, authentic design to avoid the world becoming one big monotonous repetitious mess.