Few Europeans Leap For More Tall Buildings


Three women stand beside a makeshift tent in front of Bonn's main post office. They stop as many passers-by as they can, asking for signatures and support.

The sign next to their tent proclaims their battle cry: "A second high-rise in Gronau? No thank you!"

They seek 24,000 signatures to protest government plans to build a modest high-rise for the national headquarters of the German post office, in the southern suburb Gronau.

Such is the fate of the much-maligned skyscraper in Europe. Seen at first as an American export, then as an unsightly blight, the European skyscraper remains mired in an identity crisis. Yet as other countries, most notably those in Asia, have successfully incorporated the high-rise into their local landscape, many European cities have decided to take a fresh look at the role skyscrapers will play in their future.

"Does the high-rise provide a meaning, and urban function and contextual characteristics that are fixed?" asks a Viennese study on high-rises. "Or is it possible for Vienna to develop its own type of high-rise with meaning and function that are corroborated by the lines along which Vienna moves?"

Integrating modern architecture

Christoph Ingenhoven, of the architectural firm Ingenhoven & Overdiekh in Dsseldorf, believes new high-rises can be integrated into European cities. Mr. Ingenhoven is trying to help revitalize the concept of what a European skyscraper should be.

"In the '60s and '70s skyscrapers were built in Germany because everyone thought that being ... optimistic meant building skyscrapers," he says. "But they did a really bad job, so now when Germans think of skyscrapers they think of those buildings." Indeed, the flyer circulated by the citizen's initiative against the planned post office high-rise pictures a dumpy, gray building straight out of the '70s.

Ingenhoven says the new concept of a German high-rise means greater attention to space and to social and environmental concerns.

"A German skyscraper would be much more ecologically oriented - windows you can open, and a more social way of dealing with office spaces," he says. "In the older buildings, the secretary is 70 feet from the nearest window and the boss is seven feet away. That's not acceptable. We're looking for a more democratic skyscraper, where everybody gets a good view. This leads to narrow skyscrapers that aren't too tall."

He points to New York's Rockefeller Center as an example that German high-rise architecture should follow. Like the high-rises he supports, it creates public space and improves the its surroundings.

Still, critics are unconvinced. The citizens against the Bonn high-rise say a second, tall building in Gronau would further block the town's view of the Siebengebirge and the Drachenfels, a romantic backdrop of castles and mountains to the south of the city.

Ingenhoven, who wrote an opinion piece for the local paper in favor of the new building, says the citizens' concerns are valid, but it all depends on the final designs.

"A good building can add to [the scenery]," he says. "It's all a question of quality. If the solution for a skyscraper is a good one, then say 'go ahead and build it.' But if you don't have a good one, tell them to go away."

For other European cities, the problem is not the obstruction of a beautiful view, but maintaining a classical cityscape composed of steeples and town halls.

In addition to these most obvious concerns, European cities also worry about another problem.

Too many skyscrapers could undermine the vitality of the downtown area by creating a population that only works there during the day and which leaves the inner city lifeless at night - a problem many American cities know all too well.

Frankfurt has battled this problem since it became Germany's financial capital after World War II. More than 600,000 people commute in and out of the city each day. Often called the most American city in Europe, Frankfurt is also considered the crime capital of Germany.

And some citizens point to the development of Frankfurt's commuter culture, and its dozen or so tall skyscrapers that are a manifestation of this culture, as the culprit.

Lynn Beedle, director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., is quick to discount such arguments. He says the commuter culture that leads to urban desolation is not linked to skyscrapers.

To explain Europe's relative lack of high-rises, he explains: "Just over 100 years ago was the first time skyscrapers were built, and by that time, most European cities were already industrialized. Since American cities are younger, they were not all fully at that level yet." This lack of urban development in the late 1800's allowed American cities to more easily incorporate new architectural developments.

Frankfurt, however, is one of the exceptions. It was almost totally destroyed in World War II, and had to rebuild itself architecturally and economically after 1945. Dieter von Lpke, director of city planning for Frankfurt, says Frankfurt allowed skyscrapers to be built to facilitate its growth as a financial center.

"Since the war, Frankfurt has been a very dynamic, economic city," he says. "Moreover, the service industry grew quicker here than in many other large German cities, so that corresponded to a construction policy that differed from the traditional picture of a city in order to support economic development."

Protective zoning laws

Other cities that were not as thoroughly damaged, forged new laws to protect the remnants of their history.

For example, a Viennese zoning law states that "on the grounds of preserving the local cityscape" no new building higher than 85 feet can be constructed in the historic inner city.

Bonn has no such law, but its residents are equally as interested in maintaining an attractive profile. Thomas Bckeler of the Bonn city government says the new Deutsche Post high-rise must "take into consideration the importance of the Rhine, the banks of the Rhine, the local parks, and the Siebengebirge."

If all goes as planned, Deutsche Post will have its competition for the best plan finished by mid-1997, and will have the official go-ahead for its new high-rise later that year. Meanwhile, the citizens' initiative presses on in its quest to get roughly 13 percent of the population to renounce the building by July 24.

Ingenhoven says he hopes to be invited to the competition. He would like to show the citizens of Bonn how even the beautiful backdrop of the Siebengebirge can be improved.

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