Legends of the Fall

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The New Yorker's Nick Paumgarten has a fun piece on the pleasures, perils, and social conventions of elevator travel:

Ask a vertical-transportation-industry professional to recall an episode of an elevator in free fall—the cab plummeting in the shaftway, frayed rope ends trailing in the dark—and he will say that he can think of only one. That would be the Empire State Building incident of 1945, in which a B-25 bomber pilot made a wrong turn in the fog and crashed into the seventy-ninth floor, snapping the hoist and safety cables of two elevators. Both of them plunged to the bottom of the shaft. One of them fell from the seventy-fifth floor with a woman aboard—an elevator operator…

Two things make tall buildings possible: the steel frame and the safety elevator. The elevator, underrated and overlooked, is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war. Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment. The population of the earth would ooze out over its surface, like an oil slick, and we would spend even more time stuck in traffic or on trains, traversing a vast carapace of concrete. And the elevator is energy-efficient—the counterweight does a great deal of the work, and the new systems these days regenerate electricity. The elevator is a hybrid, by design.

Sadly, fans of verticality are not welcome in DC. 

Via Alex Massie.

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  1. Interestingly, Seattle is (again) welcoming fans of verticality.

    Seattle discovered that you can’t have anti-density laws (height caps) and anti-sprawl laws on the books at the same time. One or the other has to give.

  2. At my last job, on of our analysts became stuck in one of the elevators with, ironically, one of the building engineers. As a result, we could hear her panic over his radio, her voice climbing into a high-pitched squeaking, even though the elevator was stuck for only a couple minutes.

    She was known as “Beaker” asfter that incident.

    But holy shit, stuck in an elevator for 41 hours? Helluva alarm system.

  3. Take the stairs, Fatty!

  4. Yes, real men who want to stay in shape will climb the stairs, even if it’s 20 flights.

    Only effeminate gay men take elevators… not that there’s anything wrong with that!

  5. I must protest the penultultimate link’s oft stated assertion that the DC height restriction causes sprawl. The growth pattern of DC throughout the 20 c is no different and in many mays less ‘sprawly’ than most other cities which ‘took off’ starting in the 1950’s. (i.e. most of the cities in the South and West.)

    Insert standard libertarian disclaimers and all that.

  6. Kalohe –

    Houston an Phoenix don’t have skyscrapers?I think the point is that building up reduces sprawl, not eliminate it.

  7. Kolohe that is.

  8. The headline is kinda like this song‘s title, so I’ll inflict it on you all. You’re welcome.

  9. Sadly, fans of verticality are not welcome in DC.

    Ridiculous article. Skyscraper-less cities around the world are full of vitality. If DC isn’t, don’t blame it on the buildings. America is full of lifeless downtowns that are loaded with skyscrapers.

  10. According the the Empire State Building’s own site, poor Betty Lou Oliver actually took her plunge a little while after the bomber crash:

    http://www.esbnyc.com/tourism/tourism_facts_esbnews_mar1996.cfm?CFID

  11. Back in 1854 Elisha Otis made the modern elevator possible by inventing a safety device that held cars in place if the cables failed. So all those Hollywood images of plunging elevator cars are nonsense. Interestingly, his original invention would have stopped the plunging cars in even the 1945 incident.

    My favorite elevators are those continually-moving belts with steps and handholds they used to put in old factories. Up on one side, down on the other. There’s even version of one in the 1948 film Berlin Express that had regular cars without any doors, with GI MPs helping people into and out of the cars as they passed each floor. Not exactly wheelchair-accessible, but cool.

  12. The lack of skyscrapers makes DC a much more charming city. Further, if you are as big of a fan of large fallic objects that Howley seems to be, you can always go out to Tyson’s Corner or Gaithersburg or any number of other suburbs and build to your heart’s content.

  13. Sorry that should be phallic objects.

  14. A chick who appreciates a long article about how elevators work…Kerry, you’re so cool.

  15. J sub D-
    I guess I was unclear

    My point was that cities like Phoenix and Houston (& Atlanta) w/skyscrapers are *just* as ‘sprawly’ as D.C. if not more so. Blaming sprawl on the height restriction is a red herring.
    Futhermore, my (completely un-fully researched) assumption is that a lack of height restrictions does very little to reduce sprawl – other factors completely overwhelm the market distortion caused by a height restriction.

    To wit- the article’s claim that businesses moved to Tyson’s corner because they couldn’t fit anymore in D.C. I call hogwash based on the fact that the M street cooridor is undergoing a commericial boom right now, so obviously there is in fact room. This could have happened anytime over the last few decades except for the fact that the neighborhood was god-awful. Corrupt local DC politics, not height restrictions, is what pushed people into Md & Va for most of 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

  16. “To wit- the article’s claim that businesses moved to Tyson’s corner because they couldn’t fit anymore in D.C.”

    Yeah because Marion Berry and the nation’s highest murder rate for about 10 straight years had nothing to do with people moving to the suburbs. Nothing at all. It was all about the lack of tall buildings. I call shenanigans.

  17. Irony fans will be pleased to know that one of the first “skyscrapers” was built in DC, by the Baltimore Sun. The Sun Building is on the 1400 block of G St., NW, (I think), the north side of the street. You can recognize it by the rising suns carved into the stone.

  18. The lack of skyscrapers makes DC a much more charming city.

    How so, John?

    My experience is that, to a person walking on a sidewalk, there is no difference between an 8 story building fronting on that sidewalk and a 100 story building. Beyond some number of stories, it’s just “tall.”

  19. On skyscrapers and sprawl: most of the land area of cities like New York, Boston, or Philly consists of houses – single family homes, two families, row houses or apartment houses. Add in brownstones or apartment buildings less than 7 or so stories high, and that’s a very good portion of your land area.

    That’s most of the ballgame if you want to reduce sprawl – letting people build houses on small lots. The new, highly-successful anti-sprawl developments have been new urbanist neighborhoods, not skyscrapers.

  20. joe, sprawl isn’t just about homes. Isn’t it also about retail, entertainment and office space? Offices in particular seem to fit in with BFT* buildings. The drones have to push paper somewhere, might as well be on top of each other. One fifty story building replacing five 10 story buildings, frees up four blocks for housing, parks, bars (especially important from a quality of life standpoint) etc.

    I’m just musing here. It’s not that I support restrictions or governmental incentives distorting property use decisions.

    *Big fucking tall

  21. Yes, real men who want to stay in shape will climb the stairs, even if it’s 20 flights.

    The one real skyscraper I worked in didn’t have air conditioning in the stairwells, which were pretty much bare concrete. I climbed to the 28th floor once, and arrived needing a shower.

  22. My experience is that, to a person walking on a sidewalk, there is no difference between an 8 story building fronting on that sidewalk and a 100 story building. Beyond some number of stories, it’s just “tall.”

    It makes a huge difference in the amount of sunlight tha reaches the ground, which I think people underestimate the amount of effect this has on what the street level view and employment of the space looks like.

    Plus, the skyscraper canyons in parts of Manhattan can practically create their own localized weather patterns.

  23. Sullivan’s blogging of the ESB elevator crash yesterday pointed out that the other elevator operator stepped out of his car to have a smoke and so wasn’t in the car when it fell.

  24. I partly agree with Kolohe – as much as I hate height restrictions they don’t screw up North American cities quite as much as many other factors. Take a look at Tokyo (or most Asian cities, really) – they’re generally quite low-built and yet they’re far more liveable and affordable than the downtown areas of North American cities.

    Mandatory off-street parking, subsidized public parking, crazy zoning restrictions unrelated to height, kneejerk reactions to any form of private (or at least minimally subsidized to allow private competition) transit, other restrictions on development, outflow of taxes from cities to rural areas… all of these are better culprits.

    (disclaimer: skyscrapers are awesome)

  25. One fifty story building replacing five 10 story buildings, frees up four blocks for housing, parks, bars (especially important from a quality of life standpoint) etc.

    Scratch the parks (which tend to remain unused or become full of crime, depending on the neighborhood) and the idea is sound. The object is to avoid large gaps of inactivity. I’ve never been to DC but based on many American towns it wouldn’t surprise me that this is the cause of the lack of vitality mentioned in the article.

    It makes a huge difference in the amount of sunlight tha reaches the ground

    This was largely fixed by a 1911 (?) zoning law requiring setbacks. There are very few areas in NYC with a building more than 8 or 10 stories directly on the sidewalk.

  26. Also: holy crap the RSS feed is slow.

  27. How so, John?

    My experience is that, to a person walking on a sidewalk, there is no difference between an 8 story building fronting on that sidewalk and a 100 story building. Beyond some number of stories, it’s just “tall.”

    A couple of reasons Joe. First, big buildings tend to be some for or another of modern or post modern architecture. If you have seen one you have pretty much seen them all. Atlanta for example, actually has a pretty diverse and bustling downtown and midtown full of tall buildings. The buildings all look alike. In Washington, you get all sorts of different things from row houses to shorter modern buildings and everythign in between. Second, you feel less closed in and there is more light. The good parts of Washington have always felt much more open and livable than midtown Atlanta or the downtown areas of most big American cities. It is pure taste on my part, I will admit, but to me DC would lose a lot if they got rid of the building restrictions.

    It really has nothing to do with the sprawl. DC is like every other center city in this country; bad schools, crime, and high taxes drove people out into the suburbs.

  28. Also: holy crap the RSS feed is slow.

    Yeah, right?? Been like that for a couple days now.

  29. The new, highly-successful anti-sprawl developments have been new urbanist neighborhoods, not skyscrapers.

    The odd thing being that the new highly successful new anti-sprawl urbanist smart growth neighborhoods look identical to railroad plats created 100 years ago.

    In joe’s fucked up world developers have no incentive for creating 8 $50,000 lots per acre and would rather create 3 $75,000 lots per acre and pay the same amount to create them….they need government to tell them to do it….In joe’s world, government has an excuse to exist cuz if it didn’t it could not fix the things it has fucked up over the last 100 years.

  30. This is one topic I am nearly 100% libertarian about. Eliminate zoning laws, espeically those that limit density. Restrictive zoning causes pollution, traffic, public transit to be ineffective and inefficient, destruction of virgin, undeveloped land, and higher housing prices, due to developers being forced to build out instead of up. The only zoning laws I approve are ones directly related to health and safety (no, you can’t build a lead smelter next to a kindergarten; yes, you must meet fire codes).

  31. The new, highly-successful anti-sprawl developments have been new urbanist neighborhoods, not skyscrapers.

    I as under the impression that, while being a socially-conscious city planners wet dream, new urban mixed-use developments were all money pits.

    Maybe its just anecdotal bias, but I work in such a development, and the owners have decided to forego the residential part of phase II because they have yet to lease out all the original units that they built four years ago. Even when the owners slash rents, they can’t seem to keep retailers (especially smaller ones) beyond their initial six month commitment. This has been my observation at pretty much every other mixed use development I’ve been to.

  32. J sub D,

    joe, sprawl isn’t just about homes. Isn’t it also about retail, entertainment and office space?

    Yes, of course. There isn’t a magic bullet, but housing sprawl is not only most of the sprawly land area, but also drives the rest. If housing in built in the traditional style, much of the commercial development would react to that. Transit would be viable, so higher-density office uses in the form of central business districts would come back. More of the retail would take the form of corner stores, or storefronts in neighborhood centers, or downtowns, to take advantage of the pedestrian- and transit-friendly neighborhoods.

    The BFT buildings would come about naturally, as a consequence of a smarter pattern of residential development.

  33. John,

    Fair points, but neither one is about height per se. It is certainly possible to build tall and still maintain an interesting vista, and there are techniques – setting back the taller buildings, stepping back stories as a buildings exceeds certain heights – that go a long way to addressing the light issues.

    joshua corning,

    The odd thing being that the new highly successful new anti-sprawl urbanist smart growth neighborhoods look identical to railroad plats created 100 years ago.

    They do that on purpose. Those traditional neighborhoods incorporated the wisdom of the ages in how a good town is laid out. We chose to forget all that wisdom in the 20th century, because we were just so smart, and could just use technology to brute-force solutions, instead using design.

    In joe’s fucked up world developers have no incentive for creating 8 $50,000 lots per acre and would rather create 3 $75,000 lots per acre and pay the same amount to create them

    Actually, I’ve written exactly the opposite. You should spend less time arguing with the liberal in your head.

    Hugh,

    Places like Celebration and Hale Center in Florida, and Brewster Commons in Massachusetts have been enormously successful. There real estate market is taking a beating these days, all across the spectrum.

  34. Don’t forget the actual video of the man stuck in the elevator for 41 hours. It’s hypnotic to watch.

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/video/2008/04/21/080421_elevators

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