How real is a skyline? The name implies a two-dimensional image, a line drawn across a plane, tracing the crowns of downtown high-rises, indicating the division between the built city and the firmament. The skyline is viewed, never experienced materially. It is a postcard, a billboard, and a sales pitch, displayed to those outside the city, and almost invisible to those in it. Reducing the multifarious products of millions of decisions to a single form, a skyline is a rather amazing synthesis, implying a synoptic story of the city's history and growth. A modern city becomes apprehensible as a city by virtue of having one, while the great European cities practically go without, substituting a singular cathedral or other isolated monuments for the polyglot panorama of a skyline.
A skyline is a New World sort of thing, a gargantuan and hundred-headed monster spawned in the orgiastic intercourse between exuberant markets, financial speculation, hubris, and the controls imposed by metropolitan governments. As chaotic as they often seem, skylines do emerge for consideration, occasionally, as designed objects. Looking north to Vancouver, BC, you can even find a city government, in the 1990s, debating its city's skyline, worried that a cap ranging from 300 to 450 feet on new construction had shaped the burgeoning downtown into a boring dome. (The dome is a visual allegory for the tall-poppy syndrome common to commonwealth countries, the Anglo take on socialism that confuses homogeneity with egalitarianism.) As European cities once forbade buildings taller than the cathedral spire, Vancouver abased itself before the lovely mountain range visible to the north of downtown—before deciding, at the end of the '90s, to allow some taller spires to poke out from the dome.
Seattle instituted its own miserly 450-foot cap in 1989, but only after any idea of a regular skyline had been shredded by the 935-foot Columbia Center in 1985, and three others topping 700 feet. Seattle's skyline also recently was given a reprieve: This spring the city decided to allow unlimited heights in the commercial core and to raise limits elsewhere.
In the process of increasing those limits, and in imposing stringent requirements and fees on developers who would build up into the newly permitted heights, Seattle City Council Member Peter Steinbrueck called upon a pair of Vancouver urban planners to comment on Mayor Greg Nickels's new development plans. The dome was advising the snaggletooth on how it should grow. The consultants pointed to the biggest difference between our two skylines—Vancouver's new high-rises are slim towers on broad bases, while ours tend to be squat rectangles. In both cases, builders are basically building to fill out the envelope, preserving light and views in Vancouver, blotting them out in Seattle. The real difference between the two cities is not the quality of the skyline but its quantity—Vancouver fits a similar population to Seattle's within half as many square miles, basically by having a much larger area subject to high-density development, and much more of the development devoted to housing.
If skylines are pictures, they are the sort that require captions. Seattle's skyline doesn't tell you as much as it might—two of our top five buildings are named for banks, two are commercial office buildings, one is city government— but our city's economic power is generated in the suburbs, not in the bank offices clustered downtown. Nobody I know in Vancouver has much sense of where its money comes from, but the skyline suggests something strange. As the dome has filled in with apartment buildings, the almost total lack of new office development makes one wonder what is actually driving the economy. Perhaps high-rise residential development itself is the driver: a perpetual motion machine, or maybe pyramid scheme, where real estate is both the engine and the product. It's perfect that the tallest building in Vancouver, One Wall Centre, a 490-foot condo and hotel completed in 2001, is going to be surpassed shortly by Living Shangri-La. Another condo.
Eric Fredericksen is director of the contemporary art space Western Bridge, former arts editor at The Stranger, and former associate editor at Architecture.