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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Seize the Elevators

On the coming and necessary abolition of the tower.

As a kid, I grew up enamored with skyscrapers. Other kids followed sports teams, I followed construction photos. When I first learned how to use the internet, I used it to ogle towers. I particularly loved the early version of, which would array sketches of towers against elevation lines, like a police lineup. The tallest in the world at the time was the Petronas Towers (451 meters) in Kuala Lumpur, but a new tower, Taipei 101 (508 meters), was coming up quickly. I would regularly check on its construction and proudly shared with my classmates and family the precise day it took the title. 

I always thought there was something inherently good—even democratic—about towers. They are, after all, the ultimate indicator of density: the taller the tower, the more people are (theoretically) living in one place. More people living together leads to more creativity, more diversity, more spontaneity, and a stronger civil society. Dense communities tend to be more liberal. Dense communities are also wildly more efficient. People travel using mass transit instead of gas-guzzling cars; they live in apartments instead of sprawling McMansions; they share parks instead of each watering and mowing their own quiet lawns. Bigger cities tend to have taller towers. Therefore, taller towers seemed like an unambiguous moral good—something to cheer along. The 9/11 attacks, which happened when I was in seventh grade, played further into this childhood moral clarity: terrorists felt threatened by tall towers. New York and America would reply by building an even taller tower! A freedom tower!

Then something weird started to happen. The next winner of the title, Burj Khalifa, was built by a city, Dubai, that was unambiguously undemocratic. At 828 meters, it was much taller than its predecessors, so much so that it still holds the title today. After that, a bunch of other towers piled into the rankings, so many that Taipei 101 is now the 10th-tallest in the world. The others include New York’s Freedom Tower (541 meters) and Seoul’s Lotte World Tower (554 meters), five in China, and one—a truly grotesque super-sized Big Ben knockoff that looms over the mosque at Mecca (601 meters)—in Saudi Arabia. Of the 10 tallest towers currently under construction, seven are by China, and the others are by Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Slowly it dawned on me that towers and democracy may have nothing in common. 

Had I grown up at just about any other time in human history, the race to build the world’s tallest building would have been pretty boring to follow. From approximately 2560 BCE until 1311 C.E., the tallest manmade structure in the world was the 146.5-meter Great Pyramid of Giza. Its successor, the central spire of Lincoln Cathedral (160 meters) held the title until a storm blew it down in 1548. Its successor, St. Mary’s Church in Stralsund, Germany, also lost its title—and its 151-meter tall spire—in a storm, when it burned down after a lightning strike in 1647. At a mere 142 meters (in the intervening 546 years Giza had eroded down to 140-meters), the title fell to Strasbourg Cathedral, which it held, along with its spire, until the people of Hamburg completed the spire of St. Nicholas in 1874. At 147 meters, it was only half a meter taller than Giza. Its two successors, the Cathedrals of Rouen (1876, 151 meters), and Cologne (1880, 157 meters), still did not pass Lincoln Cathedral’s mark. At 169 meters, the Washington Monument, completed in 1884, just barely upped the ante. 

Then, in 1889, the Eiffel Tower blew the competition open: 300 meters. The Eiffel Tower marked the beginning of 150 years of construction that witnessed not just an explosion in height, but quantity. Exceptionally tall spires and pyramids were few and far between. Towers have sprung up by the thousands. By 1913, Manhattan alone had over a thousand buildings taller than eleven stories, and fifty one above twenty-one stories.

One piece of technology made it all possible: the elevator. As the engineer Roma Agrawal points out in her book, Built, the ability to lift a platform efficiently with rope dated back to Archimedes’ invention of the pulley. The issue was that, if the rope failed and you were on the platform at any height, you would probably die. Then came Elisha Otis. Otis’ innovation was to invent a brake, activated automatically when the rope broke, to keep the platform from falling. At its debut at the 1853 World’s Fair in New York, Otis stood on a platform piled with goods as his assistant hoisted him into the air. He then shouted for the assistant to cut the rope with an axe. The onlooking crowd was in shock, but the brake worked: Otis had fallen only a few inches, crying, “All safe, gentlemen!”  Innovations like cheap and reliable steel (another Victorian invention) would also play a major role in the tower boom to come—but the elevator itself was indispensable. 

There were, of course, multi-story buildings before the elevator. Not only did the Romans build apartment blocks up to nine stories tall—insulae—they in fact constituted the majority of housing in ancient Rome (45,000 insulae versus 2,000 single family homes—domus). Stairs were, however, a major inconvenience; therefore, the value of property declined rapidly with height. The same rule held right up until the 19th century. In the apartment blocks of Vienna and Haussmann’s Paris, for instance, the most expensive apartments were on the first floor, and the servants lived on top. Anything higher than seven stories was an exclamation mark—symbolically potent but practically useless. (Similarly in North Korea today, the top floors of high-rise apartment buildings are infamously undesirable, because when the elevator is unreliable in a 40-floor building, no glorious penthouse view can make up for the climb.)  Therefore, the tallest buildings tended to be spires and monuments, whose narrow pinnacles were accessed by narrow staircases. By contrast, the Eiffel Tower had two generous restaurants and an observation deck, supplied with food and visitors by double-decker elevators that could carry up to 100 passengers at a time. Unlike in Haussmann’s apartment blocks, not only did people want to go to the top, they would pay for it. When it opened, more than 7 million people ascended the Eiffel Tower in its first year.

A vertical transportation system that the public could trust and even enjoy, the elevator allowed the city to expand upwards. Property holders could sell plots of sky to the public. They could take a single flat surface and grab another 10 or 20 or 50 plots of similar or even superior value out of thin air. Towers were still potent symbols, but they were also valuable real estate. As Cass Gilbert wrote in 1900, a skyscraper is “A machine that makes the land pay.”

Cities, however, are not merely interiors—not floor and walls and roofs, not merely buildings and the shelter they provide. The most important part of a city, in fact, may not be the built part, but rather the parts left empty: the streets. 

Streets are surprisingly easy to ignore or overlook. They are like anti-monuments: where presence and permanence mark monuments, absence and impermanence define streets. As architectural historian Joseph Rykwert points out in his 1978 essay “The Street: The Use of its History,” the street straddles two identities. One of them is the commons. The word “street” itself—along with the German Strasse and Italian Strada—comes from the Latin sternere, to pave, suggesting a surface “set apart for public use.” It does not necessarily go anywhere. It is simply space that is available for walking, sitting, markets, parades, and protests. In this conception, insofar as a street provides a route—that is, allows access to other places—that is only to render the street itself accessible. The street’s other identity, Rykwert argues, is movement, bound up in the word “road,” which comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ride which in turn comes from the old English ridan. The street is where you go, the road is how you get there. Road suggests motion. It suggests a network of city roads, connecting to country roads, connecting to other cities, coasts, and eventually ports and the world. In some ways these two different identities are in direct conflict with one another. A street would be the site for a sidewalk café, a fruit stand, a block party, or even a carnival. All of these functions would make it less useful for anyone trying to get somewhere—trying to use the space as a road —as anyone who has, say, tried to drive a car in Manhattan will readily testify. Yet one is clearly not possible without the other. A market is profitable, a protest is powerful, a block party is inclusive, each in direct proportion to its accessibility. The right to gather is only useful if coupled with the right to go. 

Often a planner will come along and start treating streets as only one or the other, with disastrous consequences. In the ’60s, planners focused on congestion, the hindrance of movement. They privileged the needs of cars to get from place to place quickly, making streets wider, one way, full of underpasses and overpasses, and generally much less pleasant to spend time on. They watched, with surprise, as the neighborhoods around these newly optimized road-streets withered up and died. At the same time, architects decided the space around buildings would be much more pleasant if it were covered in grass and trees, creating “towers in the park” that could no longer support the retail and civil society that relied on ready access to the street—with its crowds, utility hookups, and delivery trucks—to nourish them.

So vital to the city are streets, that in fact the street likely predated the city. Rykwert points out that humans were establishing streets before they started constructing permanent buildings. As a practical matter, people were moving stuff before they were building stuff: there is archaeological evidence of established trade routes across Europe that predates the establishment of permanent settlements. As a psychological matter, societies will establish routes for ceremonial, almost narrative purposes before they build permanent structures. Rykwert cites as an example elaborately marked routes in otherwise uninhabited territory made by aboriginal tribes in New South Wales for initiation ceremonies. Today we could cite the plan of Burning Man: it is a plan of streets, their composition highly symbolic, so as to structure a ritual. The participants, with their structures, flock to participate in the ritual. That is to say, streets are not methods by which to get from one building to another. To the contrary, buildings are ways for people to be closer to streets.  

Today, there is also an empirical argument emerging that people are in fact healthier when they are closer to a street. Being far away from a street can even be deadly. As Emily Anthes, in The Great Indoors, writes, if, say, you have a cardiac arrest, the higher you are, the longer it will take for paramedics to come to the rescue. A 2016 study of 8,000 adults who had cardiac arrests in their homes showed that 4.2 percent of patients below the third floor survived, which decreased to less than 1 percent of those who lived above the 16th floor. Above the 25th? 0 percent. In a broader sense, proponents of biophilia, such as the researcher and architect Vivian Loftness, argue that people are healthier and happier when they are closer to the street—or, to use her preferred term, the ground plane. The kernel of her argument is the important role the ground plane plays in keeping us connected—to nature, to changing temperatures, to the seasons, to other people, and to society. These connections matter. Something as simple as a view has quantifiable consequences. “Research is showing the importance of views,” said Loftness in an interview with me in 2018, “to health outcomes in hospitals…to students’ ability to concentrate in classrooms…[and] for office productivity.” Loftness argues that we should stop building high rises altogether, pointing out that Paris—with its seven-story height limit—actually has a higher density than Shanghai, with its cluster of towers on the world’s tallest list. According to her, Paris has 40 percent more density of occupants per square kilometer and 80 percent more passive survivability, should the power go out. As she said in a panel I organized with her last fall, the ground plane is the “tissue of the city with the greatest amount of environmental and social connectivity.”

It is hard to know what the ideal ratio of streets to buildings is, but in thriving cities, it is surprisingly high. Architect Alejandro Aravena, via a series of sketches that he contributed to the 2018 Venice Biennale, argued that a vibrant city arises out of the juxtaposition of public and private space. Aravena put the ratio at 50 to 50, and pointed as an example to Manhattan, demonstrating that 50 percent of the island is public space: parks, squares, and above all streets. Insofar as a healthy city filled with healthy people depends on a balance between streets and buildings, a city’s increasing three-dimensionality disrupts that balance—with every new tower, the ratio skews ever further towards private. The city becomes ever less vibrant. Just imagine towers all laid on their side—what would you have? Culs-de-sac, the 30th floor of one impossibly far from the street, not to mention from the 30th floor of its neighbor. The proliferation of in-tower resident only amenities—such as food courts, gyms, swimming pools, even private rooftop parks—is one indicator that this ratio is out of whack. People go up into their towers and they never need to come out. The tower is a gated community just as surely as a walled suburban neighborhood is. It does not just privatize the commons but takes them indoors. 

Are towers democratic? Here the circumstances are not promising. Certainly in America our democratic tradition long predates our towers, a fact that did not go unobserved on their arrival. In her book “Form Follows Finance,” the historian Carol Willis, director of New York’s Skyscraper Museum, points out there is a tradition of equating skyscrapers with corporate clout. Social historian Oliver Zunz called them “Vertical expressions of corporate power.” Cultural historians Thomas Bender and William Taylor pitted “civic horizontalism” against “corporate verticality.” Joe Feagin and Robert Parker, the Marxist social scientists, theorized that skylines reflected the consolidation of business and therefore the “rise of oligopoly capitalism.” Willis points out that in fact most towers are not built and owned by gigantic corporations, but are speculative buildings, erected by investors with primarily small businesses for tenants. That said, regardless of who built or occupies them, the existence of towers at all seems problematic. In general, you can only build so many gated communities before it starts to distort society. I have not done a survey of all tower builders, and I am sure there are many good people among them, but perhaps it also bears pointing out that Donald Trump and Jared Kushner both made their livelihoods on the building and buying of towers. There may be a reason more egalitarian countries, like Germany and France, are remarkably tower-free. There may also be a reason so many authoritarian societies are so keen—and able—to build towers. They play to big egos, but there are also practical considerations: to build them you need to be able to first start with a huge bucket of money (or power), second be able to assemble a large piece of property, and third, be able to override the objections of all the people who will literally now be living in your shadow. Once you have towers, you have all these people living and working hundreds of feet removed from the street—from society. It breeds alienation. 

The elevator has been the crucial player in the rise of towers and this move away from the street. No longer an oddity, the elevator is today one of the safest, most efficient forms of transport. There are (or were, before the pandemic) thirty million elevator trips a day in New York alone. Elevators even offer some lessons that could improve other forms of mass transit. No one pays for a ticket to ride—the rent on the tower covers the operating cost of the elevator. In the same way, taxes on the adjoining real estate should pay for transit’s operating costs. 

Yet elevators are also almost exclusively privately held. That is not unusual for new forms of transportation—New York’s original subway lines were built out by private investors, as were its commuter lines. Most of the original suburbs in my hometown of Kansas City were built in conjunction with privately developed streetcar lines. The technology, however, has long since become mature and developed. There is no justification for continuing to sanction private monopolies on the vertical realm: we are ready for the public elevator. We need to rethink how people move about the city, and imagine a network of connected elevators and corridors that can be freely passed through by all: the vertical counterpart to the subway. 

The “public elevator” is not just an elevator that is operated and owned by the city—like the 1,200 elevators operated by the New York City Housing Authority—but instead an elevator and adjoining circulation as accessible and therefore as useful to the public as a street. An ideal public elevator would be visible—not stowed in the middle of a building—to make it easier to understand where it goes and therefore to use it. The public elevator would connect directly to the existing streets and other forms of public transit. Finally, the public elevator would connect to other public elevators.  Integral to the concept of a public elevator, therefore, is the aerial corridor—that there be public right-of-ways, every five or seven stories, that connect between elevators, extending the public realm into the air. The tower must no longer be the place where the public life stops. 

The idea of streets in the sky is almost as old as the tower.  In a 1925 interview with Popular Science, the American skyscraper architect Harvey Wiley Corbett envisioned a multi-level city: one for trains, two for cars (fast and slow), one for pedestrians, and finally parks on the roofs (alongside the blimp landing fields). Today cities such as Bangkok, Minneapolis and Hong Kong have realized part of that vision, with extensive pedestrian skyway systems that dart in and out of towers. Corbett’s vision and these skyways, however, weaken the street by unbundling it—by separating a city’s cars from its people from its parks, they dilute the civic alchemy that happens when these quantities must co-exist. Like the traffic engineers of the 60s, skyways fixate on solving issues of congestion, rather than extending and strengthening the commons.

An elevator is admittedly more road than street—it is not a space where you set up a stall or linger over a coffee (or at least, not yet). But we cannot have “streets in the sky,” i.e. public space above the first floor, without the same kind of universal access infrastructure that today exists on ground level. Public elevators could come in three stages. In the first, cities use eminent domain to seize strategic elevators as well as floors along aerial corridors, to create streets and parks between them. In the second, cities use zoning to mandate that new towers include public elevators and put aside floors for the aerial corridors. In the last, cities do away with new towers altogether: as it would lay out streets for a new neighborhood, the public builds its own elevators, fire stairs, structural cores, and the links between them, and then sells parcels adjacent to those links—lots in the sky.

These aerial corridors cannot just carry people. Fixating on pedestrians was the fatal flaw of the champions of “streets in the air,” the term embraced by the British architects Alison and Peter Smithson in their polemical Golden Lane competition entry of 1952, and then realized in their design for the (now-demolished) housing estate Robin Hood Gardens, completed in 1972. The project was part of a whole movement in Britain that created aerial pedestrian plazas and walkways in the 1960s, following the 1963 Buchanan Report, which concluded that motor cars had rendered streets irretrievably dangerous. The movement therefore focused on making their pedestrian utopias pleasant by cutting them off as much as possible from the actual street—both visually and by having them assume zig-zagging patterns that bore little practical relationship to existing city blocks and street grids. Shorn of any other purpose than a pleasant place to be, they were both easy to neglect and in fact destroy. Most infamously, the Broadwater Farm housing estate had been endowed with all manner of elevated pedestrian-only decks. After citizens killed a police officer on one of these decks during riots in 1985 following the death of Cynthia Jarrett during a police search of her home, authorities concluded the decks were to blame for the violence, and demolished them. Such a demolition would be more difficult if those decks had additional purposes.

As with streets, public elevators and aerial corridors would—and must—therefore serve many purposes. They must have vehicles, pipes, cables, structural beams, even trains. They would make cities safer. A typical tower is only required to have two means of egress in case of fire. A thicket of interlinked elevators and fire stairs would create tens and possibly hundreds of paths of egress. Public elevators would have structural benefits, too. The primary force governing the height of a tower and amount of steel going into it is horizontal: the wind. The best way to guarantee more horizontal strength is to make a structure deeper. A thicket of interlinked elevators would have extraordinary structural depth. That means a city of interlinked public elevators would in fact be able to be much taller. (The “individualism” of skyscrapers makes them weaker. Connected structures are stronger, a fact that is true both socially and architecturally.) 

Public elevators would level the playing field for would-be builders. Take the example of townhouses in Manhattan. As the elevator became commonplace and the possibility of extrusion drove up the price of land, townhouses became impossibly expensive. From 1889 to 1892, writes Charles Lockwood in his book Bricks and Brownstone, builders filed plans for 700 “first class” houses in Manhattan, to be sold for $25,000 each. By 1900 only 100 plans were filed, to be sold for $100,000 each. By 1902, the critic Herbert Croly wrote, “It is an extraordinary fact that at the present day, there is practically only one class of private dwelling erected on the island of Manhattan—the dwelling intended for comparatively rich people.”

Today, because they need to pay for the elevator and structural and mechanical core as well as the building, new builders must muster enormous sums of capital in order to build in Manhattan. The ring of people who can build is therefore exceedingly small. As measured by construction permits, New York has 4,341 active construction projects as of September 27 of 2020. Their average cost comes in at $6.1 million. For the 362 buildings under construction on the island of Manhattan, that goes up to $27 million. Their average size is 182,320 square feet. That is to say, in order to build in Manhattan, a developer needs to have access to tens of millions of dollars. There was a time in Manhattan, soon after the introduction of its grid, when there were thousands of plots on which even first-generation immigrants could build something. Interlinked public elevators would create a new grid, offering thousands of sites, two to 10 stories, on which someone with even a small amount of capital could build.

Apart from practical considerations, public elevators would bring the public and private realm back into balance. In public space, society generally maximizes positive freedom. (In fact, the classic definition of positive freedom uses a street: by establishing agreed upon rules which constrain the freedom of all to drive wherever they please, society maximizes the freedom of each to drive much further.) In private space, it maximizes negative freedom. (The prevention of other people’s intrusion, through the right to physically exclude.) A street is the right of way; a lot is the right to stay. Purely public life is a panopticon. Purely private space is feudalistic. Either by itself is pretty boring. The key is to juxtapose the two. Loftness uses the term porosity: “The indoor realm should flow into the outdoor realm through thicker facades that engage the street and nature.” A better balance of public and private maximizes freedom for all.

The authority to take such control of the sky has already been exercised by most cities. In New York, the conflict between streets and towers became obvious pretty quickly. Early towers, like the Singer Building and Woolworth Building, were built as symbols of the corporations that erected them, and therefore had spire-like qualities, stepping slenderly into the sky. Pretty soon, however, investors caught on to the numbers game, and in 1913 the Equitable Building—a speculative development—shot up. A 200-foot-long cliff, looming 542 feet tall, with no setbacks, it housed 48 elevators that provided quick access to an area 30 times the size of its original lot, turning the adjacent streets into dark canyons. New York’s 1916 zoning code struck back, capping a tower’s maximum “floor to area ratio” (FAR) and forcing them to step back as they went up to allow light and air onto the streets, creating “wedding cake” towers. Yet even though the city effectively seized control of the sky, turning New York’s skyline into an inverted map of gigantic funnel-like voids radiating from each of its streets, they did not take the next step: using their control of the sky to create additional public space. 

There are two possibilities for why the zoning did not go further. One is innocent: that the zoning law was made primarily to protect the quality and nature of New York’s streets, rather than the quality and nature of New York’s buildings. The second reason is less innocent: the 1916 ordinance was not just about protecting the streets, but also other property holders. New towers that increase the quantity of available space while negatively impacting the quality of its neighbors’ light and views are bad for the neighbors. The Equitable Building stole light—and tenants—from those around it.

Public elevators would unlock this passive monopoly, allowing the city to grow organically where it needs to grow. Instead, however, of building phallic monoliths, cities would grow up incrementally—elevators lengthened as need be, thousands of unique and individual structures hanging from their connecting latticework. The figural part of the city would not be the structure, which would be so broken up into small parts as to become like a fabric, but instead carefully planned voids, to guarantee light, air, and views for all. Instead of a few developers building towers, the city, as a whole—and as thousands of individual actors—would be building a mountain.

Finally, public elevators would make cities more beautiful. Density has its merits. Density conserves resources. Density kindles a more pluralistic and diverse society. Density ignites and nurtures innovation. Vertical density can be a glorious thing: cities become canyons and valleys, ridges and mountains. But real canyons, valleys, ridges and mountains belong to the people. So why is it when people build them, they belong to the few? Mountains built by the people should belong to the people.

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