5.02.2007

Capitals of Glamour


Berlin, it seems, is a city of paradox. The city has the image of an exciting, healthy metropolis set to ride globalization into the 21st Century. The reality is that, while vibrant, the German capital is a whopping $83 billion in debt, "[epitomizing] the costly, unfinished task of economically uniting east and west." (LA Times)

The much-buzzed-about city, which began rebuilding itself almost two decades ago, certainly looks good in photos. Splashy images of Renzo Piano and Helmut Jahn's towers at Potsdamer Platz and the then-edgy Sir Norman Foster's Reichstag rehab made the rounds in architectural circles, and tourist brochures promoted the city as a hedonistic party haven. The Glamo-magic worked, and international opinion of the city appears to have soared even while unemployment and debt mounted. Now, foreign investment is carving out a new Berlin where abandonment and low land values -- a rarity in a modern European capital -- are actually adding to the glamour of the place by practically promising high returns on investments. Berlin has become, in short, a testament to the power of reputation.

Stateside, Washington DC is apparently beginning to experience growing pains thanks to the American urban renaissance. As land becomes increasingly scarce in the mostly-gentrified areas surrounding downtown, the law that restricts building heights to 130 feet is being called into question. This idea is as ironic as it is controvertial, as a big part of the visual allure that adds so much to the city's Glam quotient (GQ?) can be attributed to the uniform building heights throughout the city, which have preserved historical character and internationally famous vistas.

Though crime is notoriously high, DC maintains a sizable measure of glamour; Los Angeles and New York are the nation's centers of culture, entertainment, commerce, and celebrity, but Washington has the special distinction of being the political center of the Western world. Long before globalization kicked into high-gear in the early 1990s, Washington was an international metropolis. Now, with every city from Taipei to Indianapolis claiming international importance, the District's monuments and the Americanized Parisian streetscapes that frame them so well in billions of tourists' photos have even more weight; these vistas put to shame many cities claims of relevance, serving as reminders of what a true Global City looks like.

Berlin, until recently, was another capital city with a low-slung skyline. Now, towers continue to push into the himmel (like my German skills?) and the city's popularity continues to grow. It's hard to imagine the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome sharing the skyline with the types condo and office towers that appear on postcards of other American cities, but as land values in the central part of the city climb ever higher, some people are starting to ask whether its realistic not to. Their argument is not completely irrational.

Washington DC and Berlin are vastly different cities. Still, it's almost impossible to miss the parallels between the two in the tiny, tiny modern world. As DC struggles to calm its violent crime rate and re-imagine itself as a city that is accessible to people throughout the economic spectrum, it will be interesting to see whether the Glamourous City effect raises the city up like Berlin...or ruins it.


Links:
Investors betting on a Berlin boom (LA Times)

High-Level Debate On Future of D.C. (Washington Post)

1 comment:

Thomas said...

Unless I read your post wrong, I think that the glamour in DC that you refer to is the iconic and beautiful landmarks of DC (the Capitol dome, Washington Monument). The presence of those strong visual gestures (and the height limits) means that much of "downtown" DC is the most banal and boring assemblage of post-war architecture on display anywhere. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts is also partially responsible for the overly conservative approach to architecture in the city.

There are parts of DC that could be receiving areas for additional height that wouldn't overwhelm the iconic viewsheds in the city.