The New York skyline is a phenomenon all its own, and you'd think that a city with so many landmark towers wouldn't have a problem with a new one. But the owners of the Empire State Building, once the tallest building in the world and a Big Apple icon, have opposed the construction of a new nearby tower which would block the view and take away some of the historic building's singularity. In other words, it wouldn't stand out like it used to. The owners proposed that no tower challenging the Empire State Building be built within a three-quarter of a mile radius.
That no-skyscraper zone was rejected and a new tower has been approved. It may or may not be built, but there was little sympathy for the Empire State Building's position — or the precedent it would have set if a city of skyscrapers began imposing such limits. But the request is not altogether unreasonable: For some structures, their position on the landscape is an essential part of their character. How would people feel, for example, if giant high-rises crowded out the Eiffel Tower?
Here, as I wrote recently, the Space Needle is inherently important not just because of the view from it, but also the view of it. The Needle stands largely apart from downtown Seattle as a regional platform of power, not unlike the Empire State Building. And its situation, as well as its design, is an important part of its architecture and continuing value.
As a kid, I remember going to the top of the Smith Tower, then the tallest structure in Seattle, and having a clear view of the under-construction Space Needle. Now, there's a forest of skyscrapers in between. Still the Needle stands well enough apart, so far, to have escaped being overgrown or crowded. It has some protection, by city ordinance, from being impinged upon in the area immediately surrounding it.
But as downtown and Belltown have grown taller and high-rises have marched closer to Queen Anne, and with the growth of South lake Union and the potential for more waterfront development, it's not hard to envision a day when the Needle might no longer have its slice of low-rise skyline to itself. Will it still be the symbol that it is? Is a landmark still a landmark if it's not a landmark anymore?
The Space Needle, by virtue of its unique design, still seems contemporary. The Empire State Building seems more like a historic relic, and a glorious one at that. But it's no surprise that it would begin to feel pressure from the very powerful, commercial impulses that built it in the first place. I'd hate to see the day when the Needle is swallowed whole by our "world class city" ambitions. Let's hope it never comes to that, but it certainly could.