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Skyscrapers V. Campuses
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February 09, 2011, 12:13 AM
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Economist Ed Glaeser writes "How Skyscrapers Can Save the City," making all the obvious points about how building high lets you cram more people together on small pieces of land, which makes it easier for business people to get together and do deals over lunch.

It`s certainly undeniable that skyscrapers can be a cheap way to warehouse people, as, for example, Cabrini Green demonstrated in Chicago. Glaeser complains that Napoleon III`s height limitations on Paris (basically, the core of the city is all six stories high) has meant that tall buildings have gone up only on the periphery. But he seems to miss the point that goal of the rulers of Paris is to keep peripheral people on the periphery, where they can amuse themselves setting fire to cars without pestering the real Parisians.

In general, it`s hard to get American middle class families to live in high rises because, outside of Manhattan, without restrictive zoning it`s hard to get a high enough percentage of middle class children together in one spot to dominate a public school. For example, Glaeser celebrates the reasonably cheap highrises along Chicago`s lakefront, but they seldom have "good" schools, in contrast to certain thoroughly gentrified districts of three story buildings. Restrictive zoning is crucial to "good" public schools, but you aren`t supposed to talk about that.

As for business, yeah, sure. And yet ...

I once had a corner office in a skyscraper across the street from the Sears Tower in Chicago. It was great for going out to lunch with other corporate types or wowing them with the view from my windows. But, I think my performance suffered in roughly the same way as, notoriously, did those of the Sears executives across the street. Sears is a company built around selling in the suburbs, but it penned up all its headquarter executives in a bubble 100 stories off the ground, a long cab ride from the nearest suburban Sears store.

In contrast, Wal-Mart was headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas, a town that, back then, was just like the typical town that had a Wal-Mart. And, Sam Walton didn`t want his employees going out to lunch with salesmen from his big suppliers. He wanted them to have zero friendly feelings toward salesmen.

It`s interesting how the single most important economic center to emerge in my lifetime — Silicon Valley — has resolutely resisted Glaeser`s logic. Apple, which has all the money in the world, didn`t just announce it was going to build a giant skyscraper, it instead bought a 100 acre site for a campus. And here are pictures of the Google campus.

I don`t know how much manufacturing is still done in Silicon Valley, but, historically, there were huge advantages in having the executives right next to the factory floor.

Moreover, most people seem to like the campus layout best. In particular, engineers seem to like nature a lot. I`m having a hard time thinking of any skyscraper famous for being full of engineers. I`m sure there must be some, but it`s funny how few there are.

Similarly, how many high end American colleges have imitated Stalin`s brainstorm of making Moscow State University one giant building, 750 feet tall, containing 5,000 rooms?

It`s also interesting that the highest high end of Wall Street, the hedge funds, have largely decamped from Manhattan for suburban Greenwich.

Also, at the very high end of the entertainment industry in Hollywood, the ideal is not to be in a skyscraper — that`s fine for lawyers — but to have your own one or two story bungalow on the lot. At the big studios, you walk down these charming little streets with Spanish-style houses on them and out front the parking places say stuff like "Mr. Eastwood." When Clint Eastwood comes down from Pebble Beach, he holds meetings in what looks like a modest-sized, tree-shaded house next door to a lot of other modest-sized houses full of other famous people holding meetings. The highest prestige in Hollywood is to have your office in what looks like a village in Catalonia.