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Should big banks’ rallying cry ‘Too big to fail' apply to big buildings,too?

Tour Montparnasse, Paris
Photograph: Steven Strehl

Is there such a thing as a building too tall?

Probably not as long as there is the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat whose sole purpose is to certify the "World’s Tallest.”

To date, the tallest building is the 2,722 footer Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Too give you an idea of the elevation, the Empire State Building, once the tallest, comes in at 1,224 feet - (not counting the antenna/spire) – nearly 1,500 feet shorter.

The trend seems clear. Buildings are often in the tallness business. In the ‘70s, France boasted the country’s tallest skyscraper, the 689-foot-high Tour Montparnasse, Paris. But Parisians were so bothered by it, that the city didn’t allow skyscrapers until the start of the 21st century.

What bothered the French so much? Tour Montparnasse sticks out of the skyline like a poke in the eye because there’s nothing around of compatible height to ease its impeding air.

Beside height, then, context needs to be taken into consideration. When the Empire State Building was the tallest, it didn’t look like an impediment because its tallness stands in a canyon of skyscrapers.

There’s also the shape of tall buildings to consider. Slimming down upper stories with step-backs allows some visual eventfulness. The Dubai building, similarly shaped like the Empire State, is easier on the eyes than the monolithic Tour Maine-Montparnasse, which comes across like an intrusion.

To solve the compatibility issue, many cities exact design standards, even including the choice of building materials. When developers in Savannah, Georgia sought to use fake brick on a hotel planned for the edge of an historic district, a review board objected, saying that a faux facing was visually incompatible.

I’m no fan of design codes when it comes to style. Venice, North Port and Charlotte Harbor in Florida come to mind. Supposedly, controlling style can turn ghost towns into boomtowns. But style codes conjure up master-planned communities like Seaside, Florida, which was the setting for social satire in the 1998 film “The Truman Show,” an artificial reality show constructed under a mammoth arcological dome where everything is managed.

I’m also thinking of the idyllic Connecticut neighborhood in the 1972 film “The Stepford Wives” peopled by robots. Clearly, there’s such a thing as too much compatibility

That said, codes that govern air and light are warranted. Ditto a code for height. Free-wheeling skyscrapers don’t always make the best neighbors. McMansions that rise above low-slung homes makes the point.

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