a tale of two city centers

New York City is known for its two main Central Business Districts: the older financial center of Downtown (background) and the largest business center in North America, the expansive Midtown ‘plateau’ (foreground)

In the late 19th century a new form of building technology forever changed the dynamics of cities: the steel frame. The invention of the skyscraper was not just a monumental achievement in capitalizing land values, but it also changed the perception of what a city is. North American cities, with relatively little urban history, aggressively adopted the new technology and laid waste to the majority of their original central city buildings in favor of taller and taller buildings. There is no better example than New York. Famous for its skyline, as seen by millions of immigrants as they funneled through the Big Apple, the city was forever defined by its cluster of taller buildings at its center-most point. Elsewhere in the world cities still grew more traditionally, if they grew at all, like the great European capitols of London and Paris; with a far greater wealth of historic urban fabric, religious height restrictive laws, and unstable political revolutions.

New York was geographically and geologically lucky with its natural harbor and near-surface bedrock for a massive city, but it lacked sufficient land for its growing population. Before the invention of the automobile, and the white flight and red-lining that followed it, cities had to remain compact enough for people to live by foot, horse or bicycle. The urban rail system grew the first suburbs, and with them grew the first secondary central business district: Midtown New York. Soon eclipsing the Downtown Financial District near Wall Street, Midtown became the definitive ‘center’ of town with its ample land for tower construction, central rail stations, and theaters. As cities progressed into the 20th century, the skyline defined ‘city’ became the diamond-in-the-rough as the immediate areas surrounding these tower clusters became slums and the majority of privileged populations started commuting further and further away. Postwar Europe started rebuilding their bomb-ravaged cities with modern skyscrapers, but did not start North American-style clusters until the late 1960’s or later. Unlike the earlier plans of Mies and Le Corbusier, which would have laid waste to the traditional city centers in favor of ‘towers-in-the-park,’ most European capitols decided to build entirely new secondary centers on suburban lands near main rail lines and highways.


La Défense, the modern financial center of Paris, in 1958 (left) the Center for New Industries and Technologies was among the first buildings built, and today (right, view from opposite) the CNIT is buried behind a vast and still growing cluster of towers

Paris currently has the largest of these new second cities, La Défense, a suburban area directly on axis with the Louvre and Arc de Triomphe, and situated on the Seine downriver from the traditional city center. Much like other European cities, the old centers were deemed inappropriate for skyscraper construction by the local populous, as many of the old centers lacked the land or Robert Moses egos to build new commuter highways desired by the business community. Other than a few outliers, Paris’ old center is completely devoid of skyscrapers, which, along with a history of preservation, has made this ancient town among the most toured and loved cities in the world.


The disused Canary Wharf docklands prior to 1983 (left), and the new financial district that took its place (right, similar vantage)

London, on the other hand, had seen major damage in World War II and started highrise construction in its old financial center, the Square Mile, prior to the creation of La Défense. The old medieval street grid, preservationists, and the lack of available land greatly limited this effort, and the need for a second business district started to formulate in the 1970’s. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s, after infrastructure improvements like the Docklands Lightrail and Jubilee Tube Extension were built, that the area now known as Canary Wharf started to take shape. Now home to many of the world’s largest investment banks, Canary Wharf is now thriving, and looking to nearly double in square footage in the next decade with numerous approved skyscrapers, the Wood Wharf mega-development, and Crossrail coming on-line. The City, the old financial district, is slowly building a new skyline as well with a collection of iconically designed towers in stark contrast to the boxy, International-style forms of Canary Wharf.


Moscow City, commonly referred to as the International Business District, is growing at a rapid pace to keep up with office space demand in the Russian capitol

Recently, other metropolises around the world have started to follow the dual center city model such as Moscow and Amsterdam. A fascinating trend has also developed, especially in the planned cities of China, of building new city centers away from the traditional centers in the bends of rivers much like London’s Canary Wharf and Paris’ La Défense. First planned in 1992, Moscow has built an impressive cluster of tall skyscrapers near the third ring road from the old center on the banks of the Moskva River. Shanghai has also built a new financial center across river bend of the Yangtze River from the traditional city center. This new Central Business District, known locally as Lujaizui, contains three of the tallest buildings in the world, now called ‘supertalls’ in lieu of the lesser-height skyscraper.


Shanghai’s new CBD sprung up almost overnight: the Lujaizui area seen in 1987 (left) and today (right, same vantage)

The most ambitious of building-a-new-Central-Business-District-on-a-river-bend projects can be found in Tianjin, the traditional port city of Beijing, China’s capitol city. Like the ancient port city of Portus was to Rome, the modern city of Tianjin is building an entirely new second city center near the mouth of the Hai River on a prominent river bow, known as the Binhai New Area.


An aerial view of the Binhai peninsula today (left), and a rendering of the now under construction new financial center (right)

This modern trend of dual-centered cities has come about from the necessities of capitalism, new technologies, and a sense of preservation of place. The most interesting aspect of this city form is the world-wide commonality of building near a water body, most often a major river. Most of the world’s historical capitol cities were built on rivers or seashores, usually places with good moorage and/or defensive capabilities. Does this history of water compel us to build our skylines near it? Or are these places simply deemed the most valuable? Regardless, I feel that the trend will continue, even to the effect of a third and fourth city center for some cities in the future. New York is now looking to expand its skyscraper hubs beyond Downtown and Midtown with the Far West Side/ Hudson Yards area. Some could argue New York already has fifth and sixth business districts with Brooklyn, Long Island City, Jersey City, and nearby Newark as hubs, but the advent of a new CBD on Manhattan Island appears grander in scale and scope. Will we see a new London cluster form closer to the Thames estuary or will the proposed new airport there cause the old Heathrow airport land to become a new business hub off the River Crane? Will we see a newer new Shanghai after the current center gets built out? The future of cities looks to be wrought in water and time, as even these newest of city centers still must compete with their older well established rivals. To me, there will never be a replacement to an urban fabric and architecture born from the ancient empires, new world pioneers, or the dynasties of yore.


A comparison of major river cities and their new secondary centers of the last quarter century


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