The Styles of the City 3: Building Toppers

 Decorating our buildings comes naturally. But common sense seems to indicate that you apply all this spendy paint or tile down where people can see it. Why do people put nice things all the way up there where you need a drone or binoculars to see it?

These cute little towers serve no practical purpose, on the top edge of a ten story building. They, and the stuff down the left hand side of this image, are simply to give a vaguely medieval air to a 20th century apartment block.


These Art Deco panels at the top of another building really can’t be appreciated from the street. This photograph was expanded by me so that you can admire their restrained elegance. They go all around the facade of this Portland State University building. Simply lovely, but why so high? Nobody can see them.

I blame the ancient Greeks. The famous friezes on the Parthenon were originally mounted up at the roofline. Back in BC there was no way for any Athenian to admire them once they were hoisted into place. We can view them now at the British Museum where they’ve been hung at eye level.

Which brings us around to why modern builders do it. It’s so that the new building can claim the knowledge and beauty of classical architecture. These decorations are at the top of a medical building. Clearly the building was intended from the beginning to house doctors, because the elaborate images are of a divinity holding a caudecus in either hand. Everyone who entered this building was going to get better, whether you could see the decorations or not!

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About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.

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The Styles of the City 3: Building Toppers — 6 Comments

  1. I am not an architect, but from my limited experience many architects consider themselves artists – they don’t want anyone interfering with their artistic vision for the building or the space, not even the person hiring them, for any practical considerations.

    Also, to get building permits, the drawings need to be approved first.
    Often the rules say something about the building needing to fit in with its surroundings.
    The detailing may help it look as if it does, at least at the drawing stage; or if the contract is awarded based on some kind of competition, they may help the drawing stand out.

    They also show someone spent some thought, time and money on it, wanting it to look better than a straight utilitarian brutalist box.

  2. If people can’t see it from the street, they can deface it. Future owners are unlikely to bother messing with those decorations if it’s a pain in the ass to get to them. Artists don’t like mundanes messing with their masterpieces.

  3. It appears that looks are an important aspect of building design. At least from the front. In cities, people often look down at buildings with ugly rooftops.

    What is really odd is when I see the back sides of expensive houses that face golf courses. Don’t they know that people see those?

  4. I read somewhere (my mind is filled with the trash of centuries; one of these days I’ll take out the garbage) that when they were first able to build really tall buildings, no one was sure what they should look like.

    The closest thing that existed were columns. So they built the first skyscrapers like columns — designs at the bottom, fairly plain in the middle, and then the crenulations at the top. They were building them to make people walking by look at them.

    And then styles changed, and today you usually get blocks. Buildings that look like really tall warehouses.

  5. Re the Parthenon, it is only one storey high, so although you wouldn’t have been able to see the frieze at eye level, you would have been able to see it in some detail. Also remember that it would have been painted which would have enabled the eye to pick out more detail.

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