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  • Imagine that when you walked in here this evening,

  • you discovered that everybody in the room looked almost exactly the same:

  • ageless, raceless,

  • generically good-looking.

  • That person sitting right next to you

  • might have the most idiosyncratic inner life,

  • but you don't have a clue

  • because we're all wearing the same blank expression all the time.

  • That is the kind of creepy transformation that is taking over cities,

  • only it applies to buildings, not people.

  • Cities are full of roughness and shadow,

  • texture and color.

  • You can still find architectural surfaces of great individuality and character

  • in apartment buildings in Riga

  • and Yemen,

  • social housing in Vienna,

  • Hopi villages in Arizona,

  • brownstones in New York,

  • wooden houses in San Francisco.

  • These aren't palaces or cathedrals.

  • These are just ordinary residences

  • expressing the ordinary splendor of cities.

  • And the reason they're like that is that the need for shelter

  • is so bound up with the human desire for beauty.

  • Their rough surfaces give us a touchable city.

  • Right? Streets that you can read

  • by running your fingers over brick and stone.

  • But that's getting harder to do,

  • because cities are becoming smooth.

  • New downtowns sprout towers

  • that are almost always made of concrete and steel

  • and covered in glass.

  • You can look at skylines all over the world --

  • Houston,

  • Guangzhou,

  • Frankfurt --

  • and you see the same army of high-gloss robots

  • marching over the horizon.

  • Now, just think of everything we lose

  • when architects stop using the full range of available materials.

  • When we reject granite and limestone and sandstone

  • and wood and copper and terra-cotta and brick

  • and wattle and plaster,

  • we simplify architecture

  • and we impoverish cities.

  • It's as if you reduced all of the world's cuisines

  • down to airline food.

  • (Laughter)

  • Chicken or pasta?

  • But worse still,

  • assemblies of glass towers like this one in Moscow

  • suggest a disdain for the civic and communal aspects of urban living.

  • Right? Buildings like these are intended to enrich their owners and tenants,

  • but not necessarily the lives of the rest of us,

  • those of us who navigate the spaces between the buildings.

  • And we expect to do so for free.

  • Shiny towers are an invasive species

  • and they are choking our cities and killing off public space.

  • We tend to think of a facade as being like makeup,

  • a decorative layer applied at the end to a building that's effectively complete.

  • But just because a facade is superficial

  • doesn't mean it's not also deep.

  • Let me give you an example

  • of how a city's surfaces affect the way we live in it.

  • When I visited Salamanca in Spain,

  • I gravitated to the Plaza Mayor

  • at all hours of the day.

  • Early in the morning, sunlight rakes the facades,

  • sharpening shadows,

  • and at night, lamplight segments the buildings

  • into hundreds of distinct areas,

  • balconies and windows and arcades,

  • each one a separate pocket of visual activity.

  • That detail and depth, that glamour

  • gives the plaza a theatrical quality.

  • It becomes a stage where the generations can meet.

  • You have teenagers sprawling on the pavers,

  • seniors monopolizing the benches,

  • and real life starts to look like an opera set.

  • The curtain goes up on Salamanca.

  • So just because I'm talking about the exteriors of buildings,

  • not form, not function, not structure,

  • even so those surfaces give texture to our lives,

  • because buildings create the spaces around them,

  • and those spaces can draw people in

  • or push them away.

  • And the difference often has to do with the quality of those exteriors.

  • So one contemporary equivalent of the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca

  • is the Place de lafense in Paris,

  • a windswept, glass-walled open space

  • that office workers hurry through

  • on the way from the metro to their cubicles

  • but otherwise spend as little time in as possible.

  • In the early 1980s, the architect Philip Johnson

  • tried to recreate a gracious European plaza in Pittsburgh.

  • This is PPG Place,

  • a half acre of open space encircled by commercial buildings

  • made of mirrored glass.

  • And he ornamented those buildings with metal trim and bays

  • and Gothic turrets

  • which really pop on the skyline.

  • But at ground level,

  • the plaza feels like a black glass cage.

  • I mean, sure, in summertime

  • kids are running back and forth through the fountain

  • and there's ice-skating in the winter,

  • but it lacks the informality of a leisurely hangout.

  • It's just not the sort of place you really want to just hang out and chat.

  • Public spaces thrive or fail for many different reasons.

  • Architecture is only one,

  • but it's an important one.

  • Some recent plazas

  • like Federation Square in Melbourne

  • or Superkilen in Copenhagen

  • succeed because they combine old and new,

  • rough and smooth,

  • neutral and bright colors,

  • and because they don't rely excessively on glass.

  • Now, I'm not against glass.

  • It's an ancient and versatile material.

  • It's easy to manufacture and transport

  • and install and replace

  • and clean.

  • It comes in everything from enormous, ultraclear sheets

  • to translucent bricks.

  • New coatings make it change mood

  • in the shifting light.

  • In expensive cities like New York, it has the magical power

  • of being able to multiply real estate values by allowing views,

  • which is really the only commodity that developers have to offer

  • to justify those surreal prices.

  • In the middle of the 19th century,

  • with the construction of the Crystal Palace in London,

  • glass leapt to the top of the list of quintessentially modern substances.

  • By the mid-20th century,

  • it had come to dominate the downtowns of some American cities,

  • largely through some really spectacular office buildings

  • like Lever House in midtown Manhattan, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

  • Eventually, the technology advanced to the point

  • where architects could design structures so transparent

  • they practically disappear.

  • And along the way,

  • glass became the default material of the high-rise city,

  • and there's a very powerful reason for that.

  • Because as the world's populations converge on cities,

  • the least fortunate pack into jerry-built shantytowns.

  • But hundreds of millions of people need apartments and places to work

  • in ever-larger buildings,

  • so it makes economic sense to put up towers

  • and wrap them in cheap and practical curtain walls.

  • But glass has a limited ability

  • to be expressive.

  • This is a section of wall framing a plaza

  • in the pre-Hispanic city of Mitla, in southern Mexico.

  • Those 2,000-year-old carvings

  • make it clear that this was a place of high ritual significance.

  • Today we look at those and we can see a historical and textural continuity

  • between those carvings, the mountains all around

  • and that church which is built on top of the ruins

  • using stone plundered from the site.

  • In nearby Oaxaca, even ordinary plaster buildings

  • become canvasses for bright colors, political murals

  • and sophisticated graphic arts.

  • It's an intricate, communicative language

  • that an epidemic of glass would simply wipe out.

  • The good news is that architects and developers

  • have begun to rediscover the joys of texture

  • without backing away from modernity.

  • Some find innovative uses for old materials like brick

  • and terra-cotta.

  • Others invent new products like the molded panels that Snøhetta used

  • to give the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

  • that crinkly, sculptural quality.

  • The architect Stefano Boeri even created living facades.

  • This is his Vertical Forest, a pair of apartment towers in Milan,

  • whose most visible feature is greenery.

  • And Boeri is designing a version of this for Nanjing in China.