Last night, the National Capital Planning Commission hosted a panel on building heights in European cities. It wasn’t purely an academic exercise; NCPC has been charged with studying potential changes to the 1910 Height Act that restricts building heights in the District.

Panel moderator Gary Hack, professor emeritus of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, led things off with a discourse on just how unusual D.C.’s situation is. “Washington,” he said, “remains the only large American city that has height limits that are consistent across the entire city.”

Back when D.C.’s limit was enacted, however, most cities had height limits, Hack said. Baltimore’s was 175 feet, Chicago’s 200, Boston’s 125, and San Francisco’s 102. Most European cities had height limits, too: Paris buildings couldn’t be more than 1 to 1.5 times the width of the street (generally not more than 66 feet); London’s limit was typically 80 feet or the width of the street, whichever was lower; and Berlin’s was 72 feet or the street width.

But those limits were generally abolished as fears of destructive fires diminished and cities needed to find new ways to grow. In the process, cities have had to find other ways to ensure that growth contributed to the pleasures of urban living rather than inhibiting them. Their strategies are informative as D.C. tries to carve a path forward.

British urbanist Robert Tavernor discussed the case of London, which has tried to maintain its status as a “premier world city” alongside New York and Tokyo without reducing its appeal to tourists—-foreign tourism, he said, is greater than in any other city and contributes substantially to London’s economy.

So how to build the city up while retaining its charms? Tavernor focused his presentation largely on one of the city’s top attractions, St Paul’s Cathedral. Planners have tried to devise ways to keep sight lines to St Paul’s unobstructed from a variety of angles:

That means that buildings follow a “saucer”-like arc around the cathedral:

The result has been more concentrated growth in the east of London’s center, while the areas directly around St Paul’s have remained lower. Here’s a rendering of what the city may soon look like:

Let’s contrast that with the German approach. Berlin is a massive, sprawling city that, in its reconstruction after World War II, has largely retained its horizontal, low-slung character. Here’s a representation of the city’s governmental and tourist core, looking down Unter den Linden (which, though an active street, serves a similar role to D.C.’s National Mall):

Berlin does have one advantage, so to speak, in its efforts to maintain a low skyline: a weak economy. Presenter Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg, who has been involved in such groundbreaking German developments as Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and Hamburg’s HafenCity, said that there were plans to build 500-foot buildings at the city’s Alexanderplatz, but that they never materialized amid nonexistent demand.

Where taller buildings have gone up in the city, at Potsdamer Platz, the approach has been a “spiky” one, with buildings so sparse and narrow that they do little to disrupt sight lines:

Hamburg does not share Berlin’s economic situation; average incomes there are twice as high as in Berlin, and the inner city is smaller, so there’s more demand for development. But unlike Berlin, Hamburg has never been a national or state capital, so the sights it must preserve are not monuments or grand promenades but churches:

Bruns-Berentelg is the CEO of HafenCity, a massive new development on an island in the Elbe River, right across from Hamburg’s core. The challenge there was to create something dense and interesting that wouldn’t detract from the city’s existing character.

Bruns-Berentelg couldn’t replicate London’s “clustering” approach to tall buildings without completely blocking views of the city. Instead, he attempted something more creative: a variety of building heights and structures—-including donut-shaped buildings—-to ensure that nowhere is sunlight or a view to the center city completely obstructed. The image quality here isn’t great, but here are a few of the buildings:

Bruns-Berentelg also says that some Hamburg office buildings have multiple levels, including one tall but thin tower and one or more shorter sections. That ensures ample office space without completely obstructing the skyline.

It’s clear that D.C.’s current situation is far from ideal: a downtown dominated by squat 10-story buildings that maximize square footage without contributing a thing to the city’s character. So what’s the right approach for us? A London-like clustering of skyscrapers away from the city core? We already have something like this, only across the river in Arlington; perhaps we could replicate it along the Anacostia or up in Friendship Heights. Or a more flexible Hamburg-like spikiness to keep things interesting without being overly disruptive? No one’s really proposing this, and it’s hard to imagine, given the likely incremental nature of changes to the Height Act, but it could be the most rational way to get away from the city’s deadly uniformity.

What do you think? If you’ve made it this far, please share your views in the comments!

Photos by Aaron Wiener