In reply to a reader who likes downtown Manhattan, but not midtown, Matt Yglesias writes,

I certainly agree with the premise that not all “urban areas full of tall buildings” are the same from an aesthetic point of view… But this is one of these cases where the existence of a real market failure doesn’t mean that there’s a good regulatory solution…. One regulatory issue that does need to be considered, however, is whether you’re making it economically viable to do interesting architecture.

I’m a bit surprised Matt doesn’t take this opportunity to bring up the New York zoning law of 1916, which is generally taken to have been quite satisfactory both from a regulatory and aesthetic standpoint.

As electric elevators drove Manhattan buildings ever toward the sun, New York streets and sidewalks fell into that peculiar noonday gloom that results from the companionship of skyscrapers and narrow streets. The city’s lawmakers stopped builders from blocking out the sun by describing limits on building heights—not straightforwardly or arbitrarily declaring that no structure could rise higher than x, but rather declaring that a percentage of the building could rise indefinitely, so long as the majority of it stayed within an enveloped defined by percentages of the width of neighboring streets.

All very dry and not aesthetically satisfying at all, until (so the story goes) architects set out to figure out how much building you could get out of the law. Here are the results, as sketched by Hugh Ferriss—“a shape which the Law puts in the architect’s hands. He can add nothing to it, but he can vary it in detail,” Ferriss said.

Beginning, as at the upper left, with the maximum mass allowed by law, Ferriss cut it down to let in light, then made its basic elements rectangular to allow for standard steel construction, then capped it at a height that seemed reasonable given what square footage he figured was saleable. Voila: the iconic ziggurat of a New York skyscraper, realized throughout the city in the heyday of high buildings between the wars.

Beginning with a regulatory formula, working with material science and marketability, architects came up with something not only aesthetically pleasing but indeed suggestive: those stepped-back towers inspired; they were Mayan, Aztec, powerfully American, prehistoric and modern at once.

With later laws, New York got a different formula—Floor-to-Air Floor Area [I mean, honestly — ed.] ratio—which permitted monolithic slabs, if surrounded by open plazas. Thus, modern midtown. Some people like this sort of thing, though Matt’s correspondent clearly doesn’t.

In any case, the merely empirical evidence suggests regulation is compatible with aesthetically pleasing, interesting architecture; that architects are smart and talented people who will do the most with what you give them. And like all artists, they know that restriction can speed inspiration.