Opinion: Building beautifully in Downtown El Paso
For the first time in nearly half a century, El Paso has a new private skyscraper, WestStar Tower.
The behemoth structure forged almost entirely of aqua glass and steel stands at around 280 feet from earth to roof. The ascent of the tower is continued by a corona (the kind present in designing buildings and nothing more.) Building and crown, the structure has a total height of 313 feet, making WestStar Tower the tallest building in El Paso. This new construction is truly a significant achievement; however, I believe there is another reason why so many heads turn whenever the building is in sight.
The building is, well, strange. Giving the surrounding color scheme and aesthetics, WestStar Tower stands alone as a sore thumb that cannot and, perhaps purposefully, will not match with the aesthetics of surrounding buildings, such as The Plaza Hotel, Hotel Paso del Norte Tower, O. T. Bassett Tower, or the Anson Mills Building.
WestStar Tower, in its quest to be modern and cutting edge, left beauty behind in a blind search for shock and awe. With no matching style, decorations, or color, the tower intrudes the poetry of the surrounding architecture.
In his 2014 essay on this topic, HRH The Prince of Wales reminds us that architecture should be viewed as akin to language. A style of creation with its own set of rules for grammar, harmony, and respect.
A building that lacks local aesthetics must, by necessity, absorb the surrounding beauty in its glass and mirrors. It does this in hopes that these reflections will divert attention from the fact that the glass building actually stands for nothing.
The structure seems to grab your attention only to then be forgotten, like an eccentric TV advertisement. Once your focus is stolen from the surrounding architecture, the building fades away into the reflections of its own mirrors.
Building to be disruptive is building without the intentions of the community in mind — conjuring structures that are not only not beautiful but also un-beautiful. That is to say that these buildings not only provide a sense of imbalance but also drain away from the beauty of the adjacent buildings.
WestStar Tower does this by the intrusion of its style unfounded in the harmony sung by the community in which it resides. Like refractions in a glass of water, the building’s aqua-colored glass reflects a broken and distorted vision of the surrounding area. It’s overwhelming and consumes everything in its vicinity while mirroring nothing true about ourselves.
If we desire to build beautifully, we ought to just look at what we have already created. The Plaza hotel, for example, is a behemoth structure that extends into the sky but at the same time acts as a beacon of beauty.
The building, in its decorative nature, mimics the surrounding landscape. The red facade of clay resembles the sun’s red and orange hue as it sets upon the desert sand. Its brick and concrete material reminds us of the rock and stone of our mountains, the symbol of our city. The building’s green pinnacle, set in contrast to the red of the brick, gently draws the viewer’s attention while convincing them that this is a building of importance. For only an important building would be this beautiful and this distinguished. As such, when one gazes upon the city skyline, one’s attention is always drawn to the Plaza. Its elegance has not only made it a symbol of beauty but a symbol of our city.
As El Pasoans, we are on the cusp of a modern future of prosperity and creativity, but let’s not sacrifice beauty for the “cutting edge.” Of course, it is possible to have modernism with beauty.
Consider the art deco style of Manhattan. When one looks at the buildings of New York city — the awe-inspiring design of the Chrysler Building, the staggering crown of the General Electric Building, or the impeccable facade of the American Radiator Building — one cannot help but to rest in imagination. These buildings, these monuments of human creation, tell the tale of a people’s shared hopes and ideals. (For more contemporary builds to find inspiration, I recommend the detailed facade of the newly constructed 180 East 88th Street in New York City.)
These buildings are more expensive and more complex than merely placing glass on the facade of a structure; however, we realize that we are constructing these buildings to stand for generations. It is better to pay a little more upfront for something you can admire for 100 years rather than avoid for 100 years.
As with the previous examples, buildings constructed with decoration and ornament attract people to the Downtown area, like a beautiful painting draws a crowd in an art museum. When in the presence of a beautiful structure, the pedestrian feels pride, the tourist feels awe, and the young feel inspiration and aspiration.
What I therefore suggest is a commitment to building beautifully — to design with an appreciation for aesthetics, construct with adherence to reasonable matching standards, and imagine new creative designs that serve to inspire our growing city’s awe and camaraderie.
Cover photo: WestStar Tower, right, is now the tallest building in El Paso. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)
Disclosure: WestStar Bank is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.