Simanaitis Says

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BUILD UPWARD, not outward. This has been an architectural truism for centuries, but not always for the same reasons. My interest in this was piqued by learning of the Two Leaning Towers of Bologna. I’ve now discovered more about urban flights of fancy, frugality and security. Here’s a selection of these gleaned tidbits.


A reconstruction of Bologna, Italy, in the early Middle Ages. Image by Toni Pecoraro.

Follies of the rich. In the early Middle Ages, the 12th and 13th centuries, wealthy Italians built skyward. Bologna, the capital city of Italy’s central Emilia-Romagna region, may have boasted as many as 180 torri. Two of these towers existing today are the Asinelli Tower and Garisenda Tower, both built between 1109 and 1119.


At left, Bologna’s Garisenda Tower; behind it, the Asinelli Tower. Image by Patrick Clenet.

Both towers are leaning, the 157-ft. Garisenda, more radically. Asinelli is considerably taller, at 319 ft. To put these in perspective, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, built in 1626, is 448 ft. tall.

In The Divine Comedy, 1320, Dante wrote, “As when one sees the tower called Garisenda/From underneath its leaning side, and then a cloud/Passes over and it seems to lean the more….”


Meliandi and Rognosa Towers, San Gimignano, Italy. This and the following image from The House Book; see also “It’s Good to be Home.”

San Gimignano, Italy, was a self-governed hill town until annexed by Florence in 1353. Its wealthy families, many of them wool merchants, seemingly got into rivalries concerning the towers they built. It’s possible the towers were used to hang the town’s renowned saffron-dyed wool cloth to dry. The Torre Rognosa, part of the governor’s palace, was 167 ft. in height. And, by eventual regulation, no other tower could exceed this.

Flights of the frugal. Medieval Italians may have built vertically for bragging rights, but Amsterdam merchants had clear economic reasons to do so. The city expanded with a series of concentric canals that also defined building architecture.


Amsterdam merchant buildings along Prinzengracht (Prince’s Canal).

Merchants had to deal with scant real estate along the canals, so buildings were often five times as deep as they were wide and invariably four or five stories tall. Businesses occupied the ground levels. Middle floors were living space and storage was up top, the latter accessed through outside block-and-tackles mounted at attic level.

The buildings have large windows for ample interior lighting. Their principal embellishments come from gable ornamentation.

Tax man, see no evil. Business income might be finagled, but window glass is evident for all to see. Thus, European tax collectors had a long tradition of assessing a building’s value by the straightforward expedient of counting its windows.


Above, a house in Southhampton, England, exhibits the result of taxing windows; image by Gary Burt (myspace/slowsmile). Below, a building in Edinburgh, Scotland, shows a similar Inland Revenue scam; image by Kim Traynor.


In 1696, an English tax on windows encouraged a practice of bricking up window spaces, perhaps to await better times. The law wasn’t repealed until 1851. The French had similar taxation until 1926.

Taxed horizontally, not vertically. Urban land values have always encouraged upward growth. In extremes such as Japanese cities, this has resulted in wonderfully compact designs in commercial space and also in residences.


A home in Nipponbashi, Osaka, Japan. This and the following image from The House Book.

Architect Waro Kishi had only an 8-ft. frontage for a “pencil” dwelling in Osaka, Japan. On the other hand, its 42-ft. depth and four upper floors, the top one with a 20-ft. ceiling, give tidy urban accommodation with an open-air roof garden.

Build for cultural security. The traditional home in Yemen is of mud-brick construction. However, this didn’t prevent builders from thinking vertically, this time for cultural reasons.


Skyscrapers in San’a, Yemen, display cultural as well as architectural logic.

Multi-story buildings, some of eight stories, cluster close together in San’a, Yemen, to provide shade at street level. Each building offers its own security with commercial or storage space on the lowest floor. Following the Islamic practice of gender separation, accommodations for men are on the middle floors, in something of a public zone. Women’s quarters are on the upper, more private floors. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


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