Are high ceilings a sign of wretched architectural excess or just good taste?

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May 20 2009 6:44 AM

How High

Are high ceilings a sign of wretched architectural excess or just good taste?

Adagio ad for 11-foot ceilings.
Adagio ad for 11-foot ceilings 

Certain features are taken for granted in today's residential market: granite countertops, glass-walled showers, and, judging from this recent ad for a new Upper West Side condo, very tall ceilings. Not so long ago, 8-foot ceilings were the norm. What changed?

Ceilings in new suburban tract housing got taller more than a decade ago. Instead of 8 feet—a dimension that resulted from two 4-foot-wide drywall sheets laid horizontally—home builders built 9-foot ceilings. At first, taller ceilings were offered as extras, but soon 9 feet became standard, so much so that drywall manufacturers started producing 4½–foot-wide sheets. Not be outdone, the builders of custom homes went to 10 feet.

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Something similar happened to office buildings. In 1965, the newest skyscraper in Manhattan was Eero Saarinen's CBS Building. The stylish interiors, by Florence Knoll Basset, were the best that corporate money could buy, modern art hung next to modern furniture (much of it designed by Saarinen and Bassett), and the ceilings were 8¾-feet high, slightly taller than the norm at that time. By the late 1970s, office ceilings were routinely 9 feet, and 25 years later, the ceilings of the Renzo Piano-designed New York Times Building were 11 feet, which is quickly becoming the standard for Class A office buildings. The new Comcast Center in Philadelphia, for example, has 11-foot ceilings—and 13-foot ceilings on the executive floors.

"Making ceilings taller doesn't add that much to the overall cost of a building," says Robert A.M. Stern, the architect of the Comcast Center, "but taller ceilings allow light to penetrate deeper into the building, which is important if you are optimizing daylighting." Another benefit of taller ceilings in office towers is that they make for higher buildings. At 975 feet, the 58-story Comcast tower is the tallest building in downtown Philadelphia; with 8¾-foot ceilings, it would have been more than 150 feet shorter.

Are taller ceilings yet another example of wretched architectural excess? Not necessarily. In fact, it is low ceilings that are the aberration. Throughout the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, ceilings in middle-class homes, offices, and institutional buildings were 10-12 feet or more. They followed the architectural rule of thumb: "The larger the room, the taller the ceiling." During the postwar era, when buildings started to be mass-produced, builders and architects, considering tall ceilings wasteful and inefficient, saw no reason to make them taller than the legal minimum, which could be as little as 7 feet. Thus, the mailroom and the boardroom got the same low ceiling.

What caused the return of the tall ceiling? The historic preservation movement can take a lion's share of the credit, as well as the developers of all those converted industrial lofts (which usually had tall ceilings). Living and working in older buildings, people discovered that taller rooms simply felt—and looked—better. Builders were happy to oblige since tall ceilings didn't cost much more, as Stern points out—but you could charge more for them.

It's not just a matter of prestige—a tall room looks better proportioned. Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio devoted a chapter of his famous treatise, The Four Books on Architecture, to the subject and included rules to calculate ceiling heights: Add the length and breadth of a room and divide by two; or, more simply, make the room as high as it is broad. I once spent a week in his Villa Saraceno, not a particularly large house but with 19-foot ceilings. At first the tall rooms seemed a little overwhelming, but after a few days I got used to the feeling of generous spaciousness. At night, with candles on the table, the ceilings disappeared altogether, and it was like being outside.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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