This is a tale of two cities and their new skyscrapers.
The Wilshire Grand Center, a project of the conglomerate that owns Korean Air Lines, towers 73 stories and 1,100 feet over downtown Los Angeles, making it the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.
The soon-to-open Salesforce Tower, named for the cloud computing giant that will occupy it, rises 61 stories and 1,070 feet over San Francisco, making it the second tallest building west of the Mississippi.
But considered together, they make a more earth-bound point about the state of California’s imagination.
The Wilshire Grand, like Los Angeles, is skinny and well-lit. But up close, it feels remote even though it’s in the middle of a metropolis. Reaching the tower on foot isn’t easy; it’s surrounded by the 110 freeway and major thoroughfares. And when you enter, you’re pointed in the direction of an elevator that takes you up to its most significant public space – the 70th floor lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel.
The views are great, but the building’s Korea-based ownership serves as reminder that L.A., for all its size, is more an overgrown outpost than a capital of anything. Its signature institutions – from the Los Angeles Times to the Dodgers — are controlled by out-of- towners.
By contrast, Salesforce Tower screams San Francisco, for better and for worse.
Like the Bay Area’s tech industry, the skyscraper is a dominant, almost menacing presence hanging over the city. The tower is connected by a bridge and a public plaza to the Transbay Transit Center being built next door. And the building is so health-conscious that it literally breathes, with “innovative outside air intakes on every floor” that “provide outdoor-fresh air to each occupant to support health and wellness.”
The Salesforce Tower also embodies a San Francisco paradox. This place that connects the world can feel small and insular. Salesforce is creating its own campus within the city, with retail and stores to satisfy workers’ every need. “It’s all right here. Right now,” boasts the tower’s publicity.
Yet for all their differences, what’s most striking about the two skyscrapers is how similar they are. Both are glass towers designed for maximum environmental sustainability and earthquake safety. And both make themselves appear taller than they really are. The Wilshire Grand gets its extra height from a 295-foot tall spire on top, while Salesforce has 170 feet of open space on the top that won’t have any people in it.
Neither building makes you say “wow.” In fact, both buildings were supposed to be bigger. Wilshire Grand was planned as two taller towers and Salesforce as a 1,200-foot- tall giant, but were downsized for different economic reasons.
And neither structure matches the public esteem for the towers they now top. In L.A., the U.S. Bank building sits on Bunker Hill and thus looks taller than the Wilshire Grand. In San Francisco, the hulking presence of the Salesforce Tower seems out of scale compared to the graceful Transamerica pyramid, 200 feet shorter.
But to protest these new skyscrapers is pointless, because both buildings reveal the truth about power in California: For all our boasts about creating new modes of business and living, our corporations still stand the tallest. Korean Air Lines’s logo lights the Wilshire Grand’s crown. And San Francisco has agreed to rename the Transbay Transit Center and the park on top of it for Salesforce. These competent corporate buildings are ultimately about branding.
Why can’t our skyscrapers offer edges that incite love or hatred, that provoke us to aim higher? Structures that tall really should stand for something.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at email@example.com.