Long ago, buildings were constructed with the excitement of technology-meaning buildings could be as tall as technology allowed. The Equitable Building in New York City is one of the most famous examples of this. A large, bulky building, it seemed like a giant fortress (at almost 600 feet tall) but there were no regulations governing setbacks at the time.
The Equitable Building is a behemoth, constructed in 1915. A new building code for New York City would be issued in 1916, changing the form of buildings for centuries to come. This new era of building code ushered in the advent of the wedding cake building-a style of building to be the new vernacular of the New York City skyline.
The wedding cake building style was not a commentary on aesthetic deliciousness but was, rather, a commentary on the necessity of buildings to take on that form due to the new code. Although any proponent of the building code will emphatically deny that it dictates the aesthetics of buildings, the wedding cake shape is a result of important function and developing urban living.
Wall Street serves as an infamous example for the case of sunlight being accessible to all. It is often said that due to the wall-like nature of Wall Street in lower Manhattan (pre-wedding cake), the sun and other resources were blocked out from the street level, creating a cavernous experience and potentially unhealthy conditions.
The turn of the century also brought concerns with the increasing height of buildings and the potential for fire. In 1904, the city of Baltimore suffered a devastating fire during which more than 1,500 buildings were completely leveled, and more approximately 1,000 more were severely damaged. The property loss from this disaster was an estimated $100 million. Consequently, building codes were adopted stressing fireproof construction. The wedding cake building style refers to the typology of building that resulted from this new code. These buildings got their name because they are stepped to acknowledge the setbacks required to allow light down to the street level and to accommodate separation between buildings to make them safer as they rose higher.
The separation between buildings is an important component in the high-rise building. The setbacks allow for distance should a fire break out in one building. That distance impedes the spread of fire while disabling or slowing it from spreading from one building to the next. This is particularly important, as the resources for firefighting were not as advanced as they are now.
Slowing or stopping the spread of fire is not the only task of building setbacks. As noted above, they also provide access to light and fresh air at street level and afford some privacy-especially as distance grows between tiers-creating easier access for building maintenance.
Although setbacks still exist with the modern building code, access to light and air, as well as safety are rights that should be afforded every community member of a municipality and are recognized as imperative in promoting healthy, urban living.