When I teach architectural history and theory of the premodern period, I begin with the Middle Ages. One could start with the Renaissance and the early modernism of Alberti, but this would be to omit the revolutionary significance of the Gothic and its long-running contest with classicism, which, despite Alberti's attempt to supplant the Gothic with the Classical, lasted well into the 20th century (before both were eclipsed by modern architecture as we know it, or think of it). To start with the early modern period would also be to omit the rebirth of European cities following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the rise of European city-states, the co-developments of globalization, capitalism, and the merchant middle class, and, according to Henri Pirenne (an author of particular interest to Jane Jacobs), the development of Western democracy, not to mention the pre-Renaissance social foundations of Renaissance humanism.
With all that in mind, the proliferation of supertall and superslim skyscrapers in New York and London makes me think of this image of medieval Lucca. In the walled cities of the time, growth was also vertical, pushed skyward by capital, and towers sprang up in great numbers. In The Florentine Magnates, Carol Lansing writes that "Most Italian communes by the late twelfth century were forests of narrow stone towers: Benjamin of Tudela, visiting Pisa in the 1160s, estimated the number of towers there at a dramatically improbable 10,000. In 1100, Florence probably contained only a handful of towers; by 1200 the city's skyline was jammed with more than 150, some ranging as high as 250 feet." Lansing explains that there were residential towers and military towers, some owned by families and some by corporation-like federations of shareholders. Military towers were for family and clan defense in the medieval cities' internecine urban warfare, where neighborhoods and, as in Lucca, quarters battled for control of the city. As today, the towers were symbols of wealth and power. In this case, however, height meant might: "The height of a tower was critical," write Lansing. "If your tower was higher than that of your neighbor, you could rain things down on his head."
Fast forward to the early 20th century. In 1929, the authors of the Regional Plan of New York wanted to see the city transcend its "medieval" qualities with more skyscrapers and land use regulations that would provide more space for them. "In spite of the great changes that have come over cities in connection with the development of vehicular transportation and steel construction, and of the imminence of new changes as a result of the development of the airplane, much of what may be called ‘medievalism’ persists in the modern city," they wrote. "Skyscrapers are as modern as the motor car. Their influence has been great but has really only begun to be felt."