Will the appeal of Skyscrapers endure, even as pundits again predict the end of the office version—thanks to remote work? RECORD spoke with Carol Willis, the founding director of the Skyscraper Museum in Manhattan, to take the temperature of commercial construction’s hothouse flower—the supertall. (The museum’s definition of supertall, distinctly its own, is any building that exceeds the Empire State Building’s 1,250 feet.) Her latest exhibition, Supertall! 2020, traces the tall-building type through eight examples as a perpetual reconciliation of architectural art, engineering prowess, and cash cow. It is online—at skyscraper.org—along with video talks by the architects and engineers who designed the buildings.
Supertall skyscrapers are expensive, financially risky, and can take a decade or more to finance and build. Does ego overcome economic reality?
Supertalls can be about dreams, the urge to build icons, and ego—but they have got to pay back. Adrian Smith [designer of the current record holder, the 2010 Burj Khalifa] said that there is publicity value in building the world’s tallest building. This is not new. Famous photos taken by Lewis Hine were commissioned by the Empire State Building to create a worldwide storyline of its construction.
The Burj is also an example of the supertall as loss leader. It may not have succeeded on its own terms, but it developed so much value. The surrounding condominiums, hotels, mall and entertainment venues were like metal filings attracted to the magnet of the Burj.
The Chinese supertalls work in the same way. A parcel desirable for its waterfront-development potential was master-planned with parks and amenities to be anchored—at the insistence of officials—by the 1,500-foot-tall Suzhou International Finance Square, by Robert Witlock of KPF. This triangulation of government-owned land, the government master-planned city, and its strategy for urbanization is a structure of real-estate development that is foreign to the U.S. mind.
Supertall development has shifted to Asia, where most supertalls are mixed use, stacking offices, hotels or serviced apartments, and condos on top. The mix can be complementary, making the business plan work, but mixing uses also enlivens urban development.
How has engineering evolved with the supertall?
A key difference is concrete. In the mind’s eye, you get the Lewis Hine photo of the Empire State Building’s ironworkers, sitting on the steel-I beam eating lunch against a background of nothingness. The winds that whip around at these great heights can be extreme, so the concrete core is weighty, to pull the forces down to the ground and keep the building stable. In New York, super-slender towers require a really rigid concrete structure because they are subject to even more of a wind-induced tuning-fork vibration.
Supertalls are criticized as skyline-mutilating baubles of exploitative wealth. Is the type now hopelessly tainted?
In the U.S., we get to argue over every parcel, but the global question is, how do you accommodate the massive number of rural people who are pouring into urban centers? Over the last three or four decades, 300 million people have moved from rural western China to the urban east—the largest migration in human history.
These instant cities, where the iconic tower marks the urban consolidation of businesses and global trade, are driven by government policy that recognizes the sustainability benefits of urbanization and densification, complemented by transit, parks, and amenities. New York experienced this in the early 20th century, when explosive growth and transformation led to such early skyscrapers as the Woolworth tower and Metropolitan Life building.