Topped/Tapped Out

These unresolved issues still linger in the rush to develop a new urban world, where the United Nations estimated in June that more than half the world’s population now lives in cities. Given the recent building boom, critics and theorists have written relatively little on the skyscraper, especially outside of the contexts of the WTC and such places as Dubai or Guangzhou. No wonder Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, which turns 30 years old next year, still reigns as provocative reading in architecture schools. Even Koolhaas builds more than he writes today—and some of his more recent proposals for skyscrapers, like that in Jersey City, certainly don’t inspire confidence. In 2002, Ken Yeang published his Reinventing the Skyscraper, A Vertical Theory of Urban Design, which lays down a fairly ambitious model of the skyscraper as an environmentally responsible ecosystem, a nonhomogenous collection of programmed and vegetated spaces that theoretically approximates the functions of a city for a globally connected Internet culture. Yeang’s writing and conceptual designs have appeal, especially among the green set, but like Koolhaas, the ratio of finished project to unbuilt proposal remains too low to gauge its effects outside of vanity projects. This is, after all, still serious architecture, with a capital A, not your everyday Shanghai business park. As Yeang said at a recent lecture in New York, “Low-energy design is a lifestyle issue.” And not everyone can afford lifestyle.

Burj Dubai by SOM
Photo: © Ruggero Vanni

7 World Trade Center
New York, New York
In a dry run for its forthcoming Freedom Tower, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill design a jewel-like tall building that is already rewriting the book on safety.

While we don’t lack a multitude of pretender firms to the skyscraper throne of invention, Koolhaas and Yeang remain, for better or worse, among the more credible voices. Koolhaas’s CCTV elegantly achieves the programmatic complexity of which Yeang writes, while avoiding the ecological dress (i.e., hanging gardens, sky terraces) and multiple structural systems as proof-of-concept of Yeang’s proposed Elephant and Castle Eco-Towers in London. But both architects participate in the cult of the skyscraper with us since early Modernism, granting the typology significance in urban design that it will never wholly realize (Koolhaas does it ironically, knowing the type is dead; Yeang believes his storyline). We used to call this sort of architecture utopian—we put our faith in the unrealizable dream of the skyscraper—but anyone getting caught up in this or that new skyscraper today is at best ignorant, or at worst, in denial.

Critic Cynthia Davidson, in the Spring 2004 issue of Log, laments the vacuum of ideas for the skyscraper, referring to 1920s and 1930s New York as evoked in Koolhaas’s book as a lost moment before the tall building became a power symbol motivated solely by economics. Is it any surprise that the critical fallout of the disaster of September 11 turns out not to be the demise of the skyscraper, but the revelation of its continued cultural, social, and political value? This is especially true for cities in developing economies.

So, if the reduced form of any skyscraper merely amounts to a symbol of power—whether tall or dazzling—the discussion must then shift to the consideration of who creates or, more important, who pays for the creation of these private/civic symbols—who is, in Davidson’s terms, projecting their “power”? This is the lesson of the WTC, in that it exposed, as much as humanly possible given the political circumstances, the machinations that fuel real estate speculation (and its pet, architecture) in today’s economy—the private, public, and global forces that act with little concern for the micro-local effects or even the strain on regional infrastructure.

We have always had a tendency to congratulate corporations, or the interests that control them, for building extraordinary skyscrapers, somehow identifying our beliefs in progress and economic success in their appearance on our skylines. The failure of imagination that has stymied the WTC and the politics plaguing other megasites—such as the twin Frank Gehry projects of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn or Grand Avenue in Los Angeles—have only temporarily obscured the fact that we remain enamored of skyscrapers. So much so, we have been breathlessly converting obsolete models into residential use in nearly every American city.

Our selective memory enables us to overlook the relatively quick obsolescence of earlier skyscrapers, since so much of what tall buildings represent gets bound up in our desire to see them as continually new and built upon a typological tradition of impressive design vanguard. Could we consider that eventually even Renzo Piano’s New York Times tower will be converted to live/work lofts, that its super-modern sustainable features, open floor plates, and bizarre ceramic-rod shading devices will come to be seen as untenable in a shifting commercial economic landscape? That architecture (and its media) masks this question in everyday practice suggests that the imminent answer will surprise many of us.

For now, we consider three contemporary examples of how the skyscraper can dazzle. SOM’s impeccable, if straightforward, 7 World Trade Center, with its masterful play of light and transparency, is the first structure to rise on the site of the September 11 disaster. Mecanoo’s Montevideo Tower, in Rotterdam, anchors a waterfront revitalization with a vertical mass broken by differentiated curtain-wall finishes, setbacks, and dizzying cantilevers. AREP’s Sports City Tower, in Doha, Qatar, updates the observation tower with some added programmatic complexity hiding behind a steel structural wrapping. If none of these projects are quite the skyscraper’s comeback, they steadfastly deliver as an opening act.

We remain enamored of skyscrapers. For August, we consider the state of tall buildings throughout the world, including a slideshow of projects in design and construction. We also profile eight examples in our Building Types Study on the web feature.