17 aug 07 | Architectural Record

The skyscraper: still soaring

By Russell Fortmeyer

The world is awash in new skyscrapers. But does this type of building really have a place in the modern world?

The skyscraper has had more comebacks than Cher. From its humble, naive beginnings in Chicago after the fire of 1871; its idealistic representation in early European Modernism; its apex as the glam symbol of American corporate eminence; its bimbo phase in Postmodernism; its more recent dalliance with high-tech engineering; and culminating with its supposed demise on September 11, 2001, the skyscraper is one helluva contender.

Every time we think we've solved the typology, realized its total fulfillment, and built the freshest example, the skyscraper struts out in yet another tectonic version of a Bob Mackie gown--dripping in sequins, devoid of meaning, pure fabulousness. And we can't turn away.

"The industry is able to build these unusual forms, but we haven't got our minds around what that means," says David Scott, a structural engineer in Arup's New York office and the current chair of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. "People are being too flippant." Scott worries that although tall buildings can address rapid global urbanization, enough architects and engineers aren't considering the attendant environmental context in terms of ecological impact. Too often, he says, architects apply sustainable concepts to the existing skyscraper typology, without questioning the typology itself.

Enter the dazzle. We are awash in new skyscrapers, but the typology's reenergized career banks on one of two design strategies: go really tall or technologically dazzle. Think of it as choosing between Gothic and Baroque, minus the cultural baggage. We can always go tall, though how tall remains an open question. Dazzle is much harder to locate--be it techno gimmickry, stylistic parlor tricks, or a trendy patina of sustainability. The proposals for the World Trade Center (WTC) site were one long, dazzling audition after another for a comeback tour that never happened. Regardless, at any given moment, we can find a skyscraper (or two) to step forward as the repository of our collective wish fulfillment: the Burj Dubai and Beijing's CCTV Tower.

Structural engineer Bill Baker in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) claims the Burj will be the tallest building in the world once completed in 2008 (around 160 floors rising over 2,600 feet). And Arup's Cecil Balmond, the lead structural engineer on Rem Koolhaas's and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture's CCTV, also to be completed in 2008, has called that building the most structurally complicated he's ever designed. Tall or dazzling, both towers are icon-making tools, visual propaganda for political states in the throes of expansion. Be careful what you wish for.

The Burj and CCTV also willfully rebuke America's assumptions of skyscraper preeminence, despite the fact that both projects--like so many others today--represent global design teams with significant American contributions. The computer doesn't care where you are, and so-called building information models (BIM), heartily embraced by firms such as SOM, Arup, KPF, Buro Happold, and FXFOWLE, promise to further simplify and concretize the collaborative design process. But that is a problem internal to architecture and engineering, entirely solvable through the market (just ask Autodesk and Bentley), whereas getting the tall or dazzling project built remains at the mercy of so many bureaucrats and businessmen.

Market and regulatory demands have become so perilous for skyscraper interests in the States--epitomized by the flawed process at the WTC site--that many domestic observers and fans of the typology have given up expecting anything more than mediocrity, or what we could start calling the "Miami Effect." Hence, the media has a tendency to skirt past the tiny subject of democracy--not to mention safe job-site conditions and fair employment regulations--when raving about the "just-get-it-done" spectacles of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, Beijing, and so on. Conversely, if architecture needs Communism to realize a project like CCTV, what exactly did it require to accomplish what we are developing at Ground Zero?

Many eyes will stay trained on SOM's developing Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China, the first "net" zero-carbon skyscraper designed to produce its own energy. The project represents the kind of optimism (and PR maneuver) that used to define American skyscrapers--neither the firm's Burj nor its Freedom Tower at the WTC can compare to the performance-based innovations planned for Pearl River. There are still many in the design world, however, who doubt the project, since true building performance remains somewhat of a guessing game, especially for skyscrapers. It's telling that there are few, perhaps less than a dozen, proposed tall buildings in the world designed with the strategies of Pearl River. When there is no precedent, clients get nervous.

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.

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.