30 nov 08 | The Columbus Dispatch

Tall tales: ever higher buildings reflect solutions for the future

By Bill Eichenberger

Skyscrapers split the sky in two -- and polarize folks on the ground: those who love 'em, and those who hate 'em.

You can count author Judith Dupre in the pro camp. The author of Skyscrapers: A History of the World's Most Extraordinary Buildings, a new edition of her 1996 book, stands before her subject full of wonder and awe. "We need buildings, not only to survive, but to thrive," Dupre said recently by e-mail. "I began to wonder what would the world look like if we felt as comfortable with architecture as we do with, say, food. We know what we like to eat and can navigate a menu whether at McDonald's or the Four Seasons."

"But for many, shelter, and by extension architecture, eludes this same sense of familiarity. All of my books have focused on introducing -- welcoming -- the general public into the conversation about the built environment. Good design, whether of a teapot or a skyscraper, is an inalienable human right. The best skyscrapers foster human interaction and enable the creation of community."

Dupre answered questions for The Dispatch.

Q: The Burj Dubai, the world's tallest tower, will rise about 2,625 feet. How much higher do you think humans will go? Or is "volume" more to the point these days -- as in what is to be the world's biggest building, Moscow's Crystal Island?

A: Certainly, the technology is in place to build much higher than we do now, and innovative ways of thinking about energy consumption and production are unfolding, quite brilliantly, in the minds of architects such as Adrian Smith and Norman Foster.

Foster's Crystal Island proposes to put about a square mile of land under a massive glass tent, a city within a city, that will house apartments, hotels, a school and a full range of urban amenities. However, the critical issue is density, rather than height or volume, as we consider ways to manage the exponential population growth of the future.

Q: Describe what you mean by "informed creativity" in building.

A: The oil and gas boom over the past years spawned a passion for brash skyscrapers, though, at the moment, the world is being given a chance to stop and reconsider these ambitious buildings.

It's clear that the skyscraper has to embody more than flash and serve higher goals than simply making money. The only way we are going to solve global growth is by creating greater density, and a proven way to create greater density is through skyscrapers. Coupled with a comprehensive green planning for gardens, parks and waterfront areas, skyscrapers can bring about a rich social and cultural infrastructure.

Q: Can you discuss the "greening" of skyscrapers during the past decade?

A: Adrian Smith's introductory interview in Skyscrapers gives a brilliant overview of the supertall vis-a-vis energy efficiency. Adrian and his partner, Gordon Gill, have announced recently that their firm will be "greening" the Sears Tower with a combination of energy-saving technologies, including photovoltaics, wind turbines and green roofs.

This will be the first supertall to be so retrofitted. Considering that the Sears consumes the energy equivalent of 9,000 SUVs a day, that's a good thing.

Q: What has changed most in the skyscraper world since your book came out 12 years ago?

A: There's a new understanding, with more than half of the world's population living in urban areas, that the tall building is the most intelligent way to use land and encourage the joy of human connection.

And, I was thrilled to be able to include the new Aqua tower in Chicago, designed by Jeanne Gang and the first skyscraper to be designed by a firm headed by a woman.

Architects such as Gang and Zaha Hadid are creating buildings that are urban organisms, integrating themselves laterally into the surrounding city as they reach up into the skyline. Frankly, I'm surprised more women aren't designing tall buildings.

Lastly, the availability of sophisticated computer modeling programs and new composite materials have altered the physical look of the skyscraper, and have encouraged a greater collaboration between architects and their often-unsung partners, engineers.