14 aug 11  | New York Magazine


By Justin Davidson

At the Skyscraper Museum, a reminder of why we keep reaching for the clouds.

he plan reads like a parody of hubris: Five years from now, a billion-dollar, glass-clad needle will rise a full kilometer, nearly 3,300 feet, into the sky above the Arabian shore at Jeddah. Kingdom Tower, stitching together the House of Saud and the reign of Heaven, will surpass by more than 50 stories the world-record-holder, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which is in turn 62 stories taller than the current No. 2 (Taipei 101). How quickly the fantastical becomes routine! Thanks to bravura technological leaps, majestic egos, and—even now—waterfalls of money, Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of a mile-high tower is coming into view.

But why? A decade ago, the destruction of the World Trade Center briefly made skyscrapers seem like brontosaurs, too huge and fragile to survive; why offer fresh targets? The whole endeavor seemed insane.

It’s not, though. There are now 47 buildings (complete or under construction) that are taller than the Empire State, plus the newly ­announced Kingdom Tower. “Supertall!,” a burst of excited clarity in the tiny but ambitious Skyscraper Museum, makes the logic clear. Any one skyscraper may spring from vanity and bluster (generous vices that also bequeathed us the pyramids of Giza), but the urge for height is growing more intense, and it is pushing architects and builders to spellbinding levels of invention and, yes, beauty. Let emirs erect ozone-scrapers on the dunes for their self-glorification. The lessons learned there will be applied in China, which needs as many as 50,000 new high-rises—ten Manhattans—by 2025, for the hundreds of millions of people pouring in from the countryside. China has nowhere to go but up … and up, and up.

Admittedly, most of this height will be concentrated in forests of merely tallish towers, erected by hurried builders. “Supertall!” is concerned not with those but with the halo projects, the outliers whose visibility and budgets make them objects of human aspiration (vanity’s virtuous twin). New technology has made these monsters less impractical than they once were, and allowed their builders to convince their backers and themselves that they are more than just urban ultra-bling. Once, the highest-rising skyscrapers—steel structures clothed in curtain walls or masonry and braced by floor slabs—stopped being profitable above 80 stories or so, whereupon columns and elevator cores ate up too much floor space. Today, they are slender concrete pillars, hung with glass skirts and supporting a lightweight birdcage-like enclosure above. Floorplate-hogging offices occupy the lower stories. At the top, the tower narrows into penthouse ­duplexes, multilevel atriums, and hotel ­aeries—functions that call for lots of windows and little physical depth.

The whole arrangement yields a vertical village in which people can commute by elevator, shop, and even make a quick vacation getaway to the Potentate Suite on the 150th floor. Such polyfunctional buildings—the 21st-century version of the apartment above the store—are all over Asia but exotic here: New York’s only true multiuse tower is the relatively stumpy Time Warner Center.

The exhibit shows that height can come in forms of idiosyncratic beauty. The best of the highest keep their conflicting pressures in equilibrium. The inherited precepts of modernism and the economics of repetitive construction nudge the architecture toward seamless simplicity. But design software and the demand for distinctiveness lead in the direction of complexity. These competing forces have birthed a crop of tapering towers with sinuous shells, rising in glassy whorls that help scatter high-­altitude winds into harmless eddies.

For the Al Hamra Firdous Tower in ­Kuwait City, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill enfolded a stone-clad core in a glamorous glass wrap. The shell is practical: Curving window-walls get Persian Gulf views, and the ­masonry façade turns back the blasting sun. Computers mapped out the curtain wall’s optimum drape, and the engineering looks natural, yielding poetry. The glass robe, which seems to veil an inner musculature, peaks at the top as if plucked by some celestial finger.

The new configurations of technology, economics, and population density help rationalize but don’t fully explain the supertall boom, since it still makes more financial sense to place two Empire State Buildings next to each other than to lift one on the other’s shoulders. So yes, these projects have more than a whiff of megalomania; intricate technologies are being lashed to the same primal lust for height that makes a small boy keep reaching for the next branch as he climbs a tree.

In our part of the world, that ­urgency has dissipated amid economic distress, slow urban growth, and a vibrant culture of protest that greets each new pretender on the skyline as an outrage. The only supertall under construction in the U.S. is One World Trade Center, a stodgy design when seen next to the coiled Shanghai Tower or Wuhan’s aerodynamic Greenland Center. It’s tempting to sneer at the reckless arrivistes who pay for such follies or the tiny coterie of Western architects who keep beating each other’s height records, or their own (like Kingdom Tower’s Adrian Smith, who also designed the Burj Khalifa). But though this exhibit looks lasciviously into the future, it also recalls the days when New York and Chicago elbowed each other in a race to the top of the sky. Our aging cities could use a rejuvenating shot of lunatic ­ambition.

At the Skyscraper Museum.
Through January 2012