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The Future of the Skyscraper

Last week, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Metropolis Books launched the SOM THINKERS series with The Future of the Skyscraper, featuring texts by Bruce Sterling, Tom Vanderbilt, Matthew Yglesias, Diana Lind, Will Self, Emily Badger, Dickson Despommier and New York based architecture critic and SHoP architects editorial director Philip Nobel, whose Introduction is excerpted below. This small, action-packed volume is already a favorite with booksellers, architects and designers. Stay tuned for future volumes including The Future of Transportation, The Future of Public Space and The Future of Environmental Issues!

The Future of the Skyscraper

By Philip Nobel

One hundred and sixty-three floors; 2,723 feet to the top of the spire. For a moment, and by a solid 745- foot margin, the tallest building in the world.

The Burj Khalifa’s statistics are well-known, numbers meant to impress us with their novelty, stand-ins for exceptional experience. But is it really something new, reaching farther into the sky? Is it truly a different world up there, so high above the terrestrial norm, gazing down on passing weather, or, on a clear day, as residents report, looking straight across the Persian Gulf to the distant shores of Iran?

When it was first occupied, half a decade ago, news organizations dutifully interviewed tenants
and owners, or invited some of the domestic aeronauts themselves to write their own reports. The results were universally and uniformly bland. Paeans to world-class service. Shout-outs to awesome
 views. Confronted by a technological product that encroaches on the sublime, even those closest to 
it could do little more than fall back on the mundane terminology of real estate. “There is an indoor and outdoor pool, a yoga room, a massage room, and gym for each set of floors,” an owner of several Burj apartments told a reporter. Only in one story,
 a first-person account prepared for The New York Times by an American couple living on the 98th floor, did we get a hint of something more: “This is a building that calls us... to be grand in our own aspirations, just as the building is itself.”

Grand in aspiration. Familiar in result. So what’s new at the bleeding edge of building tall? There is 
an incessant drive for height recorded in the history of architecture—a universal drive, as evident in Dubai as elsewhere today, that is not reducible to economic impulse alone. The tight grids and real estate constraints of Chicago and Manhattan gave us the earliest true skyscrapers, and a story to go with
 them that was less true but pleasing to modern minds looking for a rational justification for form. Ever-increasing height, we were taught, was but a direct, one-to-one effect of resource scarcity—too little land to satisfy too great a demand. Skyscrapers, however lofty and inspiring, were merely machines to multiply the value of their sites.

And yet there is a lot of room in Dubai. Set amid so much emptiness, on the very edge of untouched wilderness, no one can argue that it had to go 
so high to redeem an initial investment in a particular interchangeable bit of unbound desert. Our new very-tall towers carry with them that familiar twentieth-century mythos, and the timeless language of the mercantile, even as they are made possible
by means and methods that are decidedly twenty-first. Still, though they embody a complexity as cultural products that is shared by all architecture—at once an index of the social, political, material, economic, natural, aesthetic, and even emotional forces acting on a given chunk of land—the new supertalls, as
they have come to be known, demand consideration beyond other classes of buildings. We need to recon- sider the standard fables about what dictates their rising: though perhaps an argument could be made for accretive value, net gain by a city or a state, it’s not really about money.

Instead, this new cohort of superlative-straining towers makes plain an ancient emotional impetus that was a skyward pressure, too, on previous generations of tall buildings. Not dollars and cents. Not spreadsheets and leases and codes. Certainly not the litany of features through which an agent might sell of a piece of property in the sky. No, there’s something else driving the height race. Something primal, competitive, romantic, eternal: some consequence 
of human minds, hard-wired to love a prospect, a mountain, needing to be high to feel safe from threat, congenitally driven to manufacture a marker on the land—the higher the better, and better still if it can be the highest of them all.

Seen as they are, symptoms of a psychological need, skyscrapers are at once exceptional and deeply normative. Stunning and plain. In a word not often applied to assemblies of concrete, steel and cold glass, they can be seen to be deeply and essentially human.

Still, hobbled by decades of false economic justification, we lack the language now, the tropes, the theory, the mythology to assimilate our new skyscrapers; too much coverage is but some slightly elevated version of an observer raising eyes to a distant pinnacle, extending a shaking finger, rattling off empty statistics meant to awe.

Rallying adjectives to the cause is no better.
 To truly understand on their own terms, the ancient terms, the many Khalifa-class projects now under construction—buildings such as Jeddah’s Kingdom Tower (designed for 3,281 feet, or a clean kilometer), Suzhou’s Zhongnan Center (2,392 feet), and Shenzhen’s Ping An Finance Center (2,165), or the next super- or megatall coming not-at-all-figuratively over the horizon—we need to adapt our cultural rules to locate the experience of great height, as the residents of the Burj attempted, in a place that is of, not alien to, daily life. To date, these buildings have been well accommodated by the global economic development and engineering practices that beget them. The technical jargon has long been in place to define
 and describe them, resources at the ready to go yet higher. But before we do, it may be wise to truly know what we have. Supertalls must be accessioned into story. Into action and image. Into culture.

Over the last few years, that important work has in part fallen (I use the word advisedly here) to an international cadre of daredevil adventurers. As Philippe Petit did for the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center when he stepped out between them 1,300-odd feet over the hard lower Manhattan ground, his spiritual descendants today are putting their bodies on the line to act as vectors for our
 fears and dreams. Humanizing vectors—a troupe of young Russians, popularizing its illicit feats through the deft manipulation of social media, has made images of supertall spire-stands and cornice-hangs
 as much a part of the story of those buildings as 
the architects’ own cloud-piercing sunset renderings. Another gang of young aerialists made a fuss 
by breaking into and climbing The Shard before its completion—an essential episode in London’s long, noisy path to an understanding of that intrusive object’s place in its civic self-regard. Well before its opening, Manhattan’s One World Trade had several encounters with this sort of guerrilla culture-work. First when a team of B.A.S.E. jumpers took a short, spiraling parachute fall down from the top (recorded by GoPro and eventually shared on YouTube), and later when a New Jersey teenager crawled through 
a fence and strolled to the top to snap selfies (he
 was caught, given community service, and arrested again months later while climbing a water tower 
in Weehawken—undone by that undeniable human urge for heights). Those two modes of incursion, the latter lackadaisical, the former mad, were, before the building was occupied and the observation deck was open, the only means available at the time to bodily claim Manhattan’s highest point; lacking a twin, there is no place to stretch a rope.

Though it can hardly be encouraged—given the history of the site, the World Trade Center breaches were particularly high-risk—such acts of derring-do begin to signal a communal importance for these structures that goes well beyond the conventional mode in which they are inhabited or the manner in which they are typically celebrated from afar. Engines of industry, expressions of ego or will, tall towers
 are nonetheless, when they pierce the shared skies, intensely public. Without a stretch, they can be seen as works of a type—acting on ageless psychology, straining comprehension—that can be understood as public art. We can ask of them, then, artistic questions: What do we make of these things we make? What do they mean? But also, because architecture is forever tied by its own limitations to the limitless matrix of real life, we can ask of them questions of a political, economic and technological nature—as well as those questions, at once more universal and more intimate, that touch on the body and the mind and the soul. How grand are your aspirations?

Questions are at the center of this book, what 
is intended to be the first in a series that aims to look beyond the field of architecture and its familiar cadres to solicit the thoughts and opinions of those outside what is all-too-often an isolated subculture. Other volumes will address other types of buildings, or works of infrastructure, or urban settings. But they will employ a similar method to get at their respective "futures." The writing here is not oracular but practical—not false certainties but true takes— by observers free of the assumptions made by those directly involved in conceiving and realizing the spaces in which we live. Architecture, even as it sprawls between the domains of art and mind, technology and financial power, touching all the hot buttons and levers in each, has had, historically, a tendency to turn inward, to self-analysis rather than frank exploration when it faces big issues of cultural churn and change. This is not always a responsible strategy for a profession charged with no less than the construction of the arenas of life in an interdependent and increasingly trans-disciplinary world, and it is a great credit to SOM, in initiating and sponsoring this project, to have recognized that fact.

Here, then, we look forward, together—taking as a given that the close examination of past 
and present is essential not only to understanding, but to determining, the future. So we have Bruce Sterling, pioneering cyberpunk novelist and critic 
of technology, describing some possible futures that might shape future towers. His essay also serves 
as a primer on (or a master class in) how to think like a futurist—a responsible futurist in the contemporary mode, wary of the futurism of the last century and before, that, in its drive to transcend the present, might verge close to fantasy. He presents 
a choose-your-own-adventure of politically- and economically-aware cultural possibilities for architecture, some of them terrifying in their nearness.

That will be useful training as we peer up at skyscrapers old and new, visit their highest floors, turn them this way and that to see them clear. Through the psychology (Tom Vanderbilt) and physiology (Emily Badger) of living and working on high. Through the lens of policy—politics and law—in the low-rise counter example of Washington, D.C. (Matthew Yglesias). Diana Lind tests the idea of tall against the expressed needs, more ground-hugging, of those spatially mundane but transformative new economy industries that may be the supertall clients of the future (but, perhaps tellingly, now are not). Will Self looks back to write forward toward a new understanding of the tower in the popular imagination—the themes and memes and dreads and dreams that, however much we wish to imagine ourselves in new cultural spaces, we only shake with great difficulty. But shake them we must: because the planet is imperiled, because consensus is forming that increased urban density may be one way to limit that peril, and, in much of the urbanized world, building more, and smarter, does still mean building high. Michael Govan offers up the artist Yuri Avvakumov and his plaintive House of Cards series as a way to see past the architecture of towers, perhaps more clearly, to the emotional forces that, in the final analysis, they must always address. To close the collection, we look beyond the tall building altogether. Dickson Despommier, the father of the vertical farm, shares here a comprehensive vision of an ecological future: one in which land is managed responsibly inspired by the genius of nature; one in which cities consolidate so that nature may be relieved of human pressures entirely; and one in which towers, perhaps supertall towers, would necessarily play a crucial role.

A final note on height. The Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has become the authority, the Oxford English and Guinness Book in one. It defines as "supertall" any tower that surpasses 300 meters (984 feet); as this is written, there are 73 examples scattered around the world, from the Capital City Tower in Moscow (990 feet) to the now-venerable Taipei 101 (1,667), once, now quaintly, the tallest building in the world. Anything higher than 600 meters (1,968 feet) is, per the CTBUH, "megatall." To date, the Burj Khalifa and the Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel
in Mecca are built; nine others are under construction or seriously proposed. It’s a comforting, scientistic way to parse the numbers. Yet, as in all efforts to categorize human endeavor, something essential is lost in the categories. Perhaps in time we’ll get
 to a point where data flows so free and so true that engineers will be able to model fear and desire 
and confusion and joy, combine those forces parametrically and pull the product of their equations
 up into a cloud-piercing spire. Perhaps in time it will become true that towers are really only about
 the bottom line. But until then, it will fall to architecture to creatively and responsibly manage those qualities of the human mind, and to observers of architecture, such as those writing here, to question it.
The Future of the Skyscraper
The Future of the Skyscraper
The Future of the Skyscraper
The Future of the Skyscraper
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The Future of the Skyscraper

The Future of the Skyscraper

The Future of the Skyscraper

Pbk, 4.25 x 7 in. / 144 pgs / 7 color.


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