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Skyscraper Envy

Is our instinctual desire to build higher preventing us from building better?

Is our instinctual desire to build higher preventing us from building better?

The day after the attacks on the World Trade Center, I was asked to write a feature for the Guardian on whether or not the skyscraper had a future. My commissioning editor called for 2,000 words. I said I only needed one: "Yes."Since 9/11, new office, hotel, and residential towers have soared above skylines worldwide as never before. Many of Shanghai's 2,900-plus buildings over 18-stories have been commissioned and built since 2001. These human termite nests are a virulent form of architectural bacteria; to date-nothing, no vaccination, no cure-seems able to prevent their apparently inexorable spread. And, for all the brave talk of the ways they make optimum use of plots in crowded city centers, skyscrapers are, sadly, never really "green."There are examples of skyscrapers that do their best to be environmentally sound: Lord Norman Foster's Commerzbank in Frankfurt (Western Europe's tallest building), or several in the Far East designed by Dr. Ken Yeang, the distinguished Malaysian architect and author of the rigorous new book Ecodesign. But, over lunch in the long shadow of the campanile of Venice's St. Mark's Basilica, Yeang told me that a skyscraper could never achieve true sustainability. What about the adventurous twin-spired Bank of America tower, designed by Cook+Fox, currently under construction on New York's Sixth Avenue? It features wind turbines, low-energy lighting, the use of rainwater for flushing toilets, and a host of other sustainable technologies. "Exactly," says Yeang. "It will be a good skyscraper as far as skyscrapers go, but what you're talking about is environmental 'add-ons.'" In other words, you can make a skyscraper green(ish) by spending prodigiously on advanced environmentally friendly technology; but why not consider a simpler form of building in the first place?
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These human termite nests are a virulent form of architectural bacteria.
The answer is that these SUVs of architecture are built for irrational reasons. Aspiration. Greed. Competitiveness. Braggadocio. Vanity. Skyscrapers also appeal to us at a primal level. My daughter, like children everywhere, could build a tower of wooden blocks before she could walk. Perhaps towers have something to do with our innate human desire to stand upright, to reach up into space. As soon as they were able, early humans began to build towers, starting with the ziggurat temples of Sumer, rising from what is now the scorched and defiled landscape of southern Iraq.During a recent trip to New York, I was introduced to the oral archives of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. In particular, I remember the lilting voice of one animated Irishman describing his first view of the city. It was 1913. What he saw first was not, as you might expect, the Statue of Liberty. Instead, it was the Gothic shaft of the Woolworth Building.Newly completed, the Woolworth Building was 792 feet tall, far higher than the most ambitious Gothic cathedral back in old Europe. This sky-piercing "Cathedral of Commerce" was as much a symbol of New York as the Statue of Liberty, promising that young Irish immigrant not just freedom, but the chance to think big.But that was then. Today, given developments in new communications technology, we have little need of such buildings. We can work from clusters of modest buildings, yet readily keep in touch with one another. Instead of showy towers, we could build low-rise buildings with opening windows threading through underused parts of city centers, linked by sidewalks leading through sheltered courtyards alive with trees and birdsong.And yet, even an old city like London is about to be overshadowed by the latest generation of architectural Triffids. Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, came back from a recent trip to Shanghai, apparently shocked and awed by the glitz and glamour of this energetic city's vertiginous skyline. Now London is to go the way of Shanghai, with at least ten wacky new office towers-architectural Viagra to excite cocky city politi cians-about to sprout around St. Paul's Cathedral.Marshall McLuhan would have described this mutation of the First World City skyscraper into a thing of willful sensation as a "sunset effect"; when any era comes to an end, McLuhan suggested, it goes out with spectacular and colorful effects.Simplistic. Phallic. Undeniably glamorous. The skyscraper, no matter how we attempt to tame, or "green" it, belongs to an earlier era of economic and architectural history. And, yet, our desire to reach for the sky, and to show off, are as deeply rooted as the history of architecture itself.TALLEST The world's tallest building is currently the 101-story Taipei 101, in Taipei, Taiwan.REDUNDANCY the use of words or data that could be omitted without loss of meaning or function
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