Skyscrapr’d: The necessary corrective

If “the twentieth century should probably be considered the prehistory of the very tall building,” consider this, from Peter Buchanan in the Spring/Summer 2007 Harvard Design Magazine:

Is the tall building an anachronism? Does it, like sprawling suburbia and out-of-town shopping malls, seem doomed to belong only to what is increasingly referred to as “the oil interval,” that now fading and historically brief moment when easily extracted oil was abundant and cheap? The answer is probably “Yes,” particularly for the conventional freestanding, air-conditioned, artificially lit tower that guzzles vast amounts of energy and is built for short-term profit out of high-embodied-energy materials, many of them petroleum derivatives.

(Buchanan, deliciously, goes on to describe one or two projects currently under way as seeming like “last-fling sunset effects from a waning era when, beside the defects listed, towers helped create dismal cities and aptly symbolized their extreme economic and social inequalities.”)

You don’t have to be Jim Kunstler to accept the force of this argument. So why, other than ego-gratification and the perceived need to place in contests of the most childish sort, would anybody trifle with a typology so self-evidently doomed to obsolescence?

Well, it’s not as simple as all that. Buchanan goes on to complicate matters, inevitably, in a nuanced survey of the intersection between “green” and very tall building types in which the usual suspects are well-represented (various Norman Foster projects, SOM’s Pearl River Tower), although any mention of Ken Yeang‘s “bioclimatic” architecture is curiously absent.

The sense you take away is that there may in fact be some ecologically sound reasons for building up, including the undeniable efficiencies that can be derived from ultra-high density, and some benefits that are only achievable at all with supertall structures. And if the lovely optimism of the piece’s last line is probably unjustifiable (“There may be a few clusters of green towers here and there, but their presence might be limited in the compact and convivial cities of the future”), there’s still plenty of fodder here for those of us interested in reconciling responsible building practices with the sheer futuristic verve of XL.

The entire issue – titled, with synoptic sweep and no little humor, “New Skyscrapers In Megacities on a Warming Globe” – is worth tracking down. There’s a great Guy Nordenson piece on formal truth and rhetoric in tall buildings, a look at contemporary starchitect condo-branding practices highlighting the very pretty, but evidently underperforming, 40 Bond, and among too many other attractions to list, a scant two lines reminding me that I want to find out much more about Istanbul’s terrifying Kanyon, a Jerde project I’d only previously seen (celebrated) in surface.

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