Does The Race for Tallest Building Still Make Sense?

Europe Tallest BuildingNot a civilization to be thwarted by things like gravity, we have yet to be satisfied with the presentation of our ability to build farther and farther above the ground. Renzo Piano’s recently completed “Shard” now casts its long shadow over London as the tallest building in the European Union. Similarly, China recently announced plans to construct the tallest building in the world that will house an estimated 100,000 people. At one time, the cultural backdrop of new technologies brought a degree of pride for having the zenith of a new tower loom so far above the streetscape, but in a society where skyscrapers have been around for a while building new super skyscrapers begs the question of why we are building things so tall. At a certain point, tall is tall. Some of these new developments are operating at heights that have greatly surpassed the efficiencies of density and require much more energy to construct per square foot than smaller towers.

Starting the Journey Upward

At the end of the 19th century, thousands of years of evolution in design and construction had culminated to the Philadelphia City Hall, the tallest masonry building in the world at 548 feet–a title it holds to this day. Completed in 1901 and designed by John McArthur Jr., the walls at the base are up to 22 feet thick to distribute the weight of the stone tower above. All at once the building was marking a new record for an ancient construction method, but also the end of an era nonetheless.

Tallest Masonry StructureShortly afterwards, the advances made in structural steel construction opened up new options for our built environment. Combined with the demonstration of the modern elevator by Elisha Otis at the Crystal Palace in 1854, steel made the future of the skyscraper a reality. The Philadelphia City Hall was originally designed to be the world’s tallest building, but by the time the final stones were laid it was already surpassed by the Washington Monument and the steel of the Eiffel Tower (though neither are technically considered a building). From 1908 (the Singer Building) to 1974 (the World Trade Center) New York City climbed over itself to continuously hold the prestige of the world’s tallest building. The torch was briefly handed to Chicago’s Sears Tower before it left the country to Malaysia, then Taiwan and finally the United Arab Emirates with Burj Khalifa (my feelings about the tower mirror those of greater Dubai).

When the race began in earnest for non-secular buildings, it was a markedly different time in America. The explosion of the industrial revolution lead to capabilities that opened new doors that designers were eager to explore. At a time of embracing the machine age planes, trains, boats and buildings were icons of American economic strength . To the eyes of the world a new gleaming spire reaching farther into the sky was not just pointing higher, but ahead as a compass to the future of urban civilization. In the words of author and scholar Richard Pells:

“…in reaction to the accelerating pressures of commerce and white-collar work, a distinctive American architecture emerged, one that carrier fewer reminders to distant cultures and eras. America’s businessmen needed not just banks and factories but office buildings–the taller the better to shuffle the mounting piles of paper, operate the new telephones and typewriters, monitor the stock prices on Wall Street and dispatch merchandise all over the planet.”

The excitement fueling the pursuit of higher buildings was also the excitement of the unknown. Vertically driven cities were a new archetype that brought possibilities of new densities and proximities, offering a novel experience for urban dwellers with the concentration of more people. Today, almost a century later, the notion of vertical towers has matured and been studied by countless professionals. Where we once were only enamored by the possibilities of skyscrapers, we are now also acquainted with their drawbacks. As pinnacles are stretching farther and farther away from the streetscape, it begs the question of whether or not continuing to push the limit for its own sake is a valiant pursuit or merely a wasteful folly.

Interestingly enough, there is a common thread that ties together some of these buildings comprising the elite stratosphere neighborhood. The Burj Khalifa resides in the heart of Dubai, a young city that has exploded into destination of excess overnight. The owners of the Shard are not British, but hail from Qatar in the United Arab Emirates. The architect of the Sky City One is actually not Chinese, but a resident of Dubai. Coincidence perhaps?

To Build or Not to Build

On one hand, taller buildings do facilitate a series of advantages that come with the creation of an urban condition. Cities provide densities of people that allow for a high efficiency of infrastructural systems. Alternative transit is most successful in places where a critical mass of people can promote its regular use. Cities tend to be more diverse in their populations and the consequence of so many people in such proximity is that a larger number of activities and experiences are within a shorter distance. With so many systems overlaid, I would argue that cities parallel the qualities of an ecosystem more than a suburban counterpart.

High-rise construction has also garnered its series of critics over time. Architect and author Christopher Alexander argued against skyscrapers since the beginning of his career, noted prominently in  A Pattern Language.

“…high rise living takes people away from the ground and away from the casual, everyday society that occurs on sidewalks and streets and on gardens and porches. It leaves them alone in their apartments. The decision to go out for some public life becomes formal and awkward; and unless and unless there is some specific task that brings people out in the world, the tendency is to stay home alone.”

**It’s worth noting that although the author is targeting high rise urban development, a lot of this could be describing American suburban communities perfectly.

Frederick Kiesler Alexander ultimately lobbied for no buildings over four stories tall, marking it as the limit that a person can live and still have a connection to the streetscape. Thom Mayne questioned the necessity or applicability of new skyscrapers in the Morphosis scheme for the World Trade Center redevelopment plan. The vertical component of the scheme is actually a false tower—a radio tower and media installation—while the real square footage of redevelopment occurs in horizontal forms closer to the streets. According to Thom Mayne, “Lineal buildings offer a cohesive living environment with social interactions and urban connectivity that traditional towers cannot offer with their limited interaction with the streetscape.”

To be fair, it is worth noting that although the Shard is tall for western Europe, it is not in the same realm as the competition for the world’s tallest. Not only is the Burj Khalifa over twice as tall as Renzo Piano’s glass spire, but there are 15 other skyscrapers in Dubai that are taller as well.

A City in a Bottle?

Before going to prove that one can build a city within a building, a better question may be whether or not this is a good idea at all? Part of the reason that taller buildings still serve as part of a city is because the height of the Empire State Building or One Bryant Park do not keep their workers from populating the street. The daily cycles of commuting, working and eating bring all of the occupants in and out of the building to help comprise the hustle and bustle of the urban realm. These buildings ultimately bring people to the streetscape and local business, not detract from it.

Conversely, an autonomous building that can function independently plays a questionable role in the city around it. A tower that houses an entire city within its walls truly fulfills Alexander’s dreadful predictions. The immediate reference would be Paolo Soleri’s Arcologies. The 1960’s notion baked all of the necessary components of a city into a single form in an effort to combat sprawl. In the end, proposals like this don’t work as interactive components of the cityscape as much as isolated bubbles of habitation–about as sustainable and ecologically relevant as a terrarium.

The Diminishing Returns of Density Efficiency

The Chinese tower, dubbed Sky City One, is pitching its merits on a basis of efficiency. Developer BSB (Broad Sustainable Building if you can believe it) is targeting the height of 838 meters in order to surpass the Burj Khalifa by 10 meters. At an anticipated 220 stories with 1 million square feet, the tower appears to be enormous with the goal of providing homes to 100,000 people–truly a city within a building (for reference, the Burj Khalifa is designed to hold +/-35,000). By some miracle only possible in a communist society, the projected cost of the building is $628 million compared to the £1.5 billion price tag on London’s Shard. As if all of that isn’t enough, the developer plans to build the entire structure in 90 days. (BSB was the same company that constructed a 30 story building in 15 days).

china tallest towerWhile Alexander may be demarcating the more extreme end of the spectrum, it is undeniable that amazingly tall buildings require more and more energy to build and operate, causing the density and efficiency arguments to break down. To use a basic example, the task of getting water from the ground to the top of the building. For most buildings in a city like New York, the pumps used to push water up through a building are usually located in the basement. However, the farther you need to battle gravity in a single pipe run the more pressure you need to put in the pipe. As one of the Shard’s engineers notes, at a certain height “it becomes little dangerous. There’s kind of a worry about things failing. At that pressure, they can fail quite catastrophically.” For functionality’s sake, the only real solution appears to be to spread pump rooms and tanks throughout the building so each pump only needs to push the water so high. However, this means more pumps, more tanks and more energy.

Another facet of such a point load of development is whether or not the city in question can handle the infrastructure needs required to maintain it. While London can most likely accommodate the Shard, Dubai’s infantile infrastructure was no where near capable of handling the sewage needs of the Burj Khalifa and its brethren. What is the solution, one might ask? Trucks… lots of trucks. Everyday hundreds of tanker trucks transport sewage out of the city to treatment plants, sometimes waiting as long as 24 hours in line. So the city can revel in the fact that they can build the tallest tower in the world in the middle of the desert but they cannot create a sewage system to support their own city…

BSB champions the energy saving nature of its buildings due to quadruple glazed windows and hyper-insulated walls, but the fact is that those same measures can be employed on any building to drastically decrease energy use. So what exactly are we gaining from these mega structures besides bragging rights? Views? Are we striving to build a building tall enough to see the curvature of the earth? While it is nice to know that the goal of the world’s tallest building has been satiated in the U.S. (at least for now) developments like these are pointing in the opposite direction of sustainability.

One could argue that these new towers are serving the same purpose for newer cities as the older ones once did:  a symbol of progressive and economic vitality. But has our barometer of success evolved as little as to still be encapsulated by this message? Our cities are increasingly judged not only by their vertical fortitude, but their capacity for sustained commerce, the development of a viable alternative transit system, a mature infrastructural network and depth of cultural diversity. Today, even things like ample public greenspace, clean energy production and urban food growth are beginning to separate the cities of yesterday from the cities of tomorrow. We need to make sure we continue to reinforce the reality that urban systems function and grow as a collection of systems that need to be constructed and maintained in tandem.

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