Skyscrapers Are Still Towers of Strength

Project Description

Skyscrapers Are Still Towers of Strength

by Edwin Heathcote, Oct 5, 2009 [View PDF]

Eight years ago the future of skyscrapers seemed more in doubt than at any time in their century-old history.

The destruction of the Twin Towers using airliners piloted by former engineering student Mohammed Atta and others was a deliberate attack on an architecture that had come to represent western liberal capitalism.

The very name, the World Trade Center, embodied an idea of internationalism and placed Manhattan firmly at the centre of a seemingly unstoppable new world order.

The attacks killed 3,000 people, but they were as much symbolic as visceral, an assault on the modern metropolis.

The rebuilding process was fraught and emotional. Should there be no new buildings, only memorials? A park? A landscape of memory? Or should the city rebuild, even higher, in defiance of terror, in defence of freedom?

The new tower, conceived by Daniel Libeskind, would be 1776ft tall, an embodiment of liberty and would be known as the Freedom Tower.

In time, the title was dropped – perhaps it would have been too obvious a magnet for another attack.

Later, the ambition and the architecture itself were dropped, and what will rise now will be a model of corporate compromise, crowning arguably the world’s most visible and controversial construction site.

The new tower, bland and unambitious, has been designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the big US architecture and engineering firm.

It is, then, a great irony that the same architects have completed the greatest skyscraper of our age, not in New York, not in the firm’s home city of Chicago, the birthplace of the skyscraper, but in that new symbol of the failures of a capitalism based on boom and bubble, Dubai.
It appears that December has been set as the opening date for the Burj Dubai, by far the world’s tallest building at more than 800m (an astonishing 300m taller than the Taipei 101 tower which previously held the record).

If skyscrapers have largely descended into a competition merely to differentiate themselves from each other, Burj Dubai is an elegant and compelling structure.

Built as a series of bundles which taper as the building rises (a structural device to give the building stability in strong winds) the tower spirals up to an impossibly fine crown and now dominates Dubai in a way in which, perhaps, no other building in the world can claim to monopolise the skyline.

It is a persistent irony that the biggest skyscrapers take so long to build that – almost inevitably – they can be conceived only in a boom and are completed only in a bust.

It is a model that saw the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building open in the Great Depression; the World Trade Center open during the 1970s oil crisis and at the moment when New York became bankrupt; and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur opening in the midst of the Asian banking crisis.

But those skyscrapers just keep coming back. Europe’s tallest is under construction in London. Renzo Piano’s Shard of Glass on the south side of London Bridge promises radically to transform the south London cityscape. At 310m and 72 storeys it will be nearly twice as tall as Lord Foster’s Gherkin, still the city’s most innovative and seductive skyscraper.

And the Shard is not alone – planning permission has been granted for a surprising number of towers in and around the City of London.

These include Gerald Ronson’s 37-storey Heron Tower, by architects Kohn Pedersen Fox, the same designers’ “Helter Skelter” and Rafael Viñoly’s “Walkie Talkie”. Adding a number of tall residential towers, the city’s skyline is going through its most tumultuous change in half a century.

Manhattan too, so stunned by the terrorist attacks, has proved resilient. Innovative residential towers by the world’s most inventive architectural minds have appeared or are scheduled to start rising, most notably residential towers by Herzog & de Meuron and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).

However, Jean Nouvel’s exquisite design for a slender tower beside the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – which would have risen as high as the Empire State Building – now looks like being reduced in height by nervous planners.

East Asia has now supplanted the Gulf once more in the race for outlandish towers. The twisting, slender and surprisingly subtle Shanghai Tower by Gensler is under construction and, at 127 storeys, will be among the world’s tallest.

Most unusual, though, is another OMA tower. The recent announcement of the MahaNakhon Tower in Bangkok, by OMA’s Ole Scheeren, destined to be that city’s tallest skyscraper, has been causing ripples as other projects collapse.

The 77-storey, 313m tower will contain a blend of hotel, commercial and residential accommodation but its main innovation is in the way lead architect Ole Scheeren allows the architecture to decay back into the cityscape below.

The usual Thai tower pattern accommodates parking at its base (underground parking is made too expensive by a high water table) which disengages the building from the street, effectively killing the streetscape at its base.

The MahaNakhon begins to fragment into a series of planes and smaller blocks as it reaches the ground, creating a busy, active landscape of urban engagement which can house a wide range of cafes and restaurants to enliven the streetscape.

Unusually, the proposal envisages a decay and fragmentation running through the building, which appears to become infected by the chaos and unpredictability of the streets and the city below.

The building itself is an extruded box of the type familiar from the Twin Towers but its perfection is eroded, pixellated, as if something had smashed through it.

It is an extraordinary image which brings us right back to the indelible image of the collapsing towers.

Skyscrapers, despite the threats and despite the exhortations of the green movement and often, the lack of economic logic, seem to be here to stay.