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Old July 7th, 2006, 06:25 PM   #1
hkskyline
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The Rise and Fall of the Skyscraper

The rise and fall of the skyscraper
As the world's tallest buildings reach ever higher into the sky, They present awesome symbols of power and prestige. But, wonders Rowan Moore, where has the magic gone?
By Rowan Moore
25 June 2006
The Sunday Telegraph

QUICK: WHAT'S THE TALLEST BUILDING IN the world? The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur? The Sears Tower in Chicago? Something in Hong Kong? Wrong, wrong and wrong: it is Taipei 101 in Taiwan, an odd faceted thing which is supposed to resemble stacked-up gold ingots, and whose 700,000-ton weight is thought by some to be causing earthquakes in the area. It hit the headlines only when Alain Robert, the French Spiderman, climbed its exterior.

Most people would not know the answer to this question, yet almost everyone has heard of the Empire State Building which, at the age of 75, is now merely the ninth tallest building in the world.

They would also instantly recognise the Empire State's shape, and many would recognise the Chrysler Building, the world's number 23, yet very few could identify the CITIC Plaza, Guangzhou (number seven), or Shun Hing Square, Shenzen (number eight).

Now for another question which, since I'm sorry to interrupt your Sunday with an exam, I'll make an easy one: name a film that features the Empire State Building. King Kong, Sleepless in Seattle, Manhattan, the films without number where it dominates the establishing shot that tells you you're in New York, would all be correct answers. Now answer the same question in relation to Taipei 101. Umm ...

Skyscrapers, in other words, aren't what they used to be. They may be higher than ever, and sprouting in unprecedented numbers in the Far East, in Dubai and possibly in London, but the magic and romance that once attached themselves to the world's tallest, like starlets around a matinee idol, have receded. There is something a little weary about each new announcement that some city or other, whether in Asia or America, is planning to break the record.

One reason for this is that big engineering is no longer exciting. The Empire State Building was created in 1931, in an era of bridges, dams and great ships, when boys' books were filled with tales of the daring and ingenuity behind their making. They were unprecedented and defied comprehension. Only 50 years earlier, the world's tallest building had been Cologne Cathedral - at about 500 ft, much less than half the Empire State's height. These days the world's most exciting inventions are on the microscopic scale, and are made of silicon not steel.

Now it is as routine to put up something tall as it is to build a bridge or a dam. The techniques haven't moved on much, either, but are essentially updated versions of those of 70 years ago. Sure, it is difficult to go dramatically higher than the heights reached in 1930s - Taipei 101, at 1,670 ft, is only a third taller than the 1,250 ft Empire State - but the limitations are prosaic. They include the difficulty of getting enough lifts to service high buildings, and stopping towers from inducing nausea by swaying too much at the top.

The decline in towers' symbolic potency has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise in the desire to use them as symbols. The classic New York towers, the Empire State, the Chrysler, the Woolworth buildings, included doses of self-conscious boosterism in their creation, but they now read primarily as spontaneous expressions of ebullient American capitalism.

The Petronas Towers, by contrast, were deliberate attempts by a state-owned company to help market the prime minister Mohammad Mahathir's vision of a modern Malaysia. As a result they have an air of contrivance, like an unusually large and expensive press release. They do not impart the illusion, as the Manhattan skyline does, that you are witnessing an implacable natural phenomenon.

The same might prove true of the Freedom Tower, the centrepiece of the proposed rebuilding of the World Trade Centre site in New York. From the earliest stages of the project, before competitions were held to find its architects, it was taken as a given that the Twin Towers should be replaced by new towers. It was a matter of pride, of showing terrorists that America could defy whatever they threw at it. As the Freedom Tower's name proclaims, its purpose could not be more symbolic.

It may also have been a little rash. It will take strong nerves to sit in the upper floors and not to flinch a little when a plane flies past, while the demand for huge amounts of office space in that part of Manhattan is slack. In retrospect, it might have been a more eloquent response to build a dignified and beautiful new district of Manhattan, but in the wake of 9/11 the American national mood wanted something stronger.

The competition was accordingly won by Daniel Libeskind's master plan, which included the Freedom Tower. Its height, with the symbolically significant figure of 1,776 ft, was to make it the world's tallest, although it is possible that it will be outstripped by developments in Dubai, of which more later. Now designed by the American practice SOM, it is intended, as New York's governor, George Pataki, put it, to 'reflect a soaring tribute to freedom and a bedrock commitment to safety and security'.

Its spire is designed to emit light 'as a New York beacon of freedom', in an abstracted and conscious emulation of the Statue of Liberty's torch. Like the Petronas Towers, the twisted shaft of the Freedom Tower might become an elegant object on the city skyline, but it will lack the air of epic inevitability that classic New York skyscrapers impart. It will be too much like propaganda.

When towers become seen as monuments they tend also to become more aloof. The great Manhattan towers rise sheer and dramatically from the pavements, making them upward extensions of the teeming streets which they help to animate; much of their power is rooted in the counterpoint between the lone objects they become higher up and the urban fabric with which they are enmeshed lower down. Contemporary towers, by contrast, tend to stand in neutral plazas, lawns or car parks, the better to be admired, presumably. But in such colourless settings, the towers seem to sap energy from their surroundings.

Yet for all this, the myth of the tower is not dead. People have dreamt of building tall at least since Imhotep, the world's first named architect, laid one platform on another to create the step pyramid at Saqqara (for which, in contrast with the mere peerages that architects now win, he was deified). Some 4,700 years later, the urge to go up is hardly likely to disappear now.

It just needs some reinvention, and two current trends show how it might be done. One is exemplified by Dubai, whose government has set out to recycle its oil wealth into creating a supercharged financial and tourism centre. Its plan has already engendered three towers in the world's top 30, including the Burj-al-Arab, the 1,000 ft sail-shaped 'eight star' hotel that has become an icon of the city. It has also created Sheikh Zayed Road, known locally as Refrigerator Row, for the way that towers are lined up like domestic appliances.

The pinnacle of the new Dubai will be the proposed Burj Dubai (motto: 'Throughout history, only a handful of towers have had the power to change history') whose height is being kept secret lest competitors seek to surpass it, but is likely to hit 2,500 ft, or double the Empire State.

Thus far we are in the Petronas territory of using state-backed construction as a grandiose marketing tool, but Dubai stands out for the sheer stupendous audacity and scale of the project. Burj Dubai will not, as others have done, creep the world record up by notches, but blow it away. Nor is Dubai relying solely on the well-worn device of 'the World's Tallest Building', but making it the culminating rocket in a gigantic urban firework display that includes artificial palm-shaped and world-map-shaped islands (famous before they are even finished), an indoor ski-slope made with real snow in a desert country, a huge airport and giant shopping malls, not to mention the world's richest horse race.

The guiding principle is excess, the aim to create an instant legend, and they are succeeding in both. They will certainly make movies about Dubai, possibly involving terrorist plots to blow the whole lot to smithereens, and the Burj Dubai will certainly be more famous than Taipei 101. Its only drawback as a model for other cities is that it requires both colossal supplies of petrodollars, and an autocratic government determined to spend them in this way.

The second intriguing trend in tower building is for them to be more than just towers. Most contemporary skyscrapers are simply stacks of offices or flats, which are then decorated with a flashy external surface and a faintly striking shape, such as a sliced-off top, a triangular plan, some bulbousness or pointy bits. Some, however, like the Mori Building now being built in Shanghai or London's Shard of Glass, are more like internalised cities, with a hotel, offices, flats, shopping and, in the case of the Mori, an art gallery, all brought together within their interior.

To date, these multi-functional towers have been given the same sort of wrappers as those that just have offices, but the potential is there to counter skyscrapers' most contradictory feature: the contrast between their external drama and the ennui of their internal lobbies and lifts. By bringing together different activities, towers could, although it hasn't happened yet, become more vital and surprising places.

Better still, they could become less predictably tower-shaped, following a pattern set by Rem Koolhaas's headquarters for Central Chinese Television in Beijing, now under construction. At 700 ft it's not exactly small, but the design eschews the normal shaft shape for a kind of cranked rectangular tube, with an opening in the centre, that is something like a giant Chinese character. The intention, which may or may not survive the management policies of a state-run television station in a totalitarian state, is to get away from the treatment of a tower as a sealed box and create a more dynamic relationship with the surrounding city.

What is needed, in other words, is imagination. Skyscrapers, bizarrely, are still presented by their architects as icons of modernity, even though their golden age overlapped the era of silent movies. (Imagine Spielberg telling us that a film is really new and modern because it has a soundtrack.) Given the venerable age of the Empire State Building, it's time architects and developers thought of something new. They owe it to both the city dwellers and the cineastes of the future.

Rowan Moore is the director of the Architecture Foundation, whose exhibition on tall buildings, 'Airspace', is at 350 Euston Road, London NW1 until July 14; www.airspaceweb.com
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Old July 7th, 2006, 07:27 PM   #2
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These days the world's most exciting inventions are on the microscopic scale, and are made of silicon not steel.
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