Books Worth Reading
Skyscrapers: A History of the World’s Most Extraordinary Buildings
By Judith Dupré. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 176 pages
But recently, architecture had a rare moment in the sun when One World Trade Center in New York City was officially declared the country’s tallest building, causing a controversy to ensue.
As seen in this hilarious Daily Show clip, the incident ruffled the feathers of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanual, who wasn’t happy to have Chicago’s Willis Tower stripped of its “tallest” title. (Emanual took issue with a panel of experts that decided the antenna on top of One World Trade Center was a “spire” and thus eligible to be included when calculating height.)
British street artist Banksy also joined the dispute during his recent New York “residency.” Banksy further inflamed the debate when he wrote this rejected op-ed for The New York Times (posted on his own website) calling One World Trade Center “104 floors of compromise,” “a shy skyscraper,” “vanilla,” and an “eyesore,” and “something they would build in Canada.”
The minute I read Banksy’s op-ed and saw the Daily Show clip I knew who I wanted to talk to about the controversy: writer and architecture expert Judith Dupré.
Dupré‘s best-selling books Churches, Bridges, Monuments, & Skyscrapers have been personal favorites of mine since I met Judith at The MacDowell Colony many years ago. I’ve been craving a copy of her critically-acclaimed book Skyscrapers for ages. Although a half million copies of the book were sold, used copies of the first edition can be hard to find.
So when I learned that a revised, updated edition of Skyscrapers had just been published by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, I jumped at the chance to feature the book on Gwarlingo and to discuss the recent debate over One World Trade. (Skyscrapers was also one of the titles on my popular, year-end list of 26 Favorite Art, Photography, Film, & Design Books of 2013.)
The towering new edition, which stands 18 inches tall, celebrates the skyscraper in a chronological tour – spanning 125 years and circling the globe – of the world’s tallest buildings, designed by such star architects as Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Philip Johnson, Morphosis, Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano, and Christian de Portzamparc. Full-color photographs capture the monumental scale and larger-than-life personalities of more than 60 buildings, including One World Trade Center.
Dupré tackles such topics as the ancient roots of skyscrapers and visionary cities of the future, and the book includes interviews with Philip Johnson and Adrian Smith, designer of the Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building, and the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, soon to be the newest tallest and the first structure on earth to break the one kilometer mark.
Last month, Judith was kind enough to answer my questions about the World Trade Center controversy, the latest design innovations in architecture, conservation, and the skyscrapers that are her own personal favorites.
An Exclusive Interview with Judith Dupré
On One World Trade Center
Michelle Aldredge: The designation of One World Trade Center as the country’s tallest building has ruffled some feathers in recent weeks. Chicago’s mayor was unhappy about Willis Tower‘s demotion, and street artist Banksy recently made headlines when he said the building was “104 floors of compromise” and “something they would build in Canada.”
The design of the building has been a political quagmire for years, with Daniel Libeskind’s original competition-winning design being supplanted by David Child’s less asymmetrical and angular design. There are many masters to serve with this project, and it is extremely delicate given that the site is also a grave and memorial. Design by committee doesn’t always create impressive results.
We all get the symbolism of building tall again in response to 9/11, but what about aesthetics? As an architectural critic, what is your own response to the building? Is the building’s reputation resting on height alone? How do we begin to assess this building outside of its symbolism? Is the final version of One World Trade a “watered down” version of Libeskind‘s original design?
Judith Dupré: Your question reminds me of something Libeskind told me in interview in 2003, when he was at the pinnacle of his influence at Ground Zero, that bears repeating: “You learn from instances. You love certain things. You love the struggle of Michelangelo, for instance, to do a library, which he really failed to do, but you admire his tenacity, the genius and the spiritual quest.”
I love that Libeskind acknowledged something that every artist knows: every work of art is two-part: the vision and the completed reality, which, inevitably, falls short of the vision. Art will always be imperfect: that is the nature of making thought physical, and the nature too of human beings—stupid mistakes are made, geo-political turf is defended, money talks.
Like any great enterprise, One World Trade Center’s design was contested. As you note, it has to serve many masters—for starters, the site’s thousands of stakeholders, as well as a fair swath of the 8 million people who call New York City home—and it hasn’t even opened yet. Larry Silverstein, One WTC’s original developer, made a business decision, choosing Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as the building’s designers. His choice was hardly haphazard – SOM has designed six of the fourteen tallest buildings in the world and has been involved at the WTC site since it was a gleam in David Rockefeller’s eye some sixty years ago.
Context, in this case, mattered a good deal. One WTC responds appropriately to a complex site agenda. It doesn’t seek to overshadow the memorial at its feet or compete with Snøhetta’s design for the National September 11 Museum, or with Calatrava’s avian Transit Hub design, for that matter. True, it appears conservative, especially now that we are addicted to architectural iconicity, but One WTC designers faced a Janus task: to stand tall while avoiding any appearance of hubris.
There is much to like, even love, about this skyscraper. Like every SOM building, One WTC’s detailing is exceedingly fine, a trademark of the firm. The crystalline tower, sheathed in glass to catch the nuance of every passing cloud, wraps around a “super concrete” core that is stronger than steel. The square base echoes the bases of the original twin towers and evolves as it rises into an eight-sided obelisk, the obelisk being one of the most ancient of memorial forms. Future tenants will appreciate their offices, which are climate-controlled and filled with light, and, of course, the amazing views.
However, the design’s truest audacity is largely invisible to the eye. Its safety innovations, which anticipate a dark spectrum of worst-case scenarios, have already changed how skyscrapers around the globe are being built. This is a practical beauty, with a dignity and integrity that I believe will grow on people quite quickly. For me, having lived downtown for twenty years, One WTC fills the gaping hole in the skyline and in my heart.
On Favorite Skyscrapers
Michelle: Which skyscrapers are your personal favorites?
Judith: I’ve got two, very different favorites. One is the Eiffel Tower. Utterly useless, infinitely potent, it reflects humanity’s purest aspirations—a stairway to the sky with no other purpose than allowing a person to climb up and have a look around. Structurally, it is a masterwork, one that engineers still study to learn how to battle the force of wind.
The second is the Citicorp (now Citigroup) Center in Manhattan, especially the view one has of it looking east on 53rd Street. Its angled top was the first really new twist on the design of a skyscraper’s spire. Architect Hugh Stubbins was a visionary, designing this tower to accommodate both the public and St. Peter’s Church, which nestles underneath it. Built in the wake of the first oil crisis, it also incorporated early energy efficiencies.
On Design Innovations
Michelle: A lot has changed since the first edition of your book came out in 1996. What are some of the interesting technological innovations emerging today in skyscraper design?
Judith: While nothing quite says, “We’ve arrived,” like a skyscraper, their meaning has expanded beyond national pride and structural swagger. When Skyscrapers was first published, most skyscrapers were built in the U.S. There were very few in Asia, and virtually none in Europe. Today, the urban landscape is changing rapidly, seemingly overnight. Twenty buildings taller than the Empire State Building are now under construction in Asia, with some eighty “supertalls” (buildings more than 300 meters tall) to be completed by 2017.
Many believe these new supertalls portend exponential future change, as ever greater numbers of people move into cities. Rapid urbanization, coupled with environmental realities, is forcing a reconsideration of the tall building. Projects that address these issues include Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture’s Tianfu Great City, a prototypical satellite city, versions of which will be located outside of China’s major urban centers. Tianfu’s strategically clustered skyscrapers will house up to 80,000 people, allowing them close proximity to nature and easy walking distances (15 minutes) to school and work.
Done well, these cluster cities are a potential force for social good—everywhere, not just in developing countries. In addition to reducing energy consumption, these vertical communities could ease human loneliness, one of the great, rarely mentioned scourges that has emerged in the past fifty years as a result of suburban sprawl, splintered families, and the internet.
But it’s not a matter of tearing down buildings and replacing them with supertalls! All structures possess “embodied energy,” the energy that it took to construct the building, as well as the energy needed to make building materials, whether manufacturing steel or quarrying limestone, and transporting them. When you demolish a building, you’re throwing out all that embodied energy. Adapting an existing building is the greener option.
Recently, I read that the “Superman building” in downtown Providence, so called because it looked like a tower in the opening shot of the Superman TV show, is empty. My immediate thought was, Adapt it into an artist’s colony. Can you imagine – 26 floors of working space for artists! I love the image of a skyscraper full of artists. This also makes practical sense. The developer should earmark some of that space for artists, the presence of which inevitably drives up the value of real estate. Sign me up!
Harnessing the wind, the nemesis of supertalls, is creating a new skyscraper aesthetic. Greater ability to track and deflect wind, and gather its clean energy, are transforming skyscraper designs. Instead of traditional square sided buildings, we are seeing many marvelous structures, like Shanghai Tower, that twist and curve to shed wind loads.
Architects also are rethinking the sacrosanct concept of context, which calls for harmonizing with the existing structural fabric, in lieu of wisdom that is even older – the best design arises from working, as the ancients did, hand in hand with nature. For instance, deep foundations, another skyscraper requirement, permit designers to tap into geothermal energy for heating and cooling, much as our ancestors did. Think of the Anasazi structures in the Southwest, which are perfectly sited to take advantage of the sun, wind, and height.
Context won’t disappear completely—we need it to orient ourselves, make sense of city blocks—but the notion of a single aesthetic in architecture, in all visual forms, is no longer a given. I think the greatest silver lining of these new technologies is the strengthened bonds between architects and engineers who, more than ever, are joining forces to find aesthetically pleasing, environmentally astute solutions.
On Architecture as Public Art
Michelle: Tall buildings by their very nature are bold statements of industry, finance, ego, strength, nationalism, political power, etc. And there is no escaping tall buildings when you live in their shadow. I love Ada Louise Huxtable’s quote, “Size is not nobility; a monumental deal does not make a monument.”
Certain skyscrapers have attracted a great deal of criticism, such as the MetLife Building in New York City, not only because of their questionable designs, but also because of the way they block site lines, mar views, cast long, cold shadows over streets and parks, etc. One recent example is the controversy over the 143′ LG Tower to be built on the Palisades across the Hudson River from the Met’s Cloister’s Museum.
Architecture is such a public art, particularly skyscrapers. Do architects have an obligation to consider the impact of their designs on local communities and neighborhoods, or does their loyalty rest with the client who is paying for their service? On the one hand, we rely on an architect’s expertise, aesthetic eye, and experience (over the public’s less adventurous taste), but is it fair for a place to be subjected to an imposing structure they don’t want? (Where would we be without Jane Jacobs stopping Robert Moses‘ plans to put a highway through Greenwich Village, for instance? And what if the public had been able to stop the destruction of Penn Station?) How do we strike a balance between community need, preservation, and economic development?
Judith: I’d say that the responsibility falls to designers, engineers, and developers—as well as the public. Before the bust of 2008, architecture was seen increasingly as a vehicle for entertainment. Developers learned, fast, that a signature design increased demand for a building and, in the case of Dubai, for an entire city. Like gigantic Prada bags spread out over the landscape, spectacle after spectacle arose. London is a good example of a skyline gone Vegas, and yet it is only a matter of time before it grows still wilder and taller. That’s the fantasy, at least. Unfortunately, for every Gherkin, for every Bilbao, a hundred inferior structures are built.
The public also needs to speak up and demand better design, and greener, more hospitable cities. When he was a youngster, my son Brendan loved to give me on-the-spot quizzes. One day, he asked me if I knew what humans needed most to survive. I guessed water, then food.
Wrong and wrong. Turns out, in most climates, our most fundamental need is shelter. I began to wonder what would the world look like if we felt as comfortable with architecture as we do with, say, food. Most of us are more comfortable navigating a menu than having a say in the cities we live in, the bridges we cross, or the art we encounter on the street. But for many, shelter, and by extension, architecture, eludes this same sense of familiarity.
Since buildings shelter our bodies as well as our souls, everyone needs to learn about them! There’s a direct connection between where we live and work and our quality of life. For this reason, Skyscrapers, and all of my books, focus on welcoming the general public into a dialogue about the built environment.
Judith Dupré, Adrian Smith, & Rick Cook at the New York Public Library
Judith Dupré and master architects Adrian Smith and Rick Cook will be exploring the latest environmental innovations in skyscrapers at the New York Public Library, on January 15th from 6-8 pm. This event is free and open to the public. Also, the Burj Khalifa cupcake tower will be in the house! Click here for more information about this free New York event.
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