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Critic's notebook: Skyscrapers remain powerful symbols, post 9/11

Skyscrapers, viewed in many parts as signs of prestige, have experienced a building boom since the attacks.

September 04, 2011|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • At over 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) and a total construction area of 530,000 square meters (5.7 million square feet), Kingdom Tower will be the centerpiece and first construction phase of the Kingdom City development on a 5.3 million-square-meter site in north Jeddah.
At over 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) and a total construction area of 530,000… (Adrian Smith / Gordon Gill…)

Any skyscraper is a contradiction.

The tall tower is architecture's most famous building type and also the one most clearly at odds with the profession's roots. Fundamentally, architecture is shelter, a concession that we're afraid to face the elements without protection. A skyscraper is vertical hubris.

Perhaps no architect embodied the oddness of skyscraper architecture more than Minoru Yamasaki, the Seattle native who designed the 110-story World Trade Center towers. Yamasaki was afraid of heights; he made the windows of the twin towers just 18 inches wide to ease the fears of the people inside the buildings who shared his anxiety.

"If I had no economic or social limitations," he once said, "I'd solve all my problems with one-story buildings. Imagine how pleasant it would be to always work [in] spaces overlooking lovely gardens filled with flowers."

Even Yamasaki, who died in 1986, might be surprised by the latest wrinkle in the skyscraper story: The decade since the 2001 destruction of the twin towers, an attack that some predicted would spell the end of the tall building, have turned out to be the busiest ever for skyscraper design.

More skyscrapers have gone up in the last 10 years than in all of architectural history before the destruction of the World Trade Center — and by a significant margin. More than 350 towers measuring at least 200 meters, or 663 feet, have been constructed since the end of 2001, according to the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Just 235 buildings that high went up in the years before 2001.

The last decade has been particularly productive for designers of so-called supertall towers, those at least 1,250 feet high — the height of the Empire State Building. According to "Supertall!," an exhibition running through January at the Skyscraper Museum in New York, 48 such mega-towers have been completed since 2001 or are in the works. A star of the exhibition is the Burj Khalifa, which opened early last year in Dubai as the tallest building in the world. Designed by the Chicago architect Adrian Smith, it rises a staggering 2,717 feet, or higher than the twin towers stacked one atop the other.

In large part the explanation for this wave of towers is economic. The global economy was booming by the middle of the last decade, and the biggest nations in the world have been urbanizing at an unprecedented clip. (China alone has built about half of the post-9/11 towers.) In the West, easy credit in those years helped finance scores of new skyscrapers, many filled with condominiums that their owners are still struggling to sell. Surging oil wealth has gilded skylines not just in Dubai and Abu Dhabi but in Moscow and Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

The crop of supertall towers also has advances in engineering and technology to thank. It is easier than ever to predict how tall buildings will react to earthquakes and high winds. But there is also a political and psychological dimension to any supertall tower. Quickly growing or modernizing countries still see the skyscraper — as Americans did in the 20th century — as the ultimate prestige project.

There may be lingering post-9/11 skittishness in this country about living or working 100 stories above the ground. But our nervousness is increasingly irrelevant to global skyscraper statistics. In 2010, the tallest building constructed in the United States — the 818-foot-tall, 72-story Legacy Tower in Chicago — was the 19th tallest in the world. It was outranked by towers in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, Nanjing, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City and Istanbul, among other cities.

In purely architectural terms, the most important building to go up since the 9/11 attacks is the CCTV Tower in Beijing by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. It is a skyscraper, though at 768 feet not an especially tall one. But that relative shortness is part of the tower's strategic allure: It rejects the arm's race for architectural height — which, as Koolhaas has pointed out, is always a losing proposition, since somebody is always planning a building taller than yours — in favor of a design whose Mobius-strip strangeness makes it uniquely powerful in person.

The building is the most unmistakable representation of state power and government indifference that I've ever seen. If you want to feel really small — really ant-like — don't go stand in front of the Chrysler Building or the Park Fifth Tower in downtown L.A. Stand in front of CCTV.

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