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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

Anyone who spends a lot of time thinking about skyscrapers begins to expect twists and turns, switchbacks and ironies. Here is the latest one: Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, announced plans this summer to erect a building in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second-largest city, that will be more than 500 feet taller than the Burj Khalifa. Designed by Smith and his partner Gordon Gill, the Kingdom Tower will be at least a kilometer — or 3,280 feet — tall.

In Saudi Arabia, Dubai and other wealthy, quickly expanding places, the skyscraper has been freed from two of its classic constraints. The first is Manhattanism — that tall towers were historically built in dense downtown districts and hemmed in by the urban grid and setback requirements. The second is the business suit — that the skyscraper was, by definition, an office building.

The Kingdom Tower will rise from the middle of a brand-new, $20-billion mixed-use development laid out by the American firm HOK Architects. Its first few floors will hold offices, but after that it will be filled with a Four Seasons hotel and dozens upon dozens of residential floors. The tower's most noticeable formal flourish is a terrace jutting out from the 157th floor; it is not an observatory for the public but a private outdoor space for the skyscraper's penthouse — a front yard more than 3,000 feet in the air.

Smith told me by phone that the tower's site is not far from one of Saudi Arabia's best-known postwar buildings, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's 1981 Hajj Terminal. Other than that, he added, the area "is pretty much a desert."

That may help explain the resemblance between the Kingdom Tower and the Illinois, a slender mile-high tower that Frank Lloyd Wright proposed in 1956 for a site in Chicago. (That tower, never built, also seemed to rise from the middle of nowhere.) The Kingdom Tower site, in fact, was originally slotted to hold its own mile-high tower, designed by architecture firm Pickard Chilton. That project was shelved in early 2009 after the global financial crisis hit.

In this country too, most of the architecturally compelling towers of the last decade have been designed to hold bedrooms rather than corner offices. Frank Gehry's new skyscraper in Lower Manhattan wraps 903 apartments inside an undulating, crumpled stainless-steel skin that recalls the work of architects as diverse as Bernini and Cass Gilbert.

In Chicago, Santiago Calatrava proposed a torquing, screw-like condo tower for the Chicago lakefront that at exactly 2,000 feet would have been the tallest building in North America. Sadly, it was a victim of the credit crunch. So was a stunning, ultra-thin glass tower, to be draped with hanging gardens, that French architect Jean Nouvel proposed for Century City.

Back in New York, the skyscraper continues to argue with itself. Immediately north of the site where the twin towers once stood are two new skyscrapers. One, called 7 World Trade Center, was completed five years ago, covering 52 stories. The other, 1 World Trade Center — originally called the Freedom Tower — is under construction. When finished it'll reach a height of 1,776 feet, at least if you count its needle-like spire, and rank as the tallest building in the United States.

Both towers are the work of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, though 1 World Trade began as a testy collaboration between Skidmore's David Childs and Daniel Libeskind, the master planner for the World Trade Center site. But the buildings could hardly be more different architecturally.

The design for 1 World Trade Center is stolid and inexpressive. The quietly precise, blade-like 7 World Trade, thanks in part to a happier partnership between Childs and the glass artist James Carpenter, is among the most graceful towers to go up in an American city in two decades.

So is the skyscraper a dead end for architectural creativity or a wellspring of ingenuity? Is it a symbol of unfettered market economics or political muscle? A soaring beacon or a stack of anxieties? The answer in each case is that it is both. Always both.

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