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Peter Cook: Why don’t innovative architects build above a dozen storeys?

A whistle-stop tour of Melbourne, Hong Kong, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Frankfurt and the Gold Coast. Back in London it is not exhaustion and certainly not boredom that I am suffering from, but something far more intangible and worrisome in the long term. Asked to describe what I saw, I can wax endlessly on the dress here, the weird pockets there, the bustle, the traffic (or even, sometimes the well-managed lack of traffic or bustle along the shoreline in Hong Kong on a wet Thursday). But of the mass of building − there seems less and less to say.

At eye level, there is plenty to see and distract: the signage, the colour, the electrics, the digitalised moving images and, of course, real people. But look upwards and the amnesia begins. The generic glass slab might occasionally be challenged by a busy-ness or clever-ness, but not for long as it usually gives over to a neatly resolved horizontality at the top.

In some years there were attempts to change the formula: with three-storey gardens at nine-storey intervals in Foster’s Commerzbank (for Frankfurt) of 1997 or the virtuoso twisting of the surfaces at Gehry’s Spruce Street housing towers (for Lower Manhattan) of 2011. Yet there has been precious little else that matched the audacity of BBPR’s Torre Velasca (for Milan) of 1956, which some might find questionable as mimicry of a historical model, while at the same time celebrating the abilities of mid-20th-century concrete technique.

As time goes on, it seems that some rather good architects such as Cesar Pelli (remember the old No 1 Wilshire or the PDC in Los Angeles?), or Helmut Jahn, are now cooling their act. Perhaps only Kohn Pedersen Fox of the big tower architects are hanging on in with a certain flair for their tops and bottoms.

The heroic claims made for the ‘parametric’ or for all the opportunities offered by the direct caress of solid material by the wizardry of the computer’s three-dimensional abilities seem to have gone off at half-cock.

It is a territory where even Zaha Hadid’s creative machine seems to produce less inspiring results than usual, where Reiser + Umemoto have tantalising apertures but then seem to just stop at the top. Toyo Ito sometimes swings a bit on the way up, but Bernard Tschumi hit the nail on the head in a recent lecture where he called attention to the formulaic nature of so much digital spaghetti − including some of his own!

Even so, these are the heroic efforts within an international plethora of glass boxes that as they mass together in any large downtown, deaden the spirit and force you to cast your eyes not upwards (as in the days of immigrants landing in New York or unbelievers confronted by Chartres Cathedral), but sideways or downwards, searching for signs of visible life.

Think of all those architects whose work intrigues us − Morphosis, Zumthor, Snøhetta, SANAA, Siza, Koolhaas … dilute to taste … and they rarely get above 12 storeys from the ground. Steven Holl is just about getting there at Chengdu − artfully drawing your eye down the odd diagonal to avoid the dreaded ‘tower’ syndrome.

The explanation clearly lies in the reluctance of tower developers to engage with architects who perform brilliantly with horizontality, stacking or the surrounding of space. Even when there are dramatic changes of activity as you move up the building, change of articulation or interval is avoided. Of course this may also be linked to the unfashionableness of identifying the particular in the current taste, but I would put money on their preference for predictable consistency above all.

In London and a few loony places like the Gold Coast, there is still an instinct for play, which can have disastrous consequences, such as at Castle House in Southwark where an environmental device remains as an over-scaled feature atop a rather ordinary shaft, or rather successful consequences in the case of Piano’s ‘Shard’ − even if it, too, homogenises the internal shifts of function. At this point, it is a question of ‘eye’ − or effectively couture − which enables us to compare the Shard favourably with Pelli’s Gran Torre in Santiago, yet in the end, this does not solve the central dilemma.

Surely good architects who have not been so much of a risk on schools or hospitals or courthouses can at last be permitted to climb upwards into the sky.

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