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Jyväskylä, Finland - The design of high-rises is evolving rapidly, but who will pay for them? asks Jeremy Melvin

At the same time of year that the world’s most powerful bankers gather at Jackson Hole, the architectural world gathers in Jyväskylä, a city in central Finland which is almost synonymous with Alvar Aalto and his architectural career. If Ben Bernanke’s musings move markets, High-Rise Shuffle − as the fourth international Alvar Aalto Conference on Modern Architecture was called − set out to alter conceptions of tall buildings, a far-reaching aim that drew on Rem Koolhaas’s much-cited comment: ‘I want to kill the traditional idea of the skyscraper − it has run out of energy.’ But although Modernism may be about creative destruction, more creativity than destruction was on display.

We heard about unfamiliar materials − super-tall timber structures and rammed earth; about typologies including Aalto and Jørn Utzon’s ‘humanising’ high-rise designs; and a fascinating study of SOM guru Myron Goldsmith’s search for a type that made architecture and structure co-terminal. Among the topics were height policies in Tallinn and Istanbul; a parametric programme for exploring high-rise options in Taipei; and theoretical speculations, ranging from choreography to gastronomy.

But the real message was the need for tall buildings to ‘shuffle’, or to engage with cultural, social and climatic contexts, as well as physical facts. Gravity may have been enough to energise Goldsmith and Mies van der Rohe, but it no longer cuts the mustard when skyscrapers are being built in so many different environments, and when these, along with economics, are driving new forms, types and hybrids.

Jeanne Gang, the only speaker who had completed a significant tall building − the highly rated Aqua Tower in Chicago − pinpointed the theme. Several consummate projects, notably a proposal to turn the former airstrip on Chicago’s lakefront into a lagoon, showed an imaginative weaving of new structures and activities at ground level: the Aqua Tower drew that interaction upwards. Its undulating facade was resolved into serpentine balconies, creating the potential for a vertical passeggiata.

Aqua Tower by Studio Gang

Aqua Tower by Studio Gang

Ulla Hell of Plasma Studio showed an office tower proposal in China that appeared to grow, spread and drape like a weeping willow. The intensity of formal and functional interaction that has won the studio deserved plaudits for its ground-scraping Xi’an Horticultural Expo might expand upwards as well as outwards. Another young architect, Marwan Nasri Basmaji exhibited a speculative proposal for a burial tower for the three monotheistic religions in Jerusalem. Based on the dual realisation that land in Jerusalem is contested, and that enemies tend to be a little nicer to each other by gravesides, he suggested height as a solution to the practical problem of space and the political one of difference, with all sorts of ingenious systems of movement, people flow and theological nicety. If only.

There were some brave theoretical speculations. Panu Lehtovuori attempted to theorise the urban qualities of tall buildings with the help of GWF Hegel and Henri Lefebvre, before turning to practical examples of the genre in his adopted city of Tallinn. Having had the world’s tallest building for much of the Middle Ages, its more recent high-rises have tended to be hybrids, new glass blocks sprouting from existing bases.

The relationship to context might not have been resolved but at least it became explicit. Irem Maro Kiris showed how Istanbul addresses the same issue: it has designated an L-shaped corridor where high-rises are allowed, although those built so far vary in quality. Another reading of context came from Trevor Patt, a PhD student who has devised a ‘parametric engine’ for exploring where and how high-rises might be feasible in Taipei, taking account of its existing fabric, land ownership and infrastructure. Parametrics, however, only establish a field of possibility: they have not provided a contemporary frame of certainty in the way Newtonian physics has offered an aesthetic as well as a physical structure for Goldsmith.

If anything was missing from the programme, it was a hard analysis of a real high-rise project: a blast from, say, Arup and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners on the extraordinary synthesis between commercial priorities and structure in the ‘Cheese Grater’ Leadenhall Building would have been a reminder that money, its manifestations, uses and derivatives play a rather important part in the realisation of high-rises. But the real speculative intellectual potential of tall buildings lies in the way they distort and challenge conventional balances between possibility and responsibility, and this conference certainly opened up that territory.

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