Soaring expression of the individualistic spirit of capitalism, logical extrusion of land values or irrational, anti-urban monster?
Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column, the first version of which he developed around 1918, is not actually endless. In fact it’s just over 2 metres tall. But unlike the columns of antiquity, bracketed by base and capital and flexing in entasis towards some finite albeit distant point, this column could, by a process of modular repetition, go on forever. It is freed from all bounds of propriety and anthropomorphy to pursue its geometrical destiny into infinity.
The escape of abstract art from the bounded forms of Classical tradition had its corollary in the realm of architecture, most dramatically in the skyscraper. And although stylistic abstraction entered the discipline via De Stijl and the Constructivists, it was on the other side of the Atlantic that the extruded plot had to be mastered by architects schooled in the Beaux-Arts tradition, like hapless cowboys trying to lasso a runaway train. Focusing on their ropework, however, may be beside the point.
Attempts to understand the skyscraper tend to founder on the presumption that the type is in some sense rational and therefore to be comprehended within the usual canons of architecture, however these might be interpreted: as the product of new technologies, perhaps, or as a response to spatial limitations, growing populations, zoning regulations and business requirements. For those who spurn materialism, its mutations track an aesthetic discourse regarding the formal problems of tall structures, or, for the psychologically inclined, it is a metaphor for individualistic striving (anti-capitalists are not exempt from this idealism).
However, like the ‘oikodicy’ Joseph Vogl discerns in the attempts of neoliberal economists to explain away the peculiarities of the market, the theodicy of the skyscraper is bound to fail; at best, it tinkers at the periphery of the type while leaving its core untouched. In fact, the skyscraper is essentially irrational, a truth that ultimately confounds all narratives spun about its development and, as such, it is the perfect expression of capitalism in all its creative and destructive lunacy.
Two significant exceptions can be noted here. Tafuri’s essay on the American skyscraper up to the late 1960s – the best account of this crucial period – centres on the contradictory relation of the skyscraper to the city. Fundamental to Tafuri’s argument is the observation that the skyscraper is both the instrument and the expression of capital. But instrumentality is not necessarily rational, and certainly not in this instance in which the instrument destroys its master; the market ecstasy of the skyscraper always crashes into deep depression.
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The other exception is Koolhaas, but unlike Tafuri he seeks to replicate the irrationality of the skyscraper in his argument, and so he ends – as all wanton irrationality must – in deep dubiousness, specifically in this instance in a bizarre analysis of the ‘sterility’ and ‘anti-naturalness’ of the gym-going ‘bachelors’ in the Downtown Athletic Club tower. (The same could be said for OMA’s skyscrapers, which wilfully exacerbate the illogical forms of the market – accelerationist architecture, perhaps. However, like that other Dutch fatal strategist, Paul Verhoeven, it is possible that the cynic conceals a moralist.)
But perhaps the best representation of skyscraper fever is to be found in another medium than architectural historiography entirely. Matthew Barney’s 2002 film Cremaster 3 depicts the Chrysler Building as a monstrous biomechanical apparatus built on a foundation of violence, corruption and myth; Upton Sinclair via Luis Buñuel, complete with a subterranean creature burrowing in the foundations, a demolition derby in the gorgeous lobby and a climactic trepanation-by-spire.
It is in this irrationality that we find the secret kinship of the skyscraper with the cathedral, rather than in any Stadtkrone function attributed to the two by Expressionist dreamers. Both types represent a huge waste of time and material in pursuit of idiotic ideals – and yet with such exhilarating results.
Other precursors of the skyscraper have been identified in the medieval towers built by rival families in San Gimignano, and there is also something in this agonistic interpretation, since the skyscraper was born in Chicago, which unlike Manhattan has no real spatial constraints; irrationality once more, this time of booming land values after the fire of 1871. This tower-agon has since expanded to a global scale, indulged in most passionately by cities reliant on speculation such as London and Moscow. In the latter city, distinction was once found in dispersal, with Stalin’s scattered high-rises clearly declaring the planner’s hand.
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Because of the incredible sums riding on the successful completion of skyscrapers in laissez-faire economies, the developer is as much the designer as the architect, and the financial manoeuvring behind such projects is at times more artful than the buildings – indeed you might call tower building the art of the deal, to quote one of its more spotlight-basking practitioners. To prick this narcissism, it should be added that the market is the master of even the most Machiavellian developer. So the hidden hand is revealed, its grasping fingers thrusting up from the ground beneath our feet. Indeed, to what extent are skyscrapers even architecture any more? They might instead be a form of architecture without architects: a market vernacular.
In speculative ventures, and even in those developed by builder-occupiers, which are usually partially rented in any case, one of the primary concerns must be marketability, which inheres in product differentiation. This has led to all kinds of attention-seeking strategies, some of them of practical benefit to the occupier (more extensive and luxurious amenities, more sophisticated services), but in terms of the building-image, height is the primary avenue for distinction – and this is frequently ensured by piling on uninhabitable upper storeys. In a crowded market, pre-eminence may not be attainable, however, and so spires, crowns, unusual materials and distinctive silhouettes come into play.
At first the Renaissance was in vogue, when the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company anachoristically planted an overblown version of St Mark’s campanile next to its steroidal Florentine palazzo in 1909. The palazzoid was a logical choice, since it spoke of mercantile prowess while its cuboid envelope functioned perfectly as ‘a machine to make the ground pay’ (that was how Cass Gilbert, architect of the Neo-Gothic Woolworth Building, defined the skyscraper). The cube eclipsed the sun in the form of the monstrous Equitable Life building, and so was tempered by the zoning laws of 1916. These – and the setbacks they chiselled – readmitted daylight to the street, while stoking an overheated market.
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Later, distinction was found in aniconicity, as the process began of stripping curlicues from the ziggurat. Raymond Hood was a pioneer, his greatest contribution being the insight that a simulacrum of the city was the greatest USP that a developer could offer. The plaza and roof garden of Rockefeller Center snapped off fragments of the street, which reappeared in SOM’s Lever House and Mies’s Seagram Building, twin heralds of the so-called International Style. It is here that Brancusi’s column reappears, poking its head through the pasteboard volutes.
Wright mile high
This couldn’t last, however, and fashion span on, with Johnson’s broken pediment and the oversized functional elements of the High-Tech architects returning us to decoration (as did Mies with his I-beams). And now the Neo-Baroque ushered in by CAD has amplified these barrow-boy yells a hundredfold, as towers writhe in sinuous self-advertisement. Meanwhile, the search for height continues, with monarch-developers of the gulf – untroubled by the unprofitability of building anything above the 60th floor – ensuring the probability of a mile-high tower.
But although the Burj marks a new pinnacle of aesthetic satisfaction, demonstrating that even extreme height can be formally resolved (following a model sketched long ago by Wright), perhaps the most eloquent example of recent years is Foster + Partners’ Hearst Tower, which bursts from the shell of the old, eight-storey Hearst Building. This resolves the vexing relation of the tower to the street by allowing a process of historical sedimentation to ‘simply’ occur, and the way the new building crashes into the old creates a thrilling foyer space, but raise your eyes and there it is: a vast protuberance, sprouting like a Cordyceps fungus from the head of its host. The worker ant is of course driven mad before being eaten from within by this parasite.
AS + GG, Jeddah Tower, Saudi Arabia, under construction.
It may seem ironic that some of the tallest buildings of recent years – Jin Mao Tower, Trump International Hotel and Tower, Burj Khalifa – represent significant technological advances (not least the world’s longest laundry chute) while having a distinctly historicist flavor, harking back to the setbacks and ornament of Art Deco. The designer of these buildings, Adrian Smith, appears to have an enduring interest in inflating the interwar architecture of the USA. Perhaps it is a reflection of the times that the new is clothed in antiquated costume; perhaps there is still something to be learned about the formal resolution of unprecedentedly tall structures from the golden age of skyscrapers. Smith’s Jeddah Tower, currently under construction in Saudi Arabia, will be the tallest building in the world when completed, at around one km. The tripartite plan reduces wind resistance, an otherwise insurmountable obstacle at this height. The silhouette recalls Wright’s mile-high tower (p52), and indeed the Saudis originally wanted to breach a mile, but the terrain’s geology was found unsuitable for such purposes.
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Murphy Jahn, Hegau Tower, Singen, Germany, 2008
For all the japes of Postmodernism and the contortions of the icon builders, the High Modernist skyscraper, exemplified by the postwar work of Mies and Gordon Bunshaft, continues to sprout across the world’s cities. The completely filled envelope is after all the cheapest way to maximise land values. This has resulted in some parsimonious and unimaginative design, and the reaction of those who seek distinction in the most simple-minded way possible, but as Ada Louise Huxtable put it, ‘the Miesian skyscraper is a superb vernacular, probably the handsomest and most useful set of architectural conventions since the Georgian row house’. The challenge is to do it as carefully as Mies, and here Helmut Jahn – more known for his leaden flourishes – has chosen the route of quiet but exquisite sophistication. Jahn takes the transparency posited by Mies’s early projects to a new extreme of lucidity. The grid of the facade, enlivened by metallic exterior shutters on its southern side, passes beyond the structure into space, joining the taller and lower buildings and suggesting – as Rosalind Krauss said of Mondrian’s works – an infinite extensibility, without extravagant height.
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Hermann Kamte, Wooden Skyscraper, Lagos, Nigeria, UNBUILT
New materials continue to stimulate innovations in skyscraper design. The development of laminated timber has facilitated the construction of unprecedentedly tall wooden buildings, culminating – so far – in an 18-storey student residence at the University of British Columbia, completed last year. Taller buildings are on the cards, including an 80-storey tower designed by PLP Architecture and Cambridge University, and this 21-storey residential tower, proposed by Cameroonian architect Hermann Kamte with the intention of softening the predominantly concrete cityscape of Lagos. The load-bearing structure is composed of laminated veneer lumber, and rises above an existing four-storey residential building. This densification of the neighbourhood would also provide additional amenities, such as a rooftop restaurant and lushly planted sky gardens inserted at intervals for the use of the residents. The building is clad in a wooden sleeve that shades the interior with patterns derived from traditional Yoruba tattoos.