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Tall Buildings

by Terence Riley and Guy Nordenson

The Museum of Modern Art Queens

July 16 to September 27, 2004

The Museum of Modern Art, 2002, 192 pages, 320 illustrations, $29.95

Recalling Louis Sullivan's Mandate to Impart Significance and See The Best In People and Ezra Pound's vortex - "a radiant node or cluster...from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing"


Haunted Towers

Central Chinese Television Tower, Beijing, Rem Koolhaas, Ole Scheeren/Office for Metropolitan Architecture

Rendering of Central Chinese Television Tower, Beijing China, Rem Koolhaas, Ole Scheeren/Office for Metropolitan Architecture, projected completion 2008, ©OMA/Rem Koolhaas

By Carter B. Horsley

The destruction by terrorists of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan September 11, 2001 has led to a broad, public re-examination of tall buildings (see The City Review article on the first round of proposed replacements for the center, and the second round). Although some have maintained that the terrorist attacks have lessened the popularity, and safety, of tall buildings because of their high and prominent visibility, others have noted that many cities around the world have recently forged ahead with very major skyscrapers, many of which are very interesting and notable.

In his preface to this exhibition's handsome and important catalogue, Terence Riley, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, provides the following commentary on the present historical context:

"The construction of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, designed by the architect War II. When completed in 1973, the towers represented a substantial advance in the deployment of various technologies for high-rise design and construction, which had been developing over several decades. For the next fifteen years, the design of skyscrapers around the world was, with some notable exceptions, limited to trolling the waters in the enormous wake created by Yamasaki and Robertson. In other ways, the construction of the World Trade Center towers caused a feeling of disaffection with tall buildings. The sophisticated romance that had surrounded them earlier in the century had worn thin. In the postmodern mood of the day, the buildings were considered too tall. Proponents of traditional urban planning considered them not only out of scale with respect to the skyline but too disruptive at ground level. Understandably, the swift destruction of the towers on September 11, 2001, provoked an intense scrutiny of tall buildings. Architects and engineers anxiously reconsidered their assumptions about structural soundness, emergency systems, and means of escape from office and residential towers. Politicians rendered opinions, some of them too hastily, on the complex building systems of the twin towers and made alternate proposals for making tall buildings terror proof. Former critics of the twin towers even suggested that we should not mourn their demise from an architectural or urban point of view. The general public, which had come to admire the twin towers, despite the disapproval of some architects, was nonetheless haunted by the images of their destruction. As the heated initial debates on tall buildings subsided into more thoughtful and determined study, it became apparent that a reappraisal of tall buildings was not only appropriate and timelybut also a bit overdue. Indeed, seminal projects such as the tower for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong, and the Commerzbank Headquarters, in Frankfurt, both designed by Norman Foster and Ove Arup & Partners; the Tour sans Fin, in Paris, designed by Jean Nouvel and Ove Arup & Partners; and the Bank of China, in Hong Kong, designed by I. M. Pei and Leslie Robertson, demonstrated that, toward the late 1980s, a new generation of innovative skyscrapers was being developed around the globe, if not in Manhattan and Chicago, the tall building's traditional testing grounds."

The exhibition focuses on 25 tall buildings designed within the last decade. Seven of the buildings are New York City projects. Three proposals that were not chosen for redevelopment of the World Trade Center site are highlighted in detail, as well as a design by Norman Foster for a new headquarters for The New York Times (see The City Review article) and a losing design for it by Frank Gehry (see The City Review article on Gehry). Another New York project that is included is plan by Steven Holl & Associates for the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. A plan by Jean Nouvel for a residential tower adjacent to the abandoned West Side rail line is also included.

Taking note of advances in computer modeling, Mr. Riley continued, "The expansion of the engineer's analytical capabilities has produced a notable and effective enhancement of his orher role in collaborating in the design of tall buildings, with quite remarkable results. In this regard, the first realizations of diagonally braced structural skins are, perhaps, the most notable innovations in recent tall buildings. Whereas tall buildings previously were conceived as, or at least appeared to be, orthogonal matrices of vertical columns and horizontal slabs, a number of recent structures can be seen as freely composed rigid exterior skins, and even three-dimensional space frames, with correspondingly open interior spaces....principally owing to tough European laws concerning energy efficiency and buttressed by individual concern about the environment, engineers and architects are, once again, using sophisticated computer analysis to reduce dependency on mechanical systems in tall buildings....Not surprisingly, the various towers proposed for the site of the World Trade Center focused on safety, and no doubt many of the innovations suggested will be adopted elsewhere. Enhanced emergency escape routes, more areas of refuge and means of rescue, and redundant systems of fire suppression and communication are sure to become the next areas in which regulation will be standardized. While these and other important technological advances, such as earthquake damping and 'smart' construction, are less evident, the scale of tall buildings guarantees that they will continue to define the contemporary metropolis. If the familiar appeal of skyscrapers has waned in urban places where they are ubiquitous, such as New York, the same cannot be said of cities around the world that are experiencing bursts of high-rise construction, such as Singapore....Perhaps the most notable development in the use of tall buildings to make urban space is the adoption of alternate models to the tower, the tapering shaft rising like a column to the sky. Linked buildings, Mobius-like constructions, and other previously unseen forms not only act as defining markers but also create vast spaces and channel vision over great dimensions....Greater attention is being paid to the life of the city at ground level, whether it is pedestrian circulation, public space, or commercial activity, than to establishing towers in plazas."

In a long and interesting catalogue essay entitled, "Tall Building as Metaphor," Guy Nordenson observes that while the World Trade Center and Rockefeller Center expressed "unique" moments of "civic will," such an expression of civic will "did not re-emerge" after September 11, 2001. "Tall buildings, if only by being tall, look to stand out in a crows. In time they may become the crowd, but it is always their intention to speak up, to declare, indeed, even persuade us of their novelty, their sumptuousness, their responsibility to social needs and ideals, their outright beauty, and their abstraction."

Mr. Nordenson provides an excellent overview of skyscraper history and the following quotation from Louis Sullivan's Kindergarten Chats that his function as an architect was "to vitalize building materials, to animate them collectively with a thought, a state of feeling, to charge them with a subjective significance and value, to make them visible parts of the genuine social fabric, to infuse into them the true life of the people, to impart to them the best that is in the people, as the eye of the poet, looking below the surface of life, sees the best that is in the people."

Mr. Nordenson, an engineer, also writes about Ezra Pound and his "idea of the vortex as a 'radiant cluster...from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing," adding that he and Ernest Fenollosa argued that "relations are more real and more important than they things they relate....Thus a nerve, a wire, a roadway, and a clearing house are only varying channels which communication forces for itself. This is more than analogy, it is identity of structure."

Architecture, of course, is the most public art and September 11, 2001 has sparked a "civic will." Ideally, it will result not only in a memorable, stirring new project to revitalize Lower Manhattan but also in a greater public concern about the built environment in the positive sense of creating and forging great things rather than the negative "Not In My Back Yard" anti-development scenario that has plagued New York City for too long.

Exhibition Building project of 1921 by Wentzel Hablik

Perspective drawing of Exhibition Building Project by Wentzel Hablik, 1921

Some of the new towers in the exhibition are quite radical. Everything old, of course, is new again: "An interesting precursor to some of the some of the late modern crystal-like building forms is Wentzel Hablik's 1920 Exhibition Building....It is unusual in that it prescribes both a sculpturally strong form (almost like an Easter Island figure) and a completely regular and rationalized structure of load-bearing vertices, anticipating the later investigations of Myron Goldsmith and I. M. Pei," wrote Mr. Nordenson.

Office Tower project for Philadelphia of 1952-7 by Louis I. Kahn and Anne Tyng

Section drawing of office tower project in Philadelphia by Louis I. Kahn and Anne Tyng, 1952-7

Mr. Nordenson also notes that the 616-foot-tall office tower project in Philadelphia designed by Louis I. Kahn and AnneTyng between 1952 and 1957 "could be considered a precursor, given [Renzo] Piano's apprenticeship in that office, [of] the Centre Pompidou [in Paris, 1971-5, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, that] clearly initiated the production-oriented practices that followed in Europe, both in its architects' work and in that of Norman Foster."

Perhaps the most spectacular of the exhibition's projects is the Central Chinese Television (CCTV) Tower in Beijing, China, a rendering of which is shown at the top of this article. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren/Office for Metropolitan Architecture, it is planned for completion in 2008. Cecil Balmond, Craig Gibbons, Michael Kwok, Rory McGowan/Ove Arup & Partners are the engineers of the 768-foot-high project.

The project is located on a 25-acre site in Beijing's new central business district along a major axis east of the Imperial Palace.

The catalogue entry for the project contains the following commentary by Mr. Riley:

"The approximately 4,360,000-square-foot headquarters building is remarkable not for its height, but for its form, which rises, cantilevers, and descends in a continuous loop. The building's central cavity, or 'window' opening, frames an adjacent 1,250,000-square-foot cultural center, which is also part of the project, as is the surrounding media park....The looping configuration...serves as a model for the mechanical systems. Heating, ventilation, and cooling systems thread through the structure like arteries in the body. Sequential elevator banks rise vertically then step laterally through the canted volumes....Conceived as a continuous tube, with the principal supporting elements in the surface of the loop, the volume was first projected with a uniform diagonal grid wrapped about its surface. The grid was then analyzed using an iterative computer-based method to establish zones of stress for the diagonal members, from lowest to highest. In areas of greatest stress, the density of the triangulated members was increased and/or members were deformed to respond more precisely to the lateral and dead loads. In the areas where the uniform triangulation was providing more support than was required, redundant members were removed or deformed to allow for greater stresses elsewhere. The result is an efficient and reliable structure for revisiting earthquakes as well. The cantilever overhang requires additional support in the form of a two-story-deep truss at the lower level of the overhang, which transfers its load to the perimeter tube and to the foundation level....When complete, the structure will be a rich texture of the deformed diagonal grid with a glazed skin imbedded with images representing a kind of international sign language of the media age: a handshake, a computer, and other iconic images and text....The CCTV headquarters is one of the first high-rise buildings to suggest a new paradigm, one that creates urban space instead of simply displacing it, capturing the urban space into a kind of hybrid public/private condition - a sculptural effect in the traditional of urban ensembles such as Rockefeller Center."

Max Reinhardt Haus, Berlin, by Peter Eisenman

Max Reinhardt Baus project, Berlin, Peter Eisenman, architect, Severud Associates, engineers, 1992-3

An earlier and somewhat similar but even more complex project is the Max Reinhardt Haus in Berlin, a 1992-3 project by Peter Eisenman and engineers Severud Associates.

In her catalogue entry on this 420-foot-high project, which was planned shortly after the removal of the Berlin Wall and is on the north bank of the Spree River, Tina di Carlo provides the following commentary:

" In 1919, the site was occupied by the Grosses Schauspielhaus, a fantastic Expressionist playhouse design by Hans Poelig for Max Reinhardt, a famous theater producer. "Directly across the Spree River is a traingular site in front of the main railroad station for which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed his influential project for the first glass skyscraper in 1921. In order to capture Reinhardt's legendary energy in a building named for him, Eisenman devised a prismatic form that creates a world unto itself and yet opens out to, and reflects, the constantly changing and multifaceted character of the city itself. Its one million square feet include office space, hotel accommodations, film and media auditoriums, retail space, a fitness center, offices for press and public relations agencies, a restaurant, and video and audio technology - in the architect's words, "a true heterotopia.' The building rises thirty-four stories above the ground, creating a folding arch of intersecting and overlapping forms that towers above Berlin's typical four-story landscape. Vertically folding on its core, it presents a unified structure that separates, compresses, transforms, and then rejoins itself horizontally at the roof level. The form was generated from three iterative operations performed on a Möbius strip, a three-dimensional geometric form with a single unending surface. The strip allows two dimensions to be folded into a single surface by twisting in on itself. In so doing it denies the traditional dialectic of inside and outside and, when appropriated to architecture, blurs the distinction between public and private. In the first iteration, planes are generated from the extension of vectors and the triangulation of the surfaces; this triangulation permits the development of both a surface order for cladding and a trussed structure for vertical and lateral support. The second iteration inverts the strip, performs a similar operation to that of the first step, and then imprints these surfaces on the initial form, thereby creating a phantom or ghost. The third step maps an element of Berlin's history on to the form itself by folding large public space between the grid and floor plates of an already folded structure - a reference to the cubic volumes of the German neo-classical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. These voids seem to occupy the layered spaces of the floors as aggregates in a matrix and without any apparent effect on their makeup....The building, whose height, crenellated form, and ghostly blue pallor create imposing, omnious presence, looks foward to to its own history and yet is imbued with energy and abstract formal refences to past events, reflecting a continually shifting urban paradigm."

In other words, Eisenman, the most consistently intellectually abstract, if not obstruse architect of his generation, has created an immensely complex form that is extremely fascinating and perplexing, and, indeed, ominous. Mystery and personality are too often missing in architecture and this is certainly one of the most spectacular projects of the end of the 20th Century, even if it has not yet been built, a fate that also befell Louis I. Kahn's Philadelphia office tower project, with which it shares a spiritual kinship, in the 1950s.

Turning Torso tower by Santiago Calatrava

Turning Torso Apartment and Office Tower, Malmö, Sweden, by Santiago Calatrava, projected completion 2005, ©Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava is one of the world's most innovative designers and his Turning Torso apartment and office tower in Malmö, Sweden is a tour de force. Projected for completion in 2005, the tower will be 623 feet high. "On a footprint slightly smaller than one hundred feet in diameter, nine five-sided, five-story volumes rotate a total of ninety degrees," according to the catalogue entry by Tina di Carlo. While the reinforced concrete core radius remains a constant sixteen and one-half feet," she continued, "the thickness of its wall radically slims from eight feet at the base to one and one-quarter feet at the top. The structure is further reinforced by a steel truss, or 'exoskeleton' - an external frame consisting of a columnar tension spine situated at the edges of the triangular extensions of the five-sided volumes, to which a series of horizontal and diagonal rib-like struts is attached. The exoskeleton is then tied to a large anchored-pile foundation slab, which provides additional lateral stablility. The combination of compressive core and tension spine creates a sense of dynamism in the form.....The first twelve stories provide approximately 43,000 square feet of office space; the upper thirty-eight levels are strictly residential. A hotel and gym are provided on the forty-third floor. Each floor can be divided into five separate dwellings with common areas such as meeting rooms, saunas, and gyms allocated to the triangular areas between the five-sided volume and the vertical spine of the exoskeleton. The spaces between each sub-building are intended for use as observation decks. All wet areas, including bathrooms, kitchens and laundry areas are adjacent to the core. A secondary adjacent structure provides parking, shops , and restaurants."

7 South Dearborn, Chicago

7 South Dearborn project, Chicago, Adrian D. Smith, architect, and William F. Baker, engineer, both of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1998

Another project that divides its tower into vertical sections is 7 South Dearborn, a 1998 project in Chicago that was designed by Adrian D. Smith, architect, and William F. Baker, engineer, both of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The very elegant, but unrealized, project would have been 2,000 feet high, surpassing the the 1976 CN Tower of Toronto by 234 feet.

"The building as designed occupies less than a third of a block, with a setback of only ten feet from the property line," according to the catalogue entry by Guy Nordenson. "The design is straightforward and functional. A central sixty-seven-foot-square hollow mast of reinforced concrete rises from a foundation of straight-shaft caissons all the way to the base of the antennae. The building envelope tapers upwards from the...parking and office levels in twenty-foot increments four times over the height of the whole. The first forty-eight floors are devoted to parking and office space. Above the fifty-fifth floor are three twenty-story blocks, two of which are residential and one, at the top, dedicated to broadcasting equipment. These blocks are cantilevered around the concrete mast and are separated by notches that cut back to the face of the mast. The notches reduce thebuilding's wind-related vibrations by creating local turbulence that impedes the formation and shedding of wind vortices....The...design also includes a tuned liquid column damper at the top to help further decrease these vibrations," Mr. Nordenson wrote.

The Highcliff and the Summit

The Highcliff and the Summit, Hong Kong, Dennis Lau Wing-kwong, architect and Ad Gouwerok, engineer, 2002, ©Dennis Lau & Ny Chun Man Architects and Engineers

Even more slick than the design for 7 South Dearborn is the design by Dennis Lau Wing-kwong of Dennis Lau & Ng Chun Man Architecturs and Engineers of the 827-foot-high Highcliff and the 722-foot-high Summit, two towers that were completed in 2002 in Hong Kong. Ad Gouwerok of Magnusson Klemencic & Associates was the engineer.

Highcliff has a plan of two intersecting elipses. It has 62 residential floors above a seven-story sunlit base. There are two four-bedroom apartments per floor. Its site is on a steep slope on Mount Nicholson and because the very slender tower is exposed to a lot of wind it has liquid dampers on its roof. The Summit is a 60-story apartment building of four-bedroom duplexes. These are gorgeous towers with very refined facades.

London Bridge Tower, London, by Renzo Piano

London Bridge Tower, Renzo Piano, architect, Ove Arup & Partners, engineers, 1,016 feet tall, projected completion 2009, ©Renzo Piano Building Workshop

Renzo Piano took as his design motif for his London Bridge Tower in London that city's church steeples and the masts of tall ships that used to moor in the nearby Thames River. The 1,016-foot-tall tower is projected for completion in 2009. With its asymmetrical form and untinted glass, it promises to become a very grand urban steeple.

122 Leadenhall Street, London

122 Leadenhall Street, London, Richard Rogers, architect, David Glover of Ove Arup & Partners, engineer, 728 feet, 2003

122 Leadenhall Street is a 728-foot-high, 47-story tower designed by Richard Rogers, who also designed the Lloyd's of London headquarters building, which is not too far away, in 1986. This tower, completed in 2003, is adjacent to St. Helen's Square and close to Norman Foster's new Swiss Reinsurance Headquarters (see below). This tower has a wedge-shape to maximize views and protect an important local vista of St. Paul's Cathedral and Fleet Street. The mechanical systems, elevators, stairs and sanitary facilities are bunched together on the north façade of the building, which occupies about half the site. David Glover of Ove Arup & Partners was the engineer.

30 St. Mary Axe, London by Norman Foster

30 St. Mary Axe, London, Norman Foster, architect, John Brazier of Ove Arup & Partners, engineers, 590 feet high, projected completion 2004

Although at first glance it is something of a very big pill, 30 St. Mary Axe, London, by Norman Foster is a very complex and intriguing building. The 590-foot-tall tower is the headquarters of Swiss Reinsurance. The 40-story, circular tower has a 162-foot diameter at its base and expands as it rises to 185 feet at the 17th floor and ten tapers to its crown, which Terence Riley states in the catalogue will contain a double-height entertainment and dining facility "for the use of the building's occupants." The building has a central core and a diagrid of diagonally interlocking steel elements that spiral upward to meet at the building's apex. There are six triangular light-wells and the floor plates, Mr. Riley noted, are "rotated slightly so that the six light wells do not stack vertically." John Brazier of Ove Arup & Partners was the engineer.

Two of the more unusual designs in the exhibition and catalogue are the Togok (XL Towers), a 1,444-feet-high project designed in 1996-2002 by Rem Koolhaas of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture for Seoul, Korea, with engineers Cecil Balmond and Philip Dilley of Ove Arup & Partners, and one of the proposals for the redevelopment of the former World Trade Center site in Manhattan.

The Korean proposed project consists of six buildings of various heights, "two of which are arranged and inclined to form A-frames with their opposite towers," Tina di Carlo wrote in the catalogue entry. "All are tied together with a structural and circulation collar. While, separately, the buildings would be slender enough to require extensive dynamic control, together they create a stiff ensemble capable of sustaining large lateral, as well as vertical loads. This connection is further made us of by introducing springs and dampers at the 'passing' connections of the inclined central tower to control wind vibrations. This system eschews the need for extremely deep floor plates and a central core that traditionally provides lateral stability. The result is a high degree of spaces with natural daylight and views." The project consists of 4 million square feet of retail space, 1.5 million square feet of hotel space, and a winter garden, a convention center, retail, a pool, parking and a 10,000-seat stadium.

The World Trade Center project that is similar to Koolhaas's Korean project was proposed by United Architects consisted of Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of Un Studio, Peter Frankfurt and Mikon van Gastel of Imaginary Forces, Kevin Kennon of Kevin Kennon Architects, Grey Lynn of Grey Lynn FORM, Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zacro-Polo of Foreign Office Architects and Jesse Reiser and Nanako Unemoto of Reiser + Unemoto. This project, which did not win the competition, consisted by five linked towers with a total of more than 10 million square feet of space, 80 percent of which was for offices. According to Terence Riley's text, "each of the five towers is designed as a self-supporting free-standing structure. When they are conjoined, their individual structural strength is increased, making them able to resist tremendous forces through mutual support....The conjoined towers, unlike the traditional vertical tower with its unitary vertical systems, offer multiple routes of escape and fire-fighting access following vertical and, if necessary, horizontal routes....A sky park at the top of the complex, with public amenities, creates a lofty horizon at the fifty-fifth floor....At floor 108, the apex of the tallest structure, is an observatory."

Aine M. Brazil and Thomas Scarangello of Thornton-Tomasetti and Rory McGowan of Ove Arup & Partners were the engineers for this project.

This proposal has a helter-skelter "Bladerunner" quality that is extremely monumental, daring and overwhelming and harks back to the daring 1960's megastructures that have yet to realized.

Another losing design for the World Trade Center site competition is highlighted, that of Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Stevel Holl. Their 1,111-foot-high design consisted of an elegant megastructure with five major vertical towers linked by three horizontal elements. Two of the towers were placed at a 90-degree angle with the other three to form a corner. Craig Schitters of Buro Happold was the engineer for this impressive project.

A third losing proposal for the same site is also highlighted, that of Norman Foster, a 1,764-foot-high with a diagrid of composite steel and concrete diagonal members. "The proposal," Guy Nordenson wrote, "is an astonishing mixture of abstraction and populism. It is unabashedly progressive in tone and substance. Like the original World Trade Center towers, it shares a kinship to the absolute optimism and professionalism of the space programs of the 1960s."

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