Notes on the Psychology of Great Towers

The only way to achieve urban "compaction" is to build high.

A hundred years ago the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan made an interesting remark about skyscrapers. "The social significance of the tall building," he said, 'is its most important attribute. It should be a proud and soaring thing that makes a powerful appeal to the architectural imagination. But where imagination is absent the case is hopeless."

The ultra-tall buildings that architects and engineers discuss today have not lost the quality of excitement and daring that Sullivan talked about. In Taiwan and China, Malaysia and Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, Japan and Australia, such is the entrepreneurial spirit of these countries, sooner or later one will soar over a city to a height of more than half a kilometre. One day perhaps Sir Norman Foster's long planned 788 metre Millennium tower for Japan will exceed even that. Even it does, in the far distance, looms another goal, the realisation of Frank Lloyd Wright's Mile High Illinois, the greatest high rise project of all and already 50 years old.

There is no longer any technological barrier to building high. Skyscrapers already under construction are using ultra-high-strength concrete that can withstand enormous loads on very small sections. They will be equipped with multi-speed lift systems with out-of-shaft car parking that no longer consume valuable floor space nor delay access to high levels. Their information technology will give them unprecedented global communicating power. They can be erected in 48 months. Balanced with tuned mass dampers and active structural frames a third millennium 90-storey building with 2,000 square metre floor plates - an edifice inconceivable ten years ago - will be able to operate at half the energy cost and twice the thermal efficiency of a 20th century eight-storey office block.

Millenium Tower

It is not true to say that today's super-skyscrapers are merely monocultural symbols. They are vertical streets with 200,000 square metres of serviced floor space at the service of 10,000 people 24 hours a day - not simply the daytime home of a few hundred office workers. Typically their first ten storeys are given over to shopping and entertainment; their towers incorporate not only huge office floors but hotels, restaurants and apartments. And, because they rise so high, all of this diverse accommodation stands, in urban planning terms, upon the head of a pin. A cluster of these towers would be a city above a city: a restoration of the distinctness of the city that has been progressively lost in our century. Buildings like this can be plugged into the existing transport infrastructure of an old city as easily as microprocessors can be added to the circuit boards of a computer. The new skyscraper is a miracle of power, technology and art. Why on earth does anyone oppose it?

Petronas Towers

The answer lies in the art historical value system, whose notion that cities are places of enormous wealth confuses appearance with performance, and whose idea of eternal worth flies in the face of nature. Out of this rear view mirror distortion of history has grown a deadly form of ancestor worship. Because of it, every ancient city is overloaded with buildings that are said to be priceless but in reality are useless. They are either too small, too irregular in shape, too hard to service or too distant from existing transport infrastructure to serve present day commerce. In the City of London alone there are thousands of these buildings. So many that, were it not for the bombing undergone during World War Two (followed more recently by the terrorist attacks of the IRA), there would be no available sites for new buildings at all. The city would be strangled by the inflexibility of its own past, like Petra or Jerash.

Today demand for large floor plate accommodation is rising again after years of recession. This time the planning philosophy is different. In Europe and the United States most policy makers reason that the more transport infrastructure spreads, the more vehicular movements there will be, the more intersections and interchanges, the more inefficiency and the more cost and pollution. One might expect these conclusions to lead them directly toward higher densities and taller buildings. They know the only way to achieve urban "compaction" is to build high. They know that, for expanding world financial centres that pride themselves on doing business face to face, there is no compacting alternative. And yet, as we see in Berlin as well as London, these city planners have lost the plot.

Thirty years ago the Canadian media philosopher Marshall MacLuhan explained the price we pay for the power of our technology to create an artificial environment for ourselves. The cost of this power is, he said, the shock effect produced by each new level of innovation. He saw that this shock acted like an anaesthetic, paralysing our ability to defend ourselves against change despite our determination to prevent it. This, he said, is why change occurs, despite the defences erected to oppose it. There can be no better example of this process than resistance to tall buildings in cities.

We should not be fooled when urban planners say that they want our cities to prosper as world financial centres in the 21st century. All too often what they really want is to continue applying their irrelevant art historical value system to the task. They want prosperity, yes, but they also want conservation areas, historic facades, protected view corridors and Listed buildings in such profusion that nothing new of economic size can ever be built where it is needed.

If resistance to tall buildings continues, all our cities will become more and more diluted by peripheral and satellite development. Over time the advantages of distant locations will seem more attractive to developers. Over time the boundaries that separate cities from rural areas will dissolve away. Over time what was once contained within the ancient walls of a city will leak away to the provinces and beyond. Anaesthetised by the challenge of the present, our city planners are clinging to the past. As a result the future, the dilution and decentralisation they dread, advances upon them unopposed. (Martin Pawley)