Reaching for the Heavens
Reading Super Tall: How the World’s Tallest Buildings Are Reshaping Our Cities and Our Lives is not unlike the experience of observing the Burj Khalifa, the Shanghai Tower, the Petronas Towers, or any other similarly hubristic skyscraper around the world. It’s novel. It’s intriguing. It commands attention. It’s momentarily inspiring.
It’s hard not to like.
The book’s author, Stefan Al, is one of many people who are excited about skyscrapers—including, of course, many developers. Dozens of supertalls are going up around the world, mostly in Asia and a certain small island across from New Jersey. The Empire State Building, which was completed in 1931 and remained the third-tallest skyscraper in the world until 1998, now ranks 54th, and sixth in its own city. Al’s book captures an important moment in architecture and urbanism.
But, ultimately, Super Tall is more trivial than substantive, and more fun than challenging. Fortunately, this sort of fun, unlike its subject matter, does not cost billions of dollars, spew carbon into the atmosphere, or endanger migrant laborers.
Al does not write for a living—at least, not primarily. He designs buildings, largely with New York–based Kohn Pedersen Fox. On that count, Super Tall succeeds and is written with clarity and authority. I would gladly hang out on the 163rd floor of an Al building, if it’s as well designed as his book is written. Al doesn’t explicitly advance a thesis, nor does he theorize. He offers nothing resembling Michele de Certeau’s observation, made atop the erstwhile World Trade Center, that the view “transforms the bewitching world…into a text that lies before one’s eyes.” Instead, Al’s central idea is that the modern generation of supertalls—defined by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat as buildings over 300 meters—are really, really cool and really, really complicated. The former point is largely implicit, while the latter is explained in detail in the first half of the book.
Supertall buildings contend with the forces of physics in all sorts of ways. Contrary to the iconic 20th century image of steel-girder skeletons, contemporary skyscrapers are constructed almost exclusively made of reinforced concrete. Concrete bears weight effectively and, even more important, sways less in the inevitably fierce winds that develop 1,000 feet above the Earth’s surface.
How, you might ask, does tons of liquified rock make its way further and further into the troposphere? With great difficulty. In Al’s account, the construction of the Burj Khalifa was almost more impressive than its design. Contractors had to regulate the temperature of cement pumped from the desert floor up to the building’s upper reaches to make sure it didn’t harden halfway up.
Similar innovations apply to climate control within buildings, through massive HVAC systems, and for transportation within them, through elevators fast enough not to try occupants’ patience, but not so fast as to induce nausea. (It’s a fine line.) Also on the nausea tip, super-tall buildings include (usually hidden) mechanical wonders, such as carefully calibrated dampeners and counterweights that reduce sway. Al notes that a little rocking might not bother office workers who are absorbed in their spreadsheets and quarterly reports, but it would drive residents nearly mad. By the end of the fourth chapter, you’ll pretty much know how to build your very own skyscraper.
Super Tall’s second half presents a series of case studies that attempt to place skyscrapers in various urban contexts and to relate them to contemporary urban planning principles. While relevant, the discussions sometimes veer far enough away from skyscrapers that Super Tall feels like two different books. In London, we learn about the tension between modern buildings that symbolize the city’s financial prominence and a historic streetscape that, despite being low-rise, is already pretty dense. Al writes, with more than a hint of lamentation, that in Europe, “building regulations and zoning, enacted to protect the public and property owners, have long hindered tall buildings.”
New York City illustrates the complexities of zoning and the regulatory hurdles over which buildings such as the phalanx of supertall, super-luxury buildings along the southern end of Central Park had to leap en route to rendering the Empire State Building merely the sixth-tallest building in the city. Hong Kong explains the crucial relationship between high density and mass transit, including a discussion of collaboration between developers and the city’s metro system to put ultra-tall buildings on top of high-capacity subway stations. And the city-state of Singapore illustrates ways that nature can complement the concrete jungle, through energy-efficient design and even explicitly “green” components like vertical gardens.
The chapters on Hong Kong and, especially, New York City, are masterful in their own right. In particular, Al’s explanation of air rights is nearly gripping. Al writes, “In New York, air is invisible land,” and he creates a sense of suspense that makes us eagerly wonder whether the proverbial heroic developer will ever get to break ground. He also nicely explains how zoning laws of the early 20th century influenced design: for instance, setback requirements led to the familiar stepped form of many Art Deco buildings.
Disappointingly, though, he offers little insight into the aesthetic decisions of contemporary supertall architects. Al neglects to explain the aesthetic principles that might make a supertall ugly or appealing, if those principles exist, nor does he address matters like cladding and ornamentation. With the exception of some discussions about shadows, Al fails to acknowledge that some buildings are gorgeous and others are hideous, and that the skyline is a public good that ought not be defiled by the latter. Sure, aesthetics are subjective, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be discussed.
An exception comes in the chapter on New York, in which he praises not specific buildings but rather the jumbled-up skyline they create through air rights transfers that keep other parts of the cities low: “[S]uper slenders balance the skyline. Aesthetically speaking, their thin peaks add crescendos, allowing for diminuendos elsewhere, avoiding the otherwise monotonous solid wall of equally high-pitched buildings.” Fans of the now-dwarfed Chrysler Building might take issue with Al’s enthusiasm. But at least he’s provocative.
The trouble is, Al’s veneration of tall buildings, and, implicitly, the entities that create them, is all too pure. Granted, Al is an architect; he wants to build, and he wants to marvel. But his treatment of supertalls focuses on technology and awe at the expense of humanism.
At a few moments in the New York and London chapters, Al comes close to acknowledging the relationship between supertalls and aggressive capitalism. He briefly laments that New York’s new residential towers will be inhabited by the ultra-wealthy—if they’re inhabited at all. He marvels at the slenderness of some of the buildings—some more than 20 times taller than they are wide—but blithely explains that skinny buildings nicely accommodate apartments that take up entire floors, just as the oligarchs like them.
For everyone else, though, supertalls hold dubious benefits. Skyscrapers have long borne criticism (and rightfully so) for ignoring and even degrading the life of the street.
For everyone else, though, supertalls hold dubious benefits. Skyscrapers have long borne criticism (and rightfully so) for ignoring and even degrading the life of the street. They look impressive from afar but do not necessarily add anything at ground level. They have been described as “vertical cul-de-sacs” that alienate their inhabitants and segregate them from the human tapestry below. They occupy public airspace and yet are, for the most part, accessible only to the people who live or work in them, never mind the halfhearted “publicly owned private spaces” that many developers include so they can add a few floors.
And—far be it for an architect to acknowledge this—they’re often monuments to ego, corporatism, and/or autocracy. The Burj Khalifa was developed by one autocrat (Sheikh Mhaktoum of Dubai) and is named after another (Sheikh Khalifa of Abu Dhabi). It’s no secret which kingdom the forthcoming 1,000-meter (not a typo) Kingdom Tower of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, refers to. The towers Sears, Petronas, Ping An, and Lotte speak for themselves. Refreshingly, the British seem to have gotten wise to this, deploying their drollery to assign deprecating nicknames—the Shard, the Walkie-Talkie, and, of course, the Gherkin—to anything that dares overtop St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In Al’s telling, supertalls seem to finance themselves. As fascinating as elevators and air conditioning might be, it seems odd to discuss those technologies without discussing the capital that makes it all happen. How, indeed, do developers convince lenders and equity partners to invest in monumentally risky ventures? How do they pay for themselves? If New York City outlaws shell corporations from owning real estate, would anyone, or anything, buy that 94th-floor penthouse high above 57th Street?
It would be one thing if supertalls merely occupied airspace. Unfortunately, they also defile it. The concrete at which Al marvels represents jaw-dropping amounts of carbon emissions—roughly 900 kilograms per ton. Al reports that supertall buildings, despite using land efficiently, use more energy and have less usable floor space (because of elevators and mechanical elements) relative to more earthly structures. Recent studies suggest that low-rise cities, averaging less than 10 stories, emit less than half as much carbon as similarly dense high-rise cities. Case in point: If supertall buildings were efficient, developers wouldn’t need to sell their condos for $7,000 per square foot.
Al addresses these problems in his final chapter, acknowledging that “the environmental cost of tall buildings summons an existential crisis for skyscraper designers.” Having written an entire book celebrating height, Al concludes, “we need to recalibrate the race for the tallest building. We should aim for buildings to be the greenest.”
How to build a skyscraper is one thing. Why to build one is another, especially in light of both their detriments and our larger ecological challenges. On this point, Al is disappointingly silent. With the possible exceptions of Hong Kong and Manhattan, few cities in the world are so dense as to demand 900-meter buildings. Usually, two of 450 meters, or 10 of 90 meters, will suffice. Tokyo, for instance, proves that merely tall and moderately tall buildings do just fine. By contrast, the Burj Khalifa is little more than an extravagant metaphor amid Dubai’s expanses of undeveloped desert.
The book’s most frustrating oversight may be the geopolitical and economic significance of skyscrapers, especially as they relate to East Asia. Seven of the world’s 15 tallest, and roughly half of the world’s 30 tallest, are located in eight different mainland Chinese cities. A new supertall is going up in Kuala Lumpur, and there’s one in Ho Chi Minh City, too. What’s going on in Asia? Hubris? Necessity? Cheap concrete? Economic saber-rattling? Al doesn’t say. How long will that boom last? Al doesn’t speculate.
Al comes by his exuberance honestly. Architects love to build things. (Al himself co-designed the Canton Tower, a 604-meter observation tower in Guangzhou.) But some architects also like to critique things, and sometimes they even like to critique capitalism. Super Tall includes no such critiques. It will not prompt any design revolutions, but it marks a distinctive moment in design history. And reading it will make visits to Dubai, Shanghai, New York, Shenzhen, and—maybe someday—Jeddah just that much more fun.
Featured image via Autodesk.