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Skyscrapers

by Danny Forster on Apr 8, 2010

Skyscrapers are weird creatures. They are on the one hand extremely private, home to private corporations guarded by security cameras and men with walkie talkies. On the other hand, because of the part they play in the urban skyline, they are public objects, furniture in our common living room. The Empire State Building could well be more significant to the New Yorker passing by than to the banker who works inside.
The Empire State Building could well be more significant to the New Yorker passing by than to the banker who works inside.
It might look like the only job an architect has when designing a skyscraper is to make it as tall as possible without falling over, but the truth is far more complicated. The building has the responsibility to its developer to maximize rentable real estate—which affects everything from the distance between the elevators and the windows to the number of bathrooms per square foot. But it also has a responsibility to its city, to people who aren′t investing in it and won′t be paying the rent. Henry Cobb, of Pei Cobb Freed, taught me that, when I first started working as an architect. As he put it, a skyscraper has a responsibility to be a good citizen. It′s taking up an awful lot of blue sky that belongs to everyone; it should justify its bulk.
A skyscraper has a responsibility to be a good citizen. It′s taking up an awful lot of blue sky that belongs to everyone; it should justify its bulk.
How can a skyscraper do that? By being beautiful enough that people accept it as part of the skyline; by showing respect to the buildings around it; and by being recognizably and fundamentally a part of its particular town. Hancock Tower, for instance, is completely respectful of Copley Square in Boston. Using a parallelogram design, it manages to look paper thin at ground level from Trinity Church, but from other angles broad and solid as a cruise ship. The surface is highly reflective, giving the tallest building in Boston a weightless quality as it mirrors the sky and clouds and surrounding architecture.

But some skyscrapers look just like big office buildings plonked down indiscriminately in any city. And some are impressive and recognizable—like the brand-new, record-breaking Burj Khalifa in Dubai—but of questionable utility for its neighbors and its neighborhood. Burj Khalifa, an amazing feat of engineering and money and bravado, now easily the tallest building in the world may ultimately come to symbolize a real estate frenzy and subsequent crash more than the modern, prosperous Middle East. (OK, do you want to say anything more specific about the design. I read that it′s based on the Hymenocallis flower, a regional desert flower. If it at the same time fails to interact in any meaningful way with the environment or local culture or climate, etc., that would be a fun thing to point out )
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