Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Eight Miles High

Apparently, most architects still see today as World Architecture Day, so I thought I would share a few thoughts on my profession, borrowing the title from a song by The Byrds.

The advent of computer graphic programs has unleashed a whole new architecture, which seems to owe more to biomorphic forms than it does traditional engineering.  It's not like there weren't examples of this in the past but now some of the shapes seem to have lives of their own, based on fractal geometry.  The biggest move though is in self-efficient buildings that can generate their own energy needs via solar, wind or geothermal sources.


One of my favorite contemporary architects is Ken Yeang who came up with the concept of the sustainable hi-rise, which is now being adapted to tall buildings to one extent or another.  Shigeru Ban teamed up with three other architects to form Think, which submitted a design for a sustainable skyscraper for the World Trade Center competition back in 2003.

The winning entry owed more to the Deconstructionist movement, which took root in the 80s, but the tower has since been redesigned and no longer looks anything like Daniel Libeskind's original vision.  The arduous process was documented by Frontline some years ago, showing how developers often trump architectural vision with the old adage, "highest and best use" or HBU.  The developer in this case was Larry Silverstein, who wasn't content with the 1776-foot "Freedom Tower," and wanted something much much bigger.

Ada Lousie Huxtable had written an engaging pamphlet years before entitled The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered in which she charts the rise of the skyscraper from its early roots in Chicago, where Louis Sullivan had considered the same subject nearly a century before.  She notes the wonderful charcoal drawings by Hugh Ferriss, which for years served as the model for the step-backed high rises that dominated the New York skyline.  She felt that 2000 feet was pretty much the limit, not because of engineering constraints, but rather the massive infrastructure that would be needed to support a building much taller than this.

Huxtable also notes the famous Chicago Tribune Tower competition that spawned this architectural race to the stratosphere.  The midland newspaper attracted architects from all over the world, including famed Vienese architect, Adolph Loos, who offered some of the more pithy insights into modern architecture at the time in his essays.  He notably compared ornament in architecture to tattoos on a human being.  Only criminals and Polynesians defaced themselves in this way.  The winning entry was a neo-Gothic tower designed by New York architects Raymond Hood and John Meads Howells, which Loos and other modern architects regarded as a throwback to the medieval age.  Loos' entry is the one pictured.

The next big race was in New York between the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street for the tallest building of its day.  As it turned out, William Van Allen, had a spire up his sleeve that edged out Craig Severance's building by 100 feet in the end, making the Chrysler Building the tallest building in the world, if ever so briefly.  The Empire State Building went up less than a year later, topping off at 1454 feet, well over Van Allen's spire.  Still, many consider the Chrysler Building the most beautiful tall building ever designed, and one even Loos admired.

It was this race to the top that inspired Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, where she combined her Objectivism with architecture in the form of Howard Roark.  Many critics felt she modeled her protagonist after Frank Lloyd Wright.  In fact, Wright would later design a cottage for Rand, based on his principles, which weren't very far apart despite him not showing much interest in her philosophical views.


The stakes became demonstrably higher when Frank Lloyd Wright came up with a design for a mile-high skyscraper for Chicago, which he described in his book, A Testament, back in 1956.  The massive building is not a pipedream.  There have been other proposals for similarly sized buildings. The Saudis are planning a Kingdom Tower that would be one-kilometer high, dwarfing any current skyscraper.  It should be completed in 2019.  It looks a lot like Wright's design, but scaled down to a more manageable height of 3280 feet.

However, today the major interest is more in "landscrapers," which hug the ground, falling and rising like natural hills and valleys, often with green roofs, which blend into the urban or rural landscape.  Some of the more inventive designs have been by Zaha Hadid, whose wistful curves appear to go to infinity and beyond, offering a much more elegant statement than Superstudio's endless cities from the 1960s.


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