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1. Scraping the sky
2. New York decides on Trade Center
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Structurally speaking

Photo of Chrysler building from the Library of Congress.

 

 


The skyscraper as turnip
Ah, yes, the romance of the tall building. The views from the pinnacle. The furtive stomach-stopping glances at the "ants" on the street so far below. The glamorous corner power office on the 87th floor.

Black and white photo of construction workers contemplating their work on a tall, steel-beamed buildingIron workers build the Chrysler Building in New York City in 1929. Photo from Charles Rivers Collection, Robert F. Wagner Archives, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Even before a gang of murderers wounded that image, there was another side to this quest for height. A side covered with dollar signs.

To Carol Willis, founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum in (where else?) Manhattan, all this blather about ego, primal urges and political statements conceals the truth - that buildings are designed to make money.

Graceful and tall, short and squat, even underground and invisible, the theme is commerce. While this understanding compares the glamorous skyscrapers to the lowly turnip in the supermarket bin, it does explain the title of her history of skyscrapers : "Form Follows Finance" (see bibliography).

"I studied skyscapes in New York and Chicago," says Willis, "and I see the skyline less in the inspirational, psychological and egotistical mode... My answer, as an academic, is that the skyline is a graph of economic cycles embodied in buildings, in their heights, in the competition for location and in the competition to create the commodity of space."

Whyfilers and others get hung up on what she calls "the romance of the skyscraper, this desire to build tall, the race into sky, the competition to have the world's tallest structure. I have fought against this analysis. I have tried to make a more rational argument ... that most buildings are built to produce rents rather than to express ego.

They express economic principle."

black and white photograph of the soaring Chrysler Building, with arc-shaped decorations near the top. Looking like the dashboard of a '55 Chrysler Newport, the Chrysler building defined art-deco architecture. Image from Library of Congress.

Trump, trumped
Bottom-line calculations are even visible in a decision by Donald Trump, developer-egotist extraordinaire, to scale back plans for a skyscraper in Chicago. Originally slated to rise 110 stories, the post 9/11 plan is to top off at about 86. "The Trump building in Chicago was going to be the tallest," says skyscraper structural engineer Ron Klemencic, "but even though they claim that they scaled back because of [fears raised by] 9/11, I'd bet a pile of money that wasn't it. Trump is not one to let that influence him. The deal just did not work at 110 stories, but it works around 86."

Although "nationalism, civic pride, and ego play a role" in skyscraper decisions, Klemencic sees the roots of many scale-back s in the elevator problem. "There are some practical constraints on when the proforma [financial projection] works," he says. The downtown street grid defines the size of a city block, and thus of most buildings. As buildings get taller, elevator shafts eventually devour leaseable floor space. When buildings exceed about 80 stories, "The marginal cost of getting taller works against you," Klemencic says. "You chew up so much space in elevator shafts that it doesn't make sense."

Only two factors can alter what Klemencic calls this "magic threshold." First, owners of the highest building in a region can earn what he describes as "a fairly significant revenue stream" from broadcasting antennas. The income may be enough to justify building an extra 20 stories, he says..

Second, ego, the desire to brag about owning the tallest building in the world, may enter the equation. All of which returns us to the World Trade Center. Civic ego unquestionably played a key role in the 1960s, when the Port Authority started building a brace of the world's tallest buildings. Ditto today, when four of the nine Trade Center proposals included (could you have guessed?) plans for the world's tallest building, even though 17 million square feet of Manhattan commercial real estate is empty.

The reconstruction planning to date, says architect Mark Hinshaw, is "a symbol of hubris, of New York wanting to maintain itself as the preeminent city in North America. Some would suggest [the new project] has to be larger than life, larger than what is actually needed."

If tallest is best, safer is better
But the landscape for skyscrapers has changed enormously since 9/11. Safety-once simply a matter of ensuring that the building was strong enough to stand and to resist predictable fires - now includes confronting terrorists armed with everything from fuel-packed jetliners to biological weapons.

People who live or work in potential target buildings have begun to look over their shoulders. Especially when so much office space is begging for tenants, working on the 86th floor suddenly seems less glamorous than, say, dangerous.

Plenty of high-tech suggestions have been made to reduce vulnerability to fire, explosion or earthquake, but some pedestrian measures can also help: for example, multiple stairways that are protected from fire and explosion, stronger steel frames with better protection against fire, and air-handling systems that protect against biological attack.

But this stuff costs money, and when potential tenants assess a building, they tend to think about rent rather than unseen features that they hope never to need. "There is a general lack of understanding in the population about building design, safety and security," says Klemencic. Consumer Reports evaluates cars and toasters, he observes, "but there's not much of that in the building industry. People take for granted that a building is safe, but they don't know that one is safer than another."

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, he says, has issued brochures to remedy the situation. "It's a checklist," he says. "If you are concerned about fire, earthquake, bombs, what could you look for, what questions should you ask to compare one building to the next?" The premise is that informed tenants demand safer buildings, eventually that will trickle down from developers to builders, architects and engineers.

The Portland skyline with modest-sized buildings and white-capped volcano in background.
The Cascade Mountains nicely frame this photo of Portland, Oregon, often touted as a livable city. Photo from U.S. State Department.

You're the top!
Super-tall buildings always carry a bit of a threat. But today, the psychological question of exposure is front-and-center: Would you want to work at the Trade Center site, especially if your view looked west to the Hudson River or north toward uptown, the approach paths used by the killing planes on 9/11?

Whether office workers are interested in working in extreme skyscrapers is "a really good question, but who knows the outcome," says Klemencic, who is president of Skilling, Ward, Magnusson and Barkshire, a Seattle engineering firm that designed the structure of the World Trade Center. "People have moved out of Chicago's Sears Tower [which eclipsed the World Trade Center as the tallest building in 1974]. ... You could say it's because it's so tall, yes, but it's more the iconic value. The tallness gives it the iconic value."

Iconic value is something that the World Trade Center site, three times hit by terrorists, comes fully stocked with.

Just as the glamour of working high once allowed owners of tall buildings to charge beefy rents, today's fears are having an economic impact. Even in simple economic terms, the iconic, psychological status of a building matters.

The Denver skyline on a sunny day, snowcapped mountains in background
A few high-rises with strong horizontal bands in Denver, with the Rocky Mountains in the background. Photo from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Although the proposals for the World Trade site are being judged in terms of architecture and urban planning now, the decision on whether to build "will be about economics," Willis insists. "We have never built buildings that don't have a fundamental economic rationale -- that they will be paid back -- that's at least believable at the start."

Having said all that, Willis, like other observers from the field of architecture and urban planning, welcome the long-drawn-out debate over ground zero. "It's the biggest discussion of architecture in a long time."

9/11 was about death and destruction. It was about the American place in the world. But it was also about the past and future symbolism of giant buildings, and how they relate to the rest of society. "There are few other events in which architecture has played such a role," says Willis, "in which architecture has affected millions, billions of people."

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