Onward and Upward?

Four years after 9/11—at perhaps the peak of the real estate bubble—very tall has never been hotter.

When it was announced in July that Santiago Calatrava had designed a 2,000-foot 115-story condominium tower for the Chicago lakefront, the news followed a now familiar course: a wave of press, some near hysterical, moved by the fact that the thing—though it existed only as a picture and the financing was not yet well explained—would usurp the nearby Sears Tower to become the tallest structure in the United States, perhaps briefly the tallest in the world. The world’s tallest building! It still gets the blood running and the presses rolling. Seventy-five years after the Empire State Building, more than a decade after the start of Asia’s skyscraper spree, four years after September 11—at what may be the maximum moment of the real estate bubble—very tall has never been more hot.

Even in a time of posturing intellectualism, a time when many architects, seeking to expand their purview and market share, ignore the fixed virtues of their art, some things are true. Because gravity pulls down, because our will to project human qualities on the inanimate never abates, because, maybe, we bear cultural memories of simpler means of war—where attaining the high ground could mean life or death—because the gods are still thought to be in heaven and heaven is still thought to be up, because complicated constructions reek of money, tall buildings signify power—sometimes transcendence but always power: one-upmanship in its starkest form. This remains so even in the face of the decentralizing force of our shinier technologies; it’s like one gruff lingering last stand for Steel (and Stone) Age machismo. The Chicago project, though daintily attired in twisting glass, is clearly driven foremost by such brutal psychologies: a primal mark on the land and sky, a virile bid for immortality, a totem of civic prowess.

Another Calatrava tower—the so-called Turning Torso, rather insipidly named after one of the architect’s sculptures and rather disturbingly retaining the sculpture’s form to the detriment of the spaces inside—was recently completed in Malmø, Sweden. It is even more clearly a product of ancient urges. At only 54 stories, the building is a nonstarter in the booming international height race, which for the first time since the 1930s has induced some developers to make a secret of their buildings’ height lest the competition stretch up to eclipse it. The current leader, expected to be completed in 2009 (exact height still competitively masked), is Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s already mythical Burj Dubai, slated to top out, according to most reports, at about half a mile up. In the timeless spirit of the unnecessarily soaring, it is intended, according to its developers, to bring the title of “World’s Tallest” back to the Middle East—lost when European buildings began to surpass the pyramids.

Calatrava’s Malmø structure was commissioned for exactly the same rivalrous reasons. Built by a venerable Swedish housing collective, the nakedly tumescent tower commands the four-story cityscape, the low plains of Scania, the waters of the Øresund, and most importantly, the city of Copenhagen on the far shore, where recently the Danish public deemed a ten-story building on the waterfront a destructively tall affront to the human scale. In that ground-hugging confidence they are nearly alone among contemporary urbanites; still their Swedish neighbors hope that they will look across the intervening sound with envy.

Like nearly all tall buildings, the uses within Turning Torso could have been housed in distributed low-rises. The point of the thing—as much as for the Taipei Financial Center, the current titleholder, or the Petronas Towers, deposed in 2003—is the measure of the highest point and the iconic form the building takes en route to achieving that height. Does it matter that at a top-floor press conference in August the swaying of the aggressively engineered tower, compounded by the slightly off-plumb lines of its punched windows, caused several journalists to turn a queasy green and come close to losing their free lunches? People are supposed to live there—all but 15 floors are entirely or mostly apartments—but it is clear from the architecture (like all rounded towers, sacrificing amenity to form) and clear from the program (tall for tall’s sake) that the thing is meant to please other customers first.

In a time when prudence dictates that we assume all skyscrapers—particularly those prominent purpose-built symbols—to be potential political targets, erecting them takes on an ethical dimension. But as each new world or regional “tallest” is announced, there has been precious little concern evident—and very little commentary. Donald Trump, who after involving himself with Ground Zero and the renovation of the United Nations headquarters is fast becoming our most powerful architectural activist, piped up along these lines when Calatrava’s Chicago tower made the news. “Nobody in his right mind would build a building of that height in today’s horrible world,” he said. The developer accused of such insanity, Christopher Carley, pointed out that Trump’s own under-construction Chicago project would itself be only 90 feet lower than Sears. A big statement in internationally inoffensive Sweden may be safe, but London—so clearly in the cross-hairs—continues with its (relatively) tall building boom. Renzo Piano’s London Bridge Tower, aka the “Shard of Glass,” is moving forward. And at 70 stories and more than 1,000 feet tall, it will be the highest building in Europe—a newly convenient target for those who may wish to use skyscrapers to send other kinds of messages but lack the gumption to book a flight to New York.

How terrifying, how wonderful, that the urge to sky-scrape carries on so blithely after September 11. One of the first mass social reactions after the attack was to equate a morally satisfying response to great height; all of you probably saw that e-mail image of the Twin Towers manipulated into a fuck-you fist, 150 stories tall. Stoked by conservative flag-waving reconstruction advocates (Team Twin Towers, et al.) and sanitized by flag-waving opportunists like Daniel Libeskind (“Life victorious”), great height became the unquestioned order of things at the one place where building to great height had proven to be not structurally but politically impracticable.

It went unquestioned even after the NYPD scuttled one Freedom Tower with security concerns and another, just as tall, was soon unveiled. The current and possibly final version of the 1,776-foot-tall symbol even puts people higher in the air—about 350 feet higher than the limit Larry Silverstein had announced years earlier as a safe maximum. And if the man with the money at stake, the politicians with the careers at stake, and the police force with officers at stake all endorse a run for “tallest” height at a site that has twice proven irresistible to malfeasance—a two-time bull’s-eye—then who is to stop nationalists in Dubai or China or Sweden, or egoists in Chicago, from building too close to the Sun? The craving for immortality must always be greater than the fear of death.

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