Book Review: “Supertall,” by Stefan Al

on Apr12
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SUPERTALL: How the World’s Tallest Buildings Are Reshaping Our Cities and Our Lives

By Stefan Al

The unrelenting construction of bigger and bigger skyscrapers in New York City is “shutting out the light of the heavens and circumscribing the air of the streets,” robbing citizens of their rights to light and air, “which, ‘in the pursuit of health, happiness and prosperity,’ they should demand,” wrote an architect named David Knickerbocker Boyd, who called the newest crop of tall towers “a menace to public health and safety and an offense which must be stopped.” Boyd’s view of the skyscraper as an urban plague makes him sound as if he were leading the charge against the forest of pencil-thin, ultra-tall towers that has sprung up lately on Billionaires’ Row in Midtown Manhattan. He might have done just that, had he not died in 1944. Boyd’s jeremiad was written 114 years ago, when anything with more than a dozen floors was considered a skyscraper, and the tallest building in the world was Ernest Flagg’s just-finished Singer Building at Broadway and Liberty Street, which rose to the then unheard-of height of 47 stories.

It isn’t just today, when tall buildings have become commonplace and 57th Street has become a boulevard of glittery glass condominiums taller than the Empire State Building, that people complain about skyscrapers. There is a long history of tension between cities and the towers that often define their identities. For much of his career Flagg was an ardent opponent of tall buildings, which he considered both unsafe and difficult to make aesthetically pleasing. He had already designed a 10-story headquarters for the Singer Corporation, but when Singer decided to go taller, Flagg went along, greatly increasing the building’s height with the addition of a slender tower that he hoped would show that a building could be tall and not block out the sun and sky.

Not everyone cared, and there would be more bulky towers than Flagg-like needles. There was just too much money to be made in turning the skyline, which had once belonged to church steeples and, in New York, to the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, into a celebration of capitalism. The skyscraper might seem a natural outgrowth of technological developments — the elevator and the steel frame that supports great height — and of the mounting economic might of corporations. But it also has a lot to do with culture, and with the willingness of certain places to let capitalism express itself with unrestrained force, not to mention exuberance.

It is no accident that the skyscraper came into being in the United States as this country was becoming a major presence on the world stage. Putting up tall towers was a way of flexing American muscle, of showing the world that this country was capable not only of amazing engineering feats but of building entire cities around them. The brilliant engineer Gustave Eiffel could create his tower as a symbol, but he did not reshape modern Paris. It would be on the relatively cleaner slates of New York and Chicago that the 20th century would assert itself in the making of a new kind of skyline. And the skyscraper would become one of the most significant contributions America would make to international culture.

Much of the world was quick to embrace jazz, another U.S. export of roughly the same vintage. Skyscrapers would take a good bit longer to catch on. They would remain mostly an American phenomenon until toward the end of the 20th century. And that is about where Stefan Al takes up the story in “Supertall: How the World’s Tallest Buildings Are Reshaping Our Cities and Our Lives,” which is a thoughtful inquiry into the current generation of skyscrapers, buildings that are generally taller than their predecessors, more numerous and more widely spread around the world. Many of them are even more daring as works of engineering than their forerunners: staggeringly thin, thanks to advances in structural design, and reaching great heights. Some of this new wave of skyscrapers inspire awe, but more of them surely inspire resentment. There is, after all, less and less novelty to the notion of a tower that rises to more than 1,000 feet; they seem now to be everywhere, and they have changed the scale of major cities around the world.

That is the premise behind this book: This is not your grandfather’s skyscraper that you are seeing out your window; the new generation of skyscrapers is bigger and more ubiquitous than the one that came before. What has happened to the skyline in recent years has made the expectation that 9/11 would lead to the skyscraper’s demise seem like a quaint memory. We may not like all of what this age of supertall buildings has given us, and Al is not insisting that we should. Al, a Dutch architect based in New York who did a stint on the staff of Kohn Pedersen Fox, a prolific international designer of tall buildings, writes clearly. He understands that skyscrapers are a product of technology, finance, zoning, marketing, social preferences and aesthetics, and that to ignore any one of these categories is to misunderstand the subject.

Al divides his book into two main sections, Technology and Society: the first a set of chapters about things like concrete, wind and elevators; the second a series of essays about cities — London, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore — each of which he presents as a case study of different political, social and economic attitudes toward the skyscraper. There is a lot of rich history here, well and concisely told (and illustrated with superb line drawings, a refreshing change from the big, splashy photographs of coffee-table books).

London is the example of an old and mostly low urban fabric now being infiltrated by skyscrapers, with questionable results; Hong Kong is seen as a vast machine, where towers cluster tightly together and an efficient mass transit system makes it all work as almost an integrated unit. Singapore, a place in which landscape has been woven not only into the urban design, but also into the structures of the new towers themselves, may be Al’s ideal: a dense, high-rise garden city. New York is, well, New York, where the new supertall and superthin residential towers stand as a troubling symbol. “As ingenious as these structures may be, they are also markers of increased inequity and societal risk,” Al writes. He calls them “a high-end world, a capitalist who’s who of the most expensive and luxurious real estate available.”

Still, Al is a mostly enthusiastic booster of the supertalls, sometimes to the point of excess or cliché, like when he calls them “the cathedrals of our time,” or writes that “truth is stranger than fiction: That’s the story of architecture today.” But then the social challenges that supertall buildings present bring him back down to earth, as it were, and he recovers his clear and critical eye. He believes that in an age of explosive urban growth we will need to continue to build tall, but he argues that building tall by itself is not enough: We need to find ways to do it that are greener, healthier and more sustainable without sacrificing beauty. He doesn’t pretend to know exactly how, but he knows that we will have to make the skyscraper something more than just, as the architect Cass Gilbert called it long ago, “the machine that makes the land pay.”

Paul Goldberger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic and the author, most recently, of “Ballpark: Baseball in the American City.”

SUPERTALL: How the World’s Tallest Buildings Are Reshaping Our Cities and Our Lives, by Stefan Al | W. W. Norton & Company | 296 pp. | Illustrated | $30

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