Tower blocks came in with the new construction techniques of the later 19th century – metal frames, reliable lifts, telephones – and with the desire of wealthy firms for symbolic edifices to attract the envy of all. The world’s first proper high-rise building, at 40 meters, was erected in New York in 1868, the second in Minneapolis, and the third in Chicago.
The tower was capitalism on the rise made visible, a symbol constantly outdated as more powerful enterprises commanded ever-higher towers to appease the appetites of captains of industry and high finance; they wanted their tower, their seat of power, their commercial and public image. There’s something childish in this insatiable one-upmanship, although there are architects who still see the 19th century tower as the 21st century future.
But today’s real challenge lies in developing an architecture that moves with the times as the city evolves, and can deal with people’s expectations of wellbeing and environmental quality. The first urgent steps must be towards housing for all – those sleeping under bridges, families now poorly housed. We need new standards and a new urban geography for social housing. This calls for courageous new approaches in funding, allocating housing and planning. Why not involve future tenants in the construction of their homes?
High-rise buildings won’t help. Their rents are high so they remain in the luxury range. They offer no public space: life revolves around lifts and the need for home deliveries. They are vertical impasses such as those described by Paul Virilio. They don’t offer better office space either (their air-conditioned universe is statistically proven to provoke certain illnesses). After 9/11, World Trade Centre businesses found offices in smaller units chiefly in New Jersey; apart from occasional nostalgia for the Manhattan scene, everybody was happier.
Still many prominent architects, with the real estate lobby behind them, believe without proof that high-rise buildings can resolve the land problem (which might be true in part), improve densities (not proven), reduce energy needs (the data is contradictory) and contribute to the community (how is not clear).
At Mipim, the 2007 international real estate fair in Cannes, visitors admired the proposals for Moscow’s Federation Tower (448m, delivery in 2010), Warsaw’s Zlota 44 (54 floors), and New York’s Liberty Tower (541m) and New York Times Building (228m). There were others for Dubai (over 800m) and Paris, Nexity’s Granite tower by Christian de Portzamparc, the Generali by Valode and Pistre, and Thom Mayne’s 300-meter Unibail. And in London there was Renzo Piano’s 300-meter London Bridge Tower. All of this can only be explained by corporate arrogance. As far back as 1936 Le Corbusier evoked the possibility of a 2,000-meter tower for Paris. Only the Japanese have gone that far to date, with a 4,000-meter tower on the drawing board, and a 2,004-meter pyramid designed to accommodate 700,000 residents and 800,000 office workers.
No life to give
The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright condemned the tower phenomenon in 1930; skyscrapers, he said, had no life of their own and no life to give, having received none at their conception. They rise above a landscape without regard for their surroundings or for others: “The skyscraper envelope is not ethical, beautiful or permanent. It is a commercial exploit or a mere expedient. It has no higher ideal of unity than commercial success”. But then he couldn’t have imagined the impact of today’s commercial shopping malls and their decors, the complacent ersatz communities overshadowed by towers. [He also drew a tower a mile high.]
Guy Debord, the radical French writer, attacked Le Corbusier in 1954 for seeking to do away with the street and confine people to towers. Debord thought architecture should be a positive force in the community, intimately engaging with our capacities for play and for knowledge . He went on to develop the concepts of psycho-geography and unitary urbanism, and criticized the cold geometry underlying modern monumental urbanism and its towers and blocks.
The Chinese urban planner Zhuo Jian has counted 7,000 high-rise buildings in Shanghai; 20 of them exceed 200 meters. He has warned of ground subsidence of several centimeters a year. Other experts have shown that tower blocks are energy-intensive to construct (the manufacture of sophisticated glass and steel demands enormous resources). Nor are they cheap to maintain, with air conditioning, lifts and central floorplate lighting – though alternative techniques have been proposed, such as Jacques Ferrier’s energy-generating Hypergreen model. Critics point to the short 20-year lifespan of a product that is costly and ill suited to multi-functional requirements – how can universities, libraries, luxury apartments and 5-star hotels lodge under the same roof, given the disparities of activity and clientele?
In Paris, the Seine embankment, the skyscraper residences in the Olympiades and Flandres tower blocks, the Italie 2 shopping complex and the Montparnasse tower (1973, 209m) don’t encourage high-rise construction and platform urbanism. In 2003 63 per cent of Parisians didn’t like high-rise buildings. In 1977 the authorities had set a 37-meter limit on the height of new projects, but in June 2006 architects identified 17 sites in Paris suitable for towers of up to 150 meters or 17-storey residential blocks. The city council chose three for further study in January 2007 (Porte de La Chapelle, Bercy-Poniatowski and Masséna-Bruneseau) and 12 teams entered proposals for towers on inhospitable terrain surrounded by noisy and polluting infrastructure. Most were careful in their design of green and public spaces, and paid attention to neighborhoods and public transport. Even so, they neglected the impact of the towers on wind speed, light and social nuisance; and the energy costs of construction.
The debate over aesthetics has barely started. There are many splendid creations that beautify the skyline and grace their location – who has not been impressed by the vertical beauty of New York or Chicago? Yet no tower, however impressive, should be imposed on a landscape without regard for its environment – the network of streets and open spaces, public transport, the impact of its scale on the buildings around it, and its interplay with the facades and green spaces below. Towers are anti-social – no wonder they are the location for disaster movies.
If architects were to focus their skills on the pursuit of more intelligent and sustainable urban environments, the results would be less alienating: there is a need for existential quality. Urban architecture is about people, place and city features that affect the people who live there (for example, street lighting). We should be cultivating much more diversity in our urban landscapes.
Translated by Robert Corner
This article first appeared in the March issue of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com The full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique and CounterPunch.