The Skyscraper Experience
One of the most spectacular experiences in New York City is actually walking past the Empire State Building and not being aware that you’re passing the Empire State Building. The ‘invisibility-effect’ is, of course, caused by the setbacks in the design and the dense environment. I experienced a similar sensation during a recent visit to London, where our enthusiastic UK CTBUH Country Representative and Davis Langdon partner, Steve Watts, had offered to do a tour of his latest project, the Shard at London Bridge station. Even though the 306-meter (1,003-feet) tall project is already halfway up, there is spectacular absence of a dark, looming presence that one might suspect to find at street level, based on the size of the project. The lack of this overwhelming effect, for such a large, pyramid shaped structure is a distinctive quality of any skyscraper. The only thing being, you have to be there to experience it.
One time during a workshop on residential tall buildings, I asked the attendees to raise their hand if they were actually living in a tall building. Two of the 25 attendees raised their hand, including me. That’s not an unusual ratio, as I find that many tall building professionals are nine-to-five urbanites. Sometimes I like to tease our own executive director, who lives in an area of Chicago which can easily be regarded as the exact opposite from our topics, for reasons (and I believe him) that the tall residential building and the urban habitat in the Western context isn’t made for families with children.
Anyway, by no means am I suggesting that it requires the experience of actually living or working in a tall building to know what you are talking about; but when you do, it does give you more of an awareness of the aspects and little details that make tall urban living an attractive life style. My favorite point of discussion is the balcony. Sometimes it amazes me that on a warm and sunny day, I am one of the very few that actually use it. Just for the ability to open the door every morning to feel what kind of coat I need that day justifies having a balcony. But the balcony is also a typical feature of which the awareness of having one at your disposal is more important than actually using it regularly. To me, a tall building without balconies is like a town house without a garden, and I am amazed that even in this day and age, towers are being built without them.
When living tall downtown, it’s also stunning to realize that after a while all these tall buildings and the great architecture that shapes your living environment merely develops into a backdrop against which your social and domestic life takes place. A lack of daily shops, household amenities, private outdoor space, and transport abilities can become quite a nuisance when the novelty of living in a metropolitan city center is starting to wear off. It’s again a reminder that a community of tall buildings is not only about the building, but also about the space between them. Together they define the city.
Another awareness when living tall is that this really does allow for a sustainable life style. Living in a compact space surrounded by other apartments results in low utility bills. It’s also relatively easy to organize waste separation and share amenities on the building level, and you don’t really need a car to get around. One development I’m eager to see increase in tall building design is the inclusion of work stations for people who work from home.
Browsing through our latest Awards Book, I see a very strong range of fascinating tall building projects in Asia, with features from the vertical shopping centers to the horizontal connections between the towers, from the double-skinned and three-dimensional facades to spectacular SkyParks. Much of the latest developments in tall buildings will find its playground space in the countries which are literally on the up.
There are some voices stating that the age of the iconic building is over. Looking at our tall buildings database I see many, many projects still underway, and a lot of them are destined to become a center piece of development and a landmark in their city. But more interestingly, a closer look reveals that of the hundred tallest buildings that are expected to be completed for 2011, probably only two of them will be in North America. Both the Middle East and China are expected to take about 1/3rd of next year’s cake. This means that places that sometimes are being accused of mimicking western culture and architecture are now the ones in a position to shape current and future developments of tall buildings and the urban habitat.
Having learned a lot from actually living in a tall and dense urban environment, I for one am very excited about the intention of the Council to organize more events starting in the course of this year, as these are excellent opportunities to share knowledge and information, meet other tall building professionals and above all get some hands on experience on what it is we are all talking about. I for one am very excited about what’s to come, and I wish you all to be part of it.