When you're about to hand over the gavel, you get a good number of requests to reflect on the past or to say something about the future. As I have already reflected on my time as chairman of the Council, and have shared my thoughts about the future of tall buildings on other occasions, I'd like to reflect on another tall building related topic; one which is tied into both the history and the future of tall buildings.
Richard Nickel was an American photographer and historian best known for his efforts to preserve and document old 19th century buildings. During the urban regeneration of American cities of the 1960s and 1970s, many 19th century buildings in Chicago were demolished. Nickel believed that these buildings were an important part of the city's architectural and cultural heritage. When a building was threatened, he campaigned and lobbied for its preservation. When he didn't succeed, Nickel extensively photographed both the interior and exterior of the building. He even stripped their distinctive ornamentation before demolition, especially those that were designed by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan.
Nickel died in 1972 when a stairwell collapsed on him while attempting to obtain ornaments from the soon-to-be-demolished Chicago Stock Exchange Building. Many of the ornaments that Nickel collected are currently on display in the City Museum in St Louis. Housed in the former International Shoe building, the Museum is now a lovely children's playground and funhouse as a backdrop to surrealistic design and grand architecture, which I believe is a wonderful combination. St Louis, of course, is blessed with a great number of beautiful industrial buildings from late 18th and early 19th century, but ill-fated by a lack of demand to fulfill their potential. Like many cities in what is being called the American Rustbelt, many of these old buildings are being threatened by demolition. Their only reprieve is a result of the decline of city centers with little to no prospects of replacing these buildings, leaving them standing idle and depressed for the time being.
I was thinking about all of this when I read the reports on a couple of old skyscrapers in Chicago with an uncertain future (the Motor Club Building and the Old Prentice Hospital to be precise) in the Global News section of the latest CTBUH Journal. Tearing down buildings that represent history is demolishing the tangibility of that history, which encourages you to forget about it. Nickel was of course a lone individual then, and fortunately there is more awareness for building preservation these days. If the Singer Building were still standing tall in New York City, no one would ever consider tearing it down.
But also, now that we are wealthier than ever before as individuals, as a society we seem not able to create the much-appreciated details and ornamentation that distinguish the rich architecture of the early skyscrapers. Maybe even more important, one simply cannot recreate the character that comes with age. Although the decision to demolish and replace a building can make good economic sense, it sometimes feels as though artistic, contextual, and informational values are not being considered, or at least not considered enough. This is not only true for the oldest skyscraper, but also for some modern buildings. For example, for anyone interested in the architecture of tall buildings, it is outrageous that the famous Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo is threatened by the same fate.
Interestingly, the current global financial crisis is lending a bit of a helping hand in this. Faced with a lack of demand for new office space, architects and developers are now looking at existing buildings. Some developers have even changed their focus to redevelopment. Also, a growing awareness of the need for sustainability challenges us to think about re-using before we think about creating. Many local architecture organizations inform the public about the qualities of buildings, both visible and especially the hidden, creating an appreciation for these at the same time. What’s needed is awareness amongst investors and politicians that spending money on durable qualities involves not only short-term costs, but increasingly long-term investments.
Creating awareness for this is yet another ambition we as the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat need to address, which is an issue that has been discussed more frequently over the past few years. Considering our incoming chairman, Tim Johnson, is an architect with a passion for the urban context and environment, I hope that he will be focusing on what I think is going to be an important tall building trend.
Having said that, it leaves me to focus on what will be my final task as CTBUH chairman. In a little over a week we will be meeting in Seoul for our 2011 Conference, which again will be a great opportunity to share knowledge and meet many tall building professionals from around the world. With over 100 speakers, many technical tours, discussions and networking opportunities, it’s an event that you cannot afford to miss. I hope to welcome all of you!
Sang Dae Kim, Ph.D
Professor, Korea University