A Discussion about tall buildings : Their symbol, influence and future role. By Freya Hodgkinson



London’s skyline has changed dramatically and with increasing rapidity over the course of the last century. Previously punctuated by the spires of the city’s churches, the chimneys of factories and masts from ships on the Thames, it is now dominated by high rise structures of large corporations. Towers have always been the most symbolic form of building and a visual stamp of human achievement and it is fascinating to see the mechanics of hubris evolve as man or company or nation strive to prove their prosperity through the physicality of a skyscraper. The emphasis of power has gone from the church into business; money is the new religion and it casts a long shadow. Skyscrapers will continue to become more commonplace as the real estate in highly concentrated urban areas becomes more precious and therefore expensive. And so, the main challenge is to ensure a diversity of use within these towers, so that they don’t become elevated platforms for the wealthy; physically levitating themselves above and away from the everyman below.

Travelling to Havana, Cuba, the tallest buildings in the city are the Hermanos Almeijeiras Hospital and FOCSA building a 39-storey residential skyscraper, both of which directly serve and benefit the people of the city. The skyline of metropolises like London tell a different story of private company office blocks and luxury retail mini-cities. Now we are not advocating a socialist manifesto, but it is interesting to note the distinction of value in our Western, capitalist society. There is a detachment from local surroundings, these buildings are not affiliating themselves towards the passer-by but to the global market, communicating symbolically on a higher-level, talking business, commerce and with that power. And yet this is not unusual, architectural feats have always been the statement of an Empire, starting with the Great Pyramids of Giza that stood at 145m tall for nearly 4000 years before western cathedrals caught up in height and grandeur. Our empire just happens to be our economy and global influence, however London needs to think about the message it is sending out with the skyscrapers that dot its skyline as at the moment the city boasts the wealth of the 1%, separated from the reality of the rest of the city. The NHS is an obvious moral highpoint of the UK, but if the next Shard were for the NHS the message it would send to the world of the importance of free health care would be phenomenal.

Arguably we have found ourselves caught between two pillars of thought; London is no longer the low-rise European city it still thinks it is, and neither is it a canvas of towers, beautiful in their quantity. New York is spectacular in its analogous yet varying silhouettes, Rome is beautiful in its conservation. London’s planning has been described as the ‘Wild West’, where almost anything passes if there is sufficient funding. We have 53 towers currently standing in the city, compare this to 690 in New York and 1294 in Hong Kong. This is a discussion about scale and distance. These 53 towers have too much visual attention as there is a lot of empty air space surrounding them. There is always beauty in scale, as smaller iterations of form are noticed rather than a critical analysis of the entire structure. If a single tree stands, it is scrutinised for not being the most beautiful representation of its kind, and yet if there is an acre of this tree, all slightly different from the next but sharing the same language, the view becomes incredibly beautiful. Maybe London needs to realise that it is shifting from a time of the terraced house into a time of the skyscraper, then the market for these structures might shift into the public realm and play at the same scale as corporate power. We need more towers of reality over towers for the privileged, and with quantity this should be consequential.

In direct opposition lies the social housing block. Towers designed with poor quality materials to provide cheap housing. This is not what Louis Sullivan described as a skyscraper when he called it “a proud soaring thing,” a boast of innovation and modernity. It is another visual display of the two-tiered society we live in, overcrowding in poorly designed and poorly maintained tower blocks next to expensive terrace houses. Ironically skyscrapers house luxury flats for the internationally wealthy, tower blocks accommodate the underprivileged, but both separate those housed from the ground-level luxury of a community. The Barbican, as one example, has always worked because it is integrated within its immediate surroundings, built with high quality and for community purpose.

Cities are primarily a lived emotional experience and architects and planners should be sensitive to basic human makeup rather than monetary demands. It needs to be proved that a life of living in skyscrapers is equal to a life on ground-level, or dare we say it: could one day even be beneficial. The future of London’s character might change with changing architecture, but change doesn’t mean losing character. We are still fairly juvenile at designing skyscrapers; with just over one hundred years of practice we have not yet acclimatised to working at this scale. With practice skyscrapers could aspire to aesthetic sculpture, they could become a prized reality for the everyman, it’s just that we haven’t experienced a Christopher Wren or Michelangelo of the skyscraper dynasty yet.

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Are we arguably sacrificing London’s skyline, bending to the developers will for a result that will not benefit London as a whole? These towers are for the 1% and the average Londoner will not be able to buy or rent a flat in them.

Quality of materials, location and how they interact with the ground in the lower storeys are all very important factors.

Luxury flats bought up as a commodity by foreign investors is a huge problem for the city, it is disconnected from the typical supply and demand and

Mason Cooley once said, “A skyscraper is a boast in glass and steel.” It is a statement of prosperity and the technological progressiveness of a nation.

Peter Eisenmann’s unbuilt design for the Max Reinhardt Haus is a sculptural example of the future of the skyscraper, that breaks from the narrative of the blank glass façade.

The rise of powerful economies in the East and their speed of building up entire mega-cities in the space of half a century. The 10 tallest buildings in the world are all outside of the USA and they are all mixed use, comprising of retail, residential, office and recreational spaces. Your day can exist within the walls of a single structure.

510 tall towers more than 20 storeys high are planned or under construction and will appear over the next decade. We can expect the skyline of London to rapidly continue on this mega-transformation.
Chris Hayward, boldly proclaimed that “this development shows the high levels of investor confidence in London’s status as a global city following our decision to leave the European Union.”

The financial sector has a powerful physical presence in our landscape, more than religion, or the social and cultural sector, money is our culture. Which truthfully reflects the priorities of modernity.

Oddly shaped skyscrapers figure of play to lessen their sense of imposing. Our nicknaming of these monuments might be an attempt to humanise them and create a bond with structures otherwise uncontactable by the human at ground level.

– The reason we need them, the functions they serve.
– The iconographic message of skyscrapers, what it says about the city/nation’s wealth and development in technology. How progressive they are.
– Is the human scale still relevant?

– The ultimate amalgamation came with the fire of Grenfell Tower, revealing the mismanagement of investment in one of the wealthiest boroughs in London. The building’s envelope was the main cause of the fire, combustible cladding

– Concrete is fire-resistant and hence there have been few fire disasters in tower blocks, however a refurbishment of Grenfell included new cladding that wasn’t fire resistance, and this became the catalyst for enabling the fire to spread across the envelope of the entire building and into the flats. The ‘stay put’ strategy that has worked in the past became a complete disaster for the families and individuals trapped in their flats.

– Skyscrapers vs groundscrapers which is more sustainable: short answer, if one takes an individual skyscraper versus a low-rise building the skyscraper proves less sustainable, however on an urban scale with an inevitable rise in populations, land becomes a finite resource in a way that energy won’t. In the decades to come renewable energy will improve, if solar energy were to become more efficient it would rewrite the statement that skyscrapers are individually sustainable. It is important to not think of the skyscraper in isolation but the other factors that circle it, for example in a city of high-rises people are far less likely to own cars than in low-rise cities. It is an incredibly multi-layered question for the lifestyle of our future, and difficult to predict. To some extent, skyscrapers are an inevitability and therefore it is important to concentrate on ways to make this future reality into an actively positive form of living. Scepticism is good, it means we are not happy with the current models.