Copyright 2001 The Washington Post
The Washington Post
2001, Saturday, Final Edition
SECTION: STYLE; Pg. C01
LENGTH: 1740 words
HEADLINE: Reach For the Sky; Despite Their Vulnerability, Towers
Fill a Tall Order
BYLINE: Benjamin Forgey, Washington Post Staff Writer
For better or worse -- possibly both -- the skyscraper was the exhilarating
signature of architecture in the 20th century. But what will be its future in
This is an inescapable question in the wake of the horrifying terrorist attacks
of Sept. 11, resulting in the complete destruction of the World Trade Center
towers in New York, two of the world's tallest, most memorable buildings.
Debates about the significance, efficacy and even the morality of skyscrapers
have been raging since the building type was invented in Chicago more than a
hundred years ago. From the beginning there have been skyscraper lovers and
skyscraper haters and, it seems, never the twain shall meet. But fear is a new
element in the air.
It is a dread that goes far beyond fear of heights that tall buildings cause
many people to feel. (Ironically, World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki
was a bit of an acrophobe -- it's one reason the windows were so narrow.) It
goes even beyond fears of fire that many people legitimately experience in high
Rather, what many are feeling today goes right to the marrow: the fear of being
a target. And who today can deny that tall buildings such as the World Trade
Center towers make ideal targets? They are what a gunner most wants a target to
be: stable, highly visible and big. If the gunner happens to be a suicidal
"pilot" using a giant airplane as a weapon, so much the better for
him -- he can hardly miss.
Furthermore, the really soaring skyscrapers, the ones that make the top 10 or
even the top 100 height list, automatically become symbols -- and symbols are
precisely what terrorists want to destroy. Attendant upon the tremendous,
tragic loss of lives is the message: I can damage, or even destroy, your
highest physical artifacts, and with them your highest aspirations.
So, who can fail to understand World Trade Center workers who say they would
not want to work there anymore, even if they could? Or folks who work in the
Empire State Building -- once again the tallest structure on the Manhattan
skyline -- who say they are afraid of the future? Or average people throughout
the world who, looking at the televised images again and again, ask themselves,
"Should we be building such buildings?"
Skyscraper haters wasted no time in pouncing on the disaster as proof of their
point of view. In an essay posted on the Web less than a week after the attack,
author James Howard Kunstler ("The Geography of Nowhere") and urban
theorist Nikos A. Salingaros concluded:
"We are convinced that the age of skyscrapers is at an end. It must now be
considered an experimental building typology that has failed. We predict that
no new megatowers will be built, and existing ones are destined to be dismantled."
Yet defenders of the skyscraper faith are not hard to find. William Pedersen of
the New York architecture firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox, designer of award-winning
towers in the United States, Europe and Asia, stated unequivocally after the
attack that "in the 21st century the tall building will be the world's
most important building type."
Let's put the debate in perspective. The coming of the skyscraper signified a
radical transformation of the urban skyline. It was at once a technical,
imaginative and symbolic leap. Where steeples, domes, minarets, pagodas and
masonry towers of religious and civic institutions once mediated between earth
and sky, proud commercial towers took their place.
One could look favorably on this privatization of the skyline. John Wellborn
Root, one of those early Chicago architects, thought the new buildings conveyed
"in some large elemental sense an idea of the great, stable, conserving
forces of modern civilization."
Or one could look askance. In his seminal book "A Pattern Language,"
urbanist Christopher Alexander wrote, "High buildings have no genuine
advantages, except in speculative gains for banks and owners."
What no one could possibly do, however, was ignore the extraordinary
phenomenon. What happened first in the United States gradually, in the late
20th century, became global. The skyscraper is the made-in-America building
type that, in a sense, conquered the world with its practicality and symbolism
-- at one point during the prosperous 1990s in the new business district of
Pudong in Shanghai, there were nearly 80 tall buildings under construction at
the same time.
Pudong is an exception only in sheer quantity. More than any other type of
building -- with the possible exception of airports -- the skyscraper has
become the preferred symbol of belonging to the modern, global world.
It is no accident that, according to the list compiled by the Council on Tall
Buildings and Urban Habitat at Lehigh University, only four of the world's 10
tallest buildings were in the United States. Alas, after the demise of the
World Trade Center Towers, the figure has been reduced to two -- the Sears
Tower in Chicago and the Empire State.
The world's very tallest buildings are in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim
country. These are the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, designed by
American architect Cesar Pelli. Like the sleek, dramatic Kingdom Centre under
construction in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the Malaysian towers are symbols of
corporate and national pride -- and of a strong desire in much of the Muslim
world to engage the world at large.
(Pelli, it should be said, made a big effort to "Muslimize" the
design -- the floor plans are self-evidently based on traditional Muslim
geometrical figures. At the behest of the Saudi client, a nephew of King Fahd,
the American architectural firm of Ellerbe Becket designed the Kingdom Centre
as a manifestly international symbol.)
Understandably, much of the public discussion so far has centered on the issues
of security and safety -- and it seems reasonably clear that we can, if we
want, make tall buildings (or for that matter, short buildings) both safer and
Even in existing buildings, structure often can be unobtrusively strengthened,
as earthquake retrofits in California have shown. Windows can be made
relatively shatterproof. Escape routes can be improved, fire systems enhanced.
Just little common-sensical things, Ron Klemensic, chairman of the Council on
Tall Buildings, says, can make a big difference in emergencies -- changing the
location of a building's electronic nerve center, for instance. (Did you know
that, for the convenience of security staff, emergency controls in most
buildings are located very close to the lobby, and thus would be the first
rooms to go in a surface attack?)
Admittedly, it would hardly make sense to build skyscrapers capable of
withstanding the kind of impact and fires suffered by the Trade Center -- what
would be the point of towering bunkers? But significant strengthening of new
towers might be in order.
In fact, it already has occurred, say both Pelli and Pedersen. Many of the new
Asian towers are built with a high-performance concrete unavailable in the
early 1970s, when the World Trade Center was under construction. In both
stability and fire resistance, the material is greatly superior to steel, they
Such a list could go on. As with much else in life, there is no shortage of
things that need improving in tall buildings, nor of ideas about how to get the
job done. But what difference do relatively minor improvements make if it turns
out that we have made this gigantic first mistake, an initial miscue of the
highest order? What if skyscrapers are, as Kunstler and Salingaros insist,
"an experimental building typology that has failed"?
Hmmm. Let me say this: I don't believe it. And if it is true, it is not because
a few cells of clever terrorists succeeded in knocking off two of the tallest
buildings in the world.
I agree with urbanist Jonathan Barnett, who says that what will kill the
skyscraper is a severe drop-off in demand. (In other words, we get the
buildings we need.) Such a drop, he says, is likely to come, if at all, from
social forces having nothing to do with this terrorist incident -- namely, from
information workers who prefer to work at home with their computers, thus
greatly reducing the demand for office space in packed central cities.
However, there are countervailing pressures. One is the human need for direct
contact with other humans of like interests -- company interests, for instance.
Another is the human need for direct contact with humans of dissimilar
interests -- readers of different books, walkers of different paths. Dense
high-rise cities are very good at providing such contacts, as well as other
things such as major cultural institutions, entertainment venues and civic
Furthermore, I listen attentively to Pedersen when he says that the tall
building is an excellent response to the twin crises of global population
growth and environmental degradation -- "the only way to deal with this
dilemma." In other words, he is saying that the way to both save the land
and provide for the enormous numbers of new people on the Earth is in densely
In addition, I have watched with increasing fascination as the architecture of
skyscrapers has evolved in the last decade or so. Until a few years ago the
accepted view was that the so-called "interwar years" (we're going to
have to change that phrase) comprised the great era of skyscraper construction
-- the time of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. But that interpretation
no longer holds.
We could be at the very beginning of the greatest period yet in skyscraper
design. I'll cite just one example -- one of many. Lord Norman Foster's design
for the Commerzbank in Frankfurt, completed in 1997, has been called the
"first ecological skyscraper." With its advanced environmental
controls, it is a technical marvel; with its four-story office clusters and
gardens, it is a model workplace; and with its fine finishes and unusual
triangular shape, it is a stunning beauty.
Foster's building gives one cause for optimism, in the way that great works of
architecture with a social conscience tend to do. In the face of terror,
especially, that is a significant gift. The hope is that tall buildings do have
a significant role to play in our lives -- not as solitary architectural
masterpieces, but as parts of the vibrant great cities of the future.
LOAD-DATE: September 22, 2001