Copyright 2001 The Washington Post  
The Washington Post

September 22, 2001, Saturday, Final Edition


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 the 21st?

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 structures.

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 more secure.

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 say.

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 spaces.

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 concentrated cities.

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