Technology

Skyscrapers As Spaceships

The "rampant individualism" and surprising environmentalism of really tall buildings

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America's first spaceships were lumbering beasts made of iron, steel, and fireproof terra cotta. One of the earliest prototypes was manufactured in Chicago in 1885. It had no engine and remained firmly rooted to Earth for all of its 46-year existence. But this trailblazer allowed its occupants to spend long stretches of their day at the dizzying, almost incomprehensible height of 138 feet, and in 1885 that qualified as space travel. It was the 10-story Home Insurance Building, often described as the world's first skyscraper. (Though purists insist that its lack of a complete steel frame, a primary characteristic of skyscrapers, invalidates that claim.)

In the late 19th century, as ever-taller buildings began to lift man closer to the heavens in Chicago, New York, and other American cities, they inspired awe, envy, and, of course, regulatory efforts to impede their development. As Keith D. Revell, a professor of public administration at Florida International University, notes in an essay that appears in the 2005 anthology The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories (Cambridge University Press), early skyscrapers were charged with "rampant individualism," "robb[ing] pedestrians of light and air," and even threatening public health by "blocking the salubrious rays of the sun." In 1891 Boston outlawed buildings greater than 125 feet in height. In 1904 Baltimore set the limit of architectural aspiration to a measly 70 feet.

The country's most avid architects and industrialists eventually overcame such restrictions, but only at great cost. As Revell recounts in his essay and his 2002 book Building Gotham (Johns Hopkins University Press), early city planning advocates used the threat of looming skyscrapers to enact New York's 1916 Zoning Resolution, landmark legislation that dramatically expanded the city's power to privilege broader community goals over individual property rights. The ordinance divided the metropolis into three use districts ("residence," "business," and "unrestricted") and five height zones, and normalized the idea that city bureaucrats had the legal authority to closely regulate the design, placement, size, and usage of all types of buildings in the city, not just skyscrapers. 

Indeed, perhaps the only thing in 20th century New York that grew faster than its skyscrapers—which were governed by no fixed maximum height limit as long as they observed "setback" rules designed to reduce the shadows they cast on their environs—was its zoning code. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser notes in the March 2011 issue of The Atlantic, city officials amended the code more than 2,500 times from 1916 to 1961, ultimately expanding it into a 420-page document that divided New York into "13 types of residential district, 12 types of manufacturing district, and no fewer than 41 types of commercial district."

But if skyscrapers helped usher in an age of rampant civic regulation in the name of the public good, they also remained, in the eyes of their critics, potent symbols of unchecked ego and greed—too big, too resource intensive, too wedded to the notion that we can shape the world to our own ends, without limits. When the World Trade Towers collapsed in the wake of a terrorist attack on 9/11, many onlookers declared it the end of the skyscraper era. The digital age had supposedly rendered skyscrapers' primary utility—concentrating a great number of people in limited space—superfluous. Concerns about substantial energy needs in an age of climate change had made them seem like the SUVs of architecture. Skyscrapers were unnecessary, unfashionable, unsafe, obsolete.

Which of course meant a renaissance was coming. As architectural historian Mark Lamster notes in the September 2011 edition of Scientific American, "2011 will go down as the single greatest year for the construction of tall buildings in history, with more than 97 skyscrapers over 200 meters (including 22 supertalls) slated for completion." (A "supertall" is a building reaching 1,250 feet or higher.) According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, an industry trade group based in Chicago, more than 350 buildings measuring at least 663 feet have been constructed since the end of 2001, more than doubling the world's population of skyscrapers. (From the dawn of the skyscraper era through 2001, 235 buildings that high or higher were constructed.)

So while we may be speeding straight toward Mayan doomsday, there are at least a few optimistic developers who are not quite ready to declare 2012 the year of the underground bunker. Instead, they're building skyscrapers —towering, dazzling, environmentally pragmatic skyscrapers. Granted, the idea of a green skyscraper may seem paradoxical, especially given the values that are usually attached to "sustainability." There is no such thing as an artisanal or handmade skyscraper. Eco-hippies cannot make one out of mud, straw, or rammed earth. An Amish village cannot erect one in a single afternoon of humanistic, closely bonded hammering and nailing. Skyscrapers require armies of engineers, architects, designers, and construction workers, plus giant pools of capital. They need great amounts of materials and energy to construct elaborate systems for lighting, heating, cooling, and navigation once they've been built. 

But skyscrapers aren't just getting taller; they are also getting more sophisticated. In 2010 the Bank of America Tower, a 1,200-foot building in New York, became the first skyscraper to achieve the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] platinum rating. Solar panels, wind turbines, rainwater collection systems, designs that maximize natural light, and building monitoring systems that deploy elevators with maximum efficiency and regulate other energy uses are becoming more common, but the greatest green attribute skyscrapers offer is the density they create. As New Yorker writer David Owen suggests in his 2009 book Green Metropolis (Riverhead), density facilitates sustainability: The residents of Manhattan use much less energy per capita than people who have to drive their Ford F-150s 30 miles every time they want to pick up a six-pack at Walmart. 

In the middle of the Dubai desert, where the world's tallest skyscraper, the 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa, resides, the benefits that come with greater density may not be necessary. But in China, where the majority of skyscrapers are being constructed today, it's a different story. Hundreds of millions of Chinese will migrate from rural areas into cities during the next 25 years. This is the general trend throughout the world. According to United Nations statistics, the percentage of people who live in urban areas will increase from 49.2 percent in 2005 to 61 percent in 2030, for a net urbanization gain of 1.8 billion people in just 25 years. One way to accommodate these migrants is to build upward on a massive scale and to further popularize mixed-use buildings that combine work space, living space, and commercial space all in one building, thus making the cities of tomorrow even denser than the cities of today. 

As environmentally pragmatic as such buildings may be—who needs buses and taxis, much less individually owned cars, when your commute to work is a 30-second elevator ride and your next-door neighbor is a Starbucks?—their greatest appeal may be their virtuality. If the 19th-century skyscraper was a testament to the growing importance of land, the 21st-century skyscraper is a testament to the fact that land (or more broadly, the physical world) isn't as important or compelling as it once was. As we spend more of our lives in cyberspace, we come to expect its primary characteristics (convenience, efficiency, abundance) to define our off-screen lives as well. And supertall, mixed-used skyscrapers are currently the most potent physical approximations of the virtual world we have. They're environments designed for maximum convenience and efficiency, with elevators functioning like hypertext, taking you almost instantly from one mode of existence to the next. Push a button and you're at work. Push another button, you're at home. 

Even in the 21st century skyscrapers continue to function as a kind of spaceship, carrying us into the future. Today's most striking examples even look the part. They are self-contained Starship Enterprises that offer their occupants everything they need to sustain themselves for years on end. Plus a really great view of planet Earth below. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.

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    1. I just completed reading The Heights: Anantomy of a Skyscraper. It is incredible the amount of engineering that goes into these buildings. Awesome book.

  1. rampant individualism

    [english accent]
    What a bunch of bastards.
    [/english accent]

  2. Silly old Boston. Nice to see you’ve fixed at least one dumb law on the books.

  3. Even in the 21st century skyscrapers continue to function as a kind of spaceship, carrying us into the future. Today’s most striking examples even look the part. They are self-contained Starship Enterprises that offer their occupants everything they need to sustain themselves for years on end. Plus a really great view of planet Earth below.

    Arcologies are the future! Will Wright is a prophet!

    1. pfft. A True Prophet wouldn’t have abandoned the franchise.

      1. Fuck…I know right?

  4. What they should ban is new single family homes.

    1. I ? my single family home. Think of it as my private spaceship.

    2. Yep, now that I have mine, that is.

  5. Welcome to Washington DC. No building is higher than about 13 stories. Because of the light and stuff or something. There doesn’t have to be a rational reason. It’s nice, right? Right?

    1. The reason is a zoning code prohibiting anything taller than the Capitol dome. I find it quite comfortable myself. Tall buildings scare me. 🙂

      d(^_^)b
      http://libertyatstake.blogspot.com/
      “Because the Only Good Progressive is a Failed Progressive”

      1. It is actually a prohibition against building structures larger than the Washington Monument. As for the Capitol Dome, there is a law that prohibits any stature in the city being larger than the Stature of Freedom which stands on top of the Dome. The Capitol Dome stands 288 feet high including the statue on top. The Washington Monument is just over 555 feet.

        1. As for the Capitol Dome, there is a law that prohibits any stature in the city being larger than the Stature of Freedom which stands on top of the Dome.

          That should read STATUE not stature.

          1. I think you both mean statute.

        2. Back in my Catholic days I was regaled with the story of Washington’s resistance to letting the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception build a tower that was over 60% the height of the WM. They also had to fight the city to allow them to put a more Marian blue blinking light on top of it rather than a red one.

        3. I know, but people also throw the light thing in there as if it were a reason. That’s the reason there are no overhead powerlines in most of DC.

          And it’s not the Washington Monument, it’s the Capitol Dome. The Capitol sits on Capitol Hill and the Dome reaches up pretty high. THe DC skyline is such that no building can rise above the top of the base structure of the Capitol so that the Dome sticks out over the top of everything.

          Actually looking it up, it seems the reason is…no big reason. The building can’t be taller than the street is wide for some stupid fucking reason.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H…..ct_of_1910

          1. “Actually looking it up, it seems the reason is…no big reason. The building can’t be taller than the street is wide for some stupid fucking reason.”

            That’s so the buildings won’t cast too much shadow onto the buildings across the street.

        4. Also, the WM is 555 ft. tall. That’s roughly 40-50 stories. No building in DC comes close to this. The tallest buildings have like 13-15 stories above ground.

          1. The tower at the BSIC is 370 ft tall…

            1. I think they made an exception, and it’s outside the zone where that matters. I think another exception is the old post office pavilion, because it was built before the law. Anyway, it’s obvious when you drive around that there is a strict height limit and it’s low, especially downtown. It looks like someone took a razor and sliced the tops off of the high rises to make them mid rises, all the exact same height. If people could build buildings as high as the BSIC minaret, there would be tons of 25 story building around, but there are none.

              1. In fact, the height restriction in DC has nothing at all to do with the height of neither the Capitol Dome nor the Washington Monument (http://bit.ly/wkPIOs). The restriction was actually defined by the width of nearby streets (http://bit.ly/wvLvHx).

                The most ridiculous part is that when you read the comments on a Washington City Paper article that advocated taller buildings (http://bit.ly/fzQG8G), many of them seem like parodies of the quotes from Beato’s article above.

                1. *nothing at all to do with the height of the Capitol Dome or the Washington Monument

                  Mistaken double negative, frustratingly.

    2. Much of DC has height restrictions due to a little known law that prohibits buildings from rising higher than the Washington Monument. This was fine and dandy back in 1884 when building something that tall was considered a modern miracle, but in today’s DC it is a hindrance to development. Traditionalists refuse to get rid of this outdated law because the monument and the man it was dedicated to have achieved God-like status in DC.

      1. Anything that hinders growth in the DC area is a good thing.

      2. Wait – Reagan built the Washington Monument?

        1. Are you saying Reagan was President in 1884?

          1. Sorry, that should have been “Wait – they dedicated the Washington Monument to Reagan?”

            A joke, based on “the man it was dedicated to have achieved God-like status in DC.”

            1. LOL I regret not being smart enough to get the joke the first time. Thanks for clarifying that for me; it gave me a good laugh.

  6. “Skyscrapers require armies …” iow the economies of scale that are only possible in a complex free market allowing for the free exchange of specialized labor … per Adam Smith.

    d(^_^)b
    http://libertyatstake.blogspot.com/
    “Because the Only Good Progressive is a Failed Progressive”

  7. Speaking as someone in develpment the skyscraper boom in China is completely unsustainable. Many of the developments are occuring in what could be called third tier cities and many completed projects sit mostly empty.

    Chinese developers have begun cutting their asking prices up to 20% and I have even heard residential developers trying to sell their projects at cost.

    I love sky scrapers, but the fact that China is the location for most large scale skyscraper development is more a warning sign that they are relying on said development to fuel economic growth, this is not a good thing. Economic growth should fuel real estate development, not vice versa; otherwise it will end in a massive bust.

    1. I agree with you that the “boom” is unsustainable in China. If you are working in China, you will know the bust will not be pretty, I suggest you start thinking about where you will want to in the near future.

    2. Economic growth should fuel real estate development, not vice versa

      The world is not ready for such dangerous nonsense.

  8. How many angels can gambol on the head of a skyscraper?

  9. skyscrapers are like giant land penises

  10. mmm skyscraper, I love you.

  11. My wife is a LEED Accredited Professional with a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture and a Master’s in Urban and Community Design. She’ll be the first to tell you that sky scrapers are necessary for a “sustainable” future in this country and around the world. She’d be the first to tell you that if you hate urban sprawl, traffic jams, and long commutes, then you should embrace the idea of living in an urban environment with large buildings. One of her greatest complaints, however, is how government regulations (often enacted in the interest of protecting the environment) make building LEED certified buildings so damn expensive. Quite frankly it’s a miracle that any buildings conforming to LEED guidelines get built at all.

    1. if you hate urban sprawl, traffic jams, and long commutes, then you should embrace the idea of living in an urban environment with large buildings.

      Or I could live and work in the same suburb.

      With less “urban planning” (IE, get rid of zoning laws), more people could do what I do.

      1. Why it’s dandy living above the steel mill! And my son got a job at the pig farm next door.

        1. Exactly.

          This is a GOOD thing. And I still want a damn pub on my street.

        2. And if you don’t feel dandy, you can always sell your land to someone who does feel dandy!

          Ain’t freedom grand?

        3. And if you don’t feel dandy, you can always sell your land to someone who does feel dandy!

          Ain’t freedom grand?

        4. And if you don’t feel dandy, you can always sell your land to someone who does feel dandy!

          Ain’t freedom grand?

        5. Yo Lewis, there is a cabin in Montana that you might find appealing – probably get it fairly cheap too.

      2. Personally, I don’t hate urban sprawl I don’t advocate city living. I tolerate a long commute each day as part of the price I pay to have home on the water and property for my kids to play on. To each his own.

        1. That’s not sustainable.
          We have to move away from this kind of destructive lifestyle. You are actually doing your children a disservice.

          1. Allow ME to decide what is or isn’t a disservice to MY children and I’ll promise to do the same for you.

        2. “Urban sprawl” is an Al Gore code word for herding people into cities where they vote Democrat.

          1. The dead one with the tinfoil hat is correct in this case.

    2. your wife is cheating on you

      1. Yes, and she says your wife sux in bed. I feel sorry for you.

  12. The residents of Manhattan use much less energy per capita than people who have to drive their Ford F-150s 30 miles every time they want to pick up a six-pack at Walmart.

    The cosmotarian elite rears its ugly head again.

    1. I mean, the basic point that increased density reduces transportation energy use is correct, but the gratuitous swipe at “flyover country” there is clearly intended to signal your cosmo pals that you’re still one of them.

      1. I agree, the whole article is really BS but I was too lazy to comment on it.

        Skyscrapers such as in Dubai (or in general these days) are vanity projects not signs of a healthy free market.

      2. I mean, the basic point that increased density reduces transportation energy use is correct, but the gratuitous swipe at “flyover country” there is clearly intended to signal your cosmo pals that you’re still one of them.

        ^^THIS^^

        What city folk don’t understand as they sit with their noses in the air about how they use less electricity per capita is that A) no one but other city folk give a shit, B) city folk use less electricity per person, but they pay ridiculous prices to live in places not much larger than a fucking shoebox, so of course, while living cooped up in an apartment barely large enough for a small cat, they would use less electricity.

        Meanwhile I live in a 4300 ft^2 house on 5 acres where I don’t have to hear my neighbor fart, and he doesn’t give a shit what I do on my property, I have my own home theater and whoopass sound system, and I’ve got enough room that my children can do as they choose. And all for far less than I could buy a dump apartment in a shady part of town in a place like New York or Chicago.

        Electricity used per capita is one of those made up metrics contrived by liberals to make themselves feel superior to those who don’t live their way, and don’t care to. For another example, see “income inequality”.

    2. F-150’s are for suckers. My F-250 can smash them all.

      1. I’m saving up for a Tatra T810C…then we’ll see who’s boss.

  13. Back in the late 90’s, I came up with the following “rule of thumb” for investing:

    “Any time you hear that someone’s breaking ground on the world’s tallest building… don’t ask questions, just sell.”

    It seems that Barclays Capital has figured this out as well. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-16494013

  14. If dense urban living is supposed to be so efficient, why is it so fucking expensive?

    Seriously. Things that are more efficient are supposed to be cheaper, aren’t they? But cheap is the one thing urban living is not. So, why not?

    1. eternalities

    2. Things that are more efficient are supposed to be cheaper

      Actually they’re more expensive, all else being equal, because the lower cost of operation/ownership increases demand. Plus the externalities of pollution etc. not really being taken into account in the price of energy.

    3. In Houston some geniuses built a 14-story condo building (run you about 1 mil for the cheapest) across the street from a 7-story apartment building ($900/mo).

      The condo building is, unsurprisingly, mostly empty.

    4. hah I totally get ya. BUT that’s efficiency in lifestyle. And for that, people are asking and paying a premium.

      In fact, higher density means there’s only so much space. It’s not like they can add another 20 stories to a completed building when they find out there’s more demand. So that adds to the price as well.

    5. …why is it so fucking expensive?

      Supply is still not satisfying demand.

    6. Scarcity of space.

  15. If I can’t smoke pork ribs on the balcony I wouldn’t want to live in one.

    1. If the government would stop making stupid rules like that we would have a free country.

    2. If I can’t smoke pork ribs on the balcony I wouldn’t want to live in one.

      Doesn’t the pork chunks irritate your lungs? That’s why you should smoke weed instead, dude.

  16. BTW, has anyone ever done a survey of libbies, urban, suburban and rural? Where do the ‘rugged’ individualists live?

  17. I’ve lived in a skyscraper for the last two years, and will probably live in one for the rest of my life.

    It’s a wonderful way to live–convenient, economical and surprisingly private.

    This article is a stirring testament to these amazing human creations, and has reaffirmed my love of these buildings and the urban life they symbolize.

  18. The residents of Manhattan use much less energy per capita than people who have to drive their Ford F-150s 30 miles every time they want to pick up a six-pack at Walmart.

    In other word:

    “The enlightened urbanites I know use much less energy than this caricature I just made up. And, and TRAKTER PULLZ!”

    1. Greg Beato is MNG!!!!

  19. People who think city living is more efficient just remember. The farmer can live without the city but the city can’t live without the farmer.

    1. Symbiotic relationship. Cities greatly enhance the farmer’s life. GM crops, tractors/farm technologies, fertilizers, weather predicting, crop insurance, etc. are all products of cities that have been “exported” to the country. Jane Jacobs, in 1968’s The Economy of Cities, examines the myth that agricultural surpluses led to the formation of cities. She argues that organized agriculture was exported from the city, crowded out by more diverse and economically important ventures. Great book. I highly recommend it.

      1. I’d be willing to go as far as symbiotic relation ship but the problem is that the Enviros are trying to keep people out of the wilderness altogether by claiming that the only way is that all people need to live in Urban area’s something a person could argue against if I had the time to but no body is willing to give a grant to do such.

    2. The vast majority of farmers today grow a single cash crop.

      They buy their food at the grocery store, same as the rest of us.

      1. Yes, but it doesn’t take much to go totally self sufficient. When you have the land and the knowledge to do so, it’s pretty easy.

    3. Urban farming is big here in Pgh. It helps when you have a lot of burned-out vacant lots in your city.

      1. There isn’t no way in hell to sustain an entire city in that manner, though. Particularly ones in more northern areas.

        1. There is no way in hell to

          Damn double negatives.

  20. There is an ugly skyscraper that used to be the second tallest in the city (now it’s about the fifth or sixth tallest) when I first moved here. I was aghast by how dull and unattractive it was, given its height and prominence in the skyline.

    A newspaper article on the genesis of the building had the reporter contact the architecture firm (based in Chicago, if I remember correctly) and THEY DENIED DESIGNING IT, even though the reporter had the records!

    bwaHaHaHaHaw!

  21. Hrm. 79 comments and no Dark Tower references?

  22. as ever-taller buildings began to lift man closer to the heavens in Chicago

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