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architecture, office building, skyscraper, criticism, theory

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architecture, office building, skyscraper, criticism, theory

CCTV Tower, Beijing, China. Office for Metropolitan Architecture

Editor’s note: The following article appears in the current issue of architecture and design journal eVolo, which has generously allowed AIACC to republish it here. Please visit eVolo’s new storefront, where you can subscribe to the journal or order previous publications:

The trouble with skyscrapers is that we cannot make up our minds about them.” — Deyan Sudjic

The American architecture critic John King surely echoed the sentiments of many some years ago when he wrote, “Everything’s different after 9/11” (1). In one sense, everything is different. If there was any doubt, it is abundantly clear now that Asia and the Middle East have eclipsed the big cities of the United States as the urban laboratories for cutting-edge high-rise design that gets built. New materials have given architects new possibilities of expression. Parametric modeling and increasingly sophisticated computer software have likewise expanded the range of expression. And the iconic potential of the tall building as the “legitimizer” of a New World Order—for better or for worse—is on the minds of architects, urbanists, clients, writers and, of course, critics.

Curiously, however, some things have not changed. Some critics still debate the relative merits of building tall in dense urban conditions or in historically sensitive environments. Many discussions continue about the engineering limits of skyscrapers, and how tall is “tall enough.” There is, too, the invariable recognition that it is economics above all that drives high-rise architectural design. Finally, the pervasive (but not always articulated) fear that tall buildings in a post-9/11 world would forever after serve as “targets” for extremists does not seem to have materialized into any kind of significant factor. As a matter of fact, in an online interview critic Blair Kamin has stated, “The self-inflicted damage from our over-reaction to the terrorist threat has been particularly lamentable” (2).

architecture, office building, skyscraper, criticism, theory

8 Spruce Street, New York City, USA. Gehry Partners.
Photo © Sean Pavone

So where does this paradox leave us? Former New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, in her 1982 book The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: the Search for a Skyscraper Style, set forth the history of high-rise design as a progression of four phases: functional, eclectic, modern and postmodern (3). It would appear we have long since passed through her postmodern phase, concerned as it was with a revivalist approach to skyscraper design, so we must be in a “fifth phase”. The changes and challenges since 9/11 mark a definitive break. One might, in fact, argue that we have entered something of a new “functional” phase, an updated retelling of the “skyscraper story” in twenty-first century language, with a distinctly new emphasis.

In the so-called first, or functional, phase “architecture was the servant of engineering.” Aesthetics were, in Huxtable’s words, a “subordinate function” to the economic and technical pragmatics of building tall. Architects were focused on the application of novel technologies—the passenger elevator and steel skeleton obviously among the most critical—that made the skyscraper a reality in the first place. At the present we see, once again, an intense interest in the mechanics of building tall, of the potentials of new materials and systems. That much is indeed similar. But in other respects, things are not the same.

The Spectacle of the Technical
What is truly unique in our situation is that the market-driven determinism that fueled Huxtable’s first phase and established the eternal conflict between innovation and economics has been replaced by what we might term The Spectacle of the Technical. Issues informed observers thought might dominate the next great phase—iconography, third-world urbanism, cultural sensitivity, even sustainability, to a degree—have given way, at least momentarily, to a fascination with technology’s impacts on high-rise building and on us. The sense of wonderment that surrounds much current critical writing on tall buildings is an acknowledgement of the presence of spectacle in skyscraper design today. The fascination is not limited to professionals; critics, students, even the lay public share in it.

Wes Jones, in his 2010 essay, Big Forking Dilemma, argues that contemporary architecture has been confronted with two “forks in the road” of theory and practice. There is, on one hand, the distinction to be made between the “authored”, or theoretically-charged work, and the “automatic”, which Jones defines as the kind of program-heavy, performative practice often associated with the Dutch School. The other fork, and the dilemma that concerns us here, consists in what Jones calls “…the profound divergence today of sense and sensation—between work that appeals traditionally to the intellect and that which appeals only to the senses” (4). It is just a short conceptual hop from architecture of the senses, that is, of “sensation” to the idea of spectacle.

Architecture as Spectacle
Numerous writers have made the connection between architecture in the new global economy and the concept of spectacle, none with the impact perhaps of Rem Koolhaas in S,M,L,XL and later Content. For him, architecture of spectacle is not solely one of novel form (the Seattle Public Library, for example) or inventive programming (as at his Maison Bordeaux) or even size (Congrexpo), it is also rhetorical: “I want to kill the traditional idea of the skyscraper—it has run out of energy,” he says in describing the CCTV tower in Beijing (5).

Criticism has broached this condition extensively over the past decade. For writer/editor Luis Fernandez-Galiano, the new architecture is actually “architainment”, integral to the new “landscape of wealth” that consists of sprawl and “spectacle.” Architecture in support of consumerism resorts to its own forms of drama—its own spectacle—to induce people to buy. In his preface to Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture, editor William Saunders confirms that it is spectacle to which contemporary architecture responds: “…along with every other cultural production…the design of the built environment has been increasingly engulfed in and made subservient to the goals of the capitalist economy…” (6).

architecture, office building, skyscraper, criticism, theory

Left: 30 Mary Axe Street, London, UK. Foster + Partners
Right: Torre Agbar, Barcelona, Spain. Atelier Jean Nouvel

Sensation and Affect
If spectacle provides the setting for the architectural “Wow!” factor, sensation gives it material form. Farshid Moussavi and Michael Kubo argue that buildings relate to culture through the creation of sensation vis-a-vis “affect.” They suggest that architects respond to contemporary conditions by reconsidering the ways in which they create “building expressions” (7). There is an increasing emphasis on the building skin—the very place where “spectacle” may register most directly. Whereas postmodernism gave us undecipherable codes of symbolic communication in the form of “decor”, they argue, new architecture responds nimbly with an aesthetic we can sense.

architecture, office building, skyscraper, criticism, theory

Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE. Adrian Smith / SOM.
Photo © Goran Bogicevic

Coupled with sensation is “affect”, lucidly defined by Robert Levit (in an essay critical of aspects of Moussavi’s and Kubo’s book The Function of Ornament) as “The impression made on the senses through the effects of material, light, color, reflection, and presumably pattern…” (8). That book, which proposes ornament as a replacement for failed forms of communication, is a catalogue of affects ranging from the “dematerialized” to the “random” to the “cinematic.” Affects may be applied to any kind of building, including high-rises; the authors include Norman Foster’s 30 St. Mary Axe Street of 2004 and the Torre Agbar Headquarters (Jean Nouvel, also 2004) in their inventory.

Critical Concerns
Architectural critics and writers have reinforced the preoccupation with spectacle and sensation in their coverage of new high-rise buildings. Blair Kamin, writing last year in Architectural Record about the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, introduces early on the sustainability argument:

In the Great Recession, when sustainability supposedly has supplanted spectacle as architecture’s guiding principle, the bling of the Burj Khalifa offers a convenient target for those eager to consign the pre-Crash Age of Excess to the ash heap of history.

But then goes on to expound on the Burj’s surreal appearance, technological bravura and stupendous height—in other words, the sheer spectacle of it (9).

New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff focuses his review of Frank Gehry’s new residential high-rise 8 Spruce Street, which he considers New York’s best skyscraper in decades, on its “rumpled” metal skin. To be sure, there are discussions about the building’s sitting and program, but it is clear Ouroussoff wants us to share his fascination with the skin (“10,500 individual steel panels, almost all of them different shapes…”) and with the digital-age processes that made it possible. The surfaces appear to have been “etched by rivulets of water”; they are “constantly changing” and “endlessly shifting.” He favorably compares Gehry’s design to Cass Gilbert’s nearby Woolworth Building of 1913, itself a potent combination of technology and handicraft. New Yorkers have been watching its construction “with a mix of awe and trepidation”—surely the kinds of emotions one associates with spectacle (10).

Other recent literature, often unrelated to traditional architectural criticism per se, reinforces the pervasive fascination with The Spectacle of the Technical. Consider these representative outtakes from winning entries in the annual eVolo design competitions for the “Skyscraper for the XXI Century” (11):

  • “The Genotower05 was an investigation of the potential of 7+ dimensional digital space-time, established through an ever-changing search space which uses a stratification of sculpted numeric and geometric randomness in a resonant eugenic single-celled generative automaton.” (“The Genotower 05”, Nicholas Pisca, USA, 2006).
  • “The structural net has 2 (sic) main reactive behaviors derived from the typological hybridization…” (“Chimera”, Paula Tomisaki, USA, 2007).
  • “…the units are individually controlled by each inhabitant, who can direct them via several shape-memory epoxy ‘hot spots’ on the ‘carbon isogrid’ tube from a PC to any desired location.” (“Flyscraper”, Paul Burgstaller, Ursula Faix and Michael Kritzinger, Switzerland, 2008).
architecture, office building, skyscraper, criticism, theory

Left: Genotower05. Nicholas Pisca; Center: Chimera. Paula Tomisaki;
Right: Flyscraper. Paul Burgstaller, Ursula Faix, Michael Kritzinger

Many entries include staggeringly technical narratives, signs of a widespread interest in the technical as a manifestation of the spectacle in high-rise design today.

Thus, four key themes emerge in the literature of skyscrapers today, constructed around issues of sensation and affect: extreme forms of iconography, structural daring, materiality, and change and adaptation.

Extreme Iconography

Studio Gang Architect’s 2009 high-rise “Aqua,” with its sinuous facade of balconies, has been labeled “Among the most arresting new forms on Chicago’s skyline” by Blair Kamin on ArchDaily (12). Indeed, we can surely sense the building’s daring sculptural qualities, even appreciate them, without wondering too deeply about the cultural relevance of such an approach: it’s the spectacle that counts.

Structural Daring
Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV is a virtuoso piece of structural engineering. As the architect himself has made clear (despite unconvincing protests that it’s simply responding to the program) the point of the form is to make structure sensational. In describing the engineering processes used by his consultant Arup, Koolhaas tells us, “I was elated and horrified by the sheer outrage of the problem that we had set them. Why do they never say NO?

The current attention to materials, ornament, patterns and their effects—materiality—seems consistent with phenomenology, critical regionalism and other movements emphasizing “tactility” as an undervalued but significant attribute of building. In the high-rise building, by contrast, the potential is in stunning visual effects such as those achieved by Gehry in his New York commission.

architecture, office building, skyscraper, criticism, theory

Aqua, Chicago, USA. Studio Gang. Photo © Studio Gang

Change and Adaptation
Architecture’s long fascination with buildings that move, or facades that can change, is manifest in much new work. Projects such as those exhibited in the eVolo competitions demonstrate architects’ interest in the possibilities. What could be more spectacular than the truly “animate” building? There may be, in all of this, the rise of a tendency one critic, Andrew Payne, labels “biomorality” (13). If in the global economy success is defined in biological terms, as some suggest, skyscrapers that take on biological characteristics, that are “organic” or “animate” or “living”, are therefore inherently successful.

Clearly, something different is happening in the world of high-rise design. Despite all the misgivings, skyscrapers today are a hot topic. Critics such as Peter Buchanan see their very existence, in the not-so-distant future, tied to sustainability: “…ironically, the green agenda and quest for sustainability…might reinvent and reinvigorate the tall building” (14). A decade or two ago, many thought sustainability would indeed become the Next Big Thing for high-rises, that Ken Yeang’s bioclimatic Menara Mesiniaga was a harbinger of buildings to come. Despite a few notable examples, this is a worthy phenomenon still waiting to happen.

architecture, office building, skyscraper, criticism, theory

Menara Mesiniaga, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Ken Yeang. Photo © Daniel Ryan

The rapid rise of Asian economies at a global scale, most importantly China’s, might have signaled an interest in evolving localized concepts of symbolism and iconography. This, too, has not come to pass. Critics have commented unfavorably on the tendency to commission western architects, often from the US, to design not “Asian” skyscrapers” but “western” ones. The received symbolism is that of the modern, post-industrial society that has arrived—exactly what these clients wish for. The leveling effects of globalization are surely at play. If everyone has the same symbol, does it really mean anything significant anymore, at a cultural level? Furthermore, is there any point in trying to make buildings mean anything to societies that don’t seem to care?

At the moment, the focus seems to lie elsewhere. Architects armed with advanced parametric modeling programs and digital skills have the tools to create unprecedented forms and see them get built. Designers have at their disposal a vast array of new materials, including composites and systems, which allow for eye-catching effects. The general public, consumers now of buildings as well as everything else, want to be entertained. The delight in affects, the willingness to surrender to sensation, is indicative of a changed sensibility collectively wary, perhaps, of post-modernist/post-structuralist intellectual argument and obscure theorizing. The University of Toronto’s Andrew Payne is clear on this point in his 2009 Harvard Design Magazine essay:

My own sense is that current appeals to pleasure, affect, and sensation are keyed to…a desire to re-engage the aesthetic dimensions of architecture and its experience…

So what do we make of this curious situation? As with most things, there is both good and bad to be found. Clearly, the interest in spectacle presents a distraction from sustainable problem-solving and from the deeper debates about the very worth of tall buildings in urban environments—that is indeed unfortunate. Skyscrapers make their indelible mark on cities: why not consider what this means to our future?

On the other hand, there is at least some good to be had in this state of affairs. First off, it is not likely to last: too much “affect” simply may be numbing. At the same time, and reminiscent of the very earliest days of the skyscraper age, the widespread fascination with what is essentially an intensive application of engineering suggests that people do, after all, care. Architecture has their attention. Tall buildings allow practitioners to put their unique skills on very public display in a way no other building type allows. For a profession struggling against becoming marginalized, this is good news: architects are truly needed. Who better to create the Spectacle of the Technical?

(1) King, John. “Everything’s different after 9/11.
” September 12, 2006
(2) Kamin, Blair. “The Indicator: A Critic’s Terror and Wonder”. Online interview with Guy Horton. October 22, 2010
(3) Huxtable, Ada Louise. The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.
(4) Jones, Wes. “Big Forking Dilemma: Contemporary Architecture’s Autonomic Turn.” Harvard Design Magazine 32, Spring/Summer 2010, pages 8-17.
(5) Koolhaas, Rem with OMA and others. Content. Koln: Taschen, 2004.
(6) Saunders, William, ed. Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture. A Harvard Design Magazine Reader. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
(7) Moussavi, Farshid and Michael Kubo, eds. The Function of Ornament. Barcelona: Actar, 2006 for the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
(8) Levit, Robert. “Contemporary ‘Ornament’: The Return of the Symbolic Repressed.” Harvard Design Magazine 28, Spring/Summer 2008, pages 70-85.
(9) Kamin, Blair. “Burj Khalifa, Dubia.” Architectural Record, August 2010, vol. 118, no. 8, pages 78-85.
(10) Ouroussoff, Nicolai. “Downtown Skyscraper For the Digital Age.” The New York Times, February 10, 2011, pages C1 and C8.
(11) Aiello, Carlo. Skyscrapers for the XXI Century. New York: eVolo Publishing, 2008.
(12) Kamin, Blair. “Fall architecture preview: Tall towers at center stage as the ‘Year of Big’ goes on.” Chicago Tribune, September 11, 2009.
(13) Payne, Andrew. “Sustainability and Pleasure: An Untimely Meditation.”
Harvard Design Magazine 30, Spring/Summer 2009, pages 68-83.
(14) Buchanan, Peter. “The Tower: An Anachronism Awaiting Rebirth?” Harvard Design Magazine 26, Spring/Summer 2007, pages 5-14.


Kurt Hunker, AIA

Kurt C. Hunker, AIA, is professor and Chair of the Graduate Program and Interim Provost at the NewSchool of Architecture + Design in San Diego, where he has twice been recognized as Teacher of the Year. He heads the school’s Design Clinic that pursues community projects with San Diego–based entities.

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