Kissing The Sky

13 minute read
Richard Lacayo

Daniel Libeskind is all smiles. The again, when is he not? Even during the worst parts of the past two years, when his master plan for the World Trade Center site was being squeezed and adulterated, when the vivid spike that was his design for its centerpiece Freedom Tower was being reworked by other hands, Libeskind kept up a pretty chipper demeanor in public. It’s only when you leaf through his memoir Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture, in which the bitterness seeps through and he takes swipes at everyone who tried to push him aside in the design process, that you know for sure that sometimes the laughs came hard.

But today, in the lower-Manhattan headquarters of his worldwide architectural practice, Libeskind is smiling because he actually has a reason to. All across one large wall of a workroom are images–architectural drawings and computer renderings–of a project that’s going very much Libeskind’s way, which means into the future at full throttle. What they show from various angles is an office tower he has designed for a parklike setting in Milan, Italy, one of three that will be built there as an ensemble, each by a brand-name architecture star, each an announcement that the tall building is going places it has never gone before.

Libeskind pauses before one large image near the center that says it all. It shows the three towers as they will appear at completion. On the left is a dashing, torqued configuration by Zaha Hadid, the London-based architect who was this year’s winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award. On the right is Japanese architect Arata Isozaki’s furrowed wafer of glass and steel, buttressed by diagonal struts that seem almost too slender for their supporting role. And between them is Libeskind’s contribution, a supreme bit of architectural legerdemain. It’s a curving tower doing what should be, for a building, the impossible. Doing it very suavely too. It’s taking a bow.

By shifting his parabolic floor plates gradually forward, floor by floor, but always keeping them tethered to an upright concrete core, Libeskind achieves the seemingly impossible: a supple tower that can gently bend toward us. “It’s sheltering,” he says. “Like the Pietà .” Like the Pietà ? Just about every tall building ever built says, “Who’s your daddy?” Are we ready for a world in which a few can say, “Who’s your mommy?”

“Towers became banal because they lost their sense of surprise and joy,” Libeskind says. “Over time they became formulas. The architectural element was reduced to questions like ‘What patterns are we gonna use for the windows?'” Now the formulas have all been cast to the wind. The past decade or so has been a time of virtuoso architects, not just Libeskind, Hadid and Isozaki but also Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Norman Foster, Renzo Piano and many others, all of them working in very different styles but with the common impulse to knock apart the familiar glass-and-steel box and put it back together in unheard of ways.

Piano and Foster have been building tall for much of their careers, but until recently many of the others worked closer to the ground. Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, reclines like Venus on her couch. Calatrava’s Olympic Stadium in Athens, seen by billions on television during last summer’s Games, is a voluptuous, low-slung bowl. But in recent years, even these architects have been moving into the vertical mode, taking their mambo wiggles and thunderbolts with them. The square-shouldered glass-and-steel boxes of Modernism are giving way to silhouettes that once seemed inconceivable but are coming soon to a skyline near you.

In the months right after Sept. 11, when smoke was still rising over the ruins of the Twin Towers, there were people ready to write the obituary for skyscrapers. Tall buildings were too inviting as targets for terrorism, too disruptive to the urban fabric and not even particularly profitable, since so much of the rentable floor space was taken up by elevator shafts. The only clients still interested in building them were in nations that wanted a symbol of their arrival as a contender in the global market, mostly in Asia’s Pacific Rim. The honor of having the world’s tallest building passed from the U.S. in 1998, when the 1,483-ft. Petronas Towers in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur overtook the 1,450-ft. Sears Tower in Chicago. And then there is the endlessly ambitious city of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, which architecturally is the mouse that roared: in the past five years, three of the world’s 25 tallest buildings have been topped off there, and two more are in the works.

But the urge to go higher is as old as the Great Pyramid (482 ft.). Or the Washington Monument (555 ft.). Or the Eiffel Tower (984 ft.). Is Osama bin Laden any match for our deepest impulses? “The skyscraper seems to have even more power now as a symbol of modernization,” says Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the school of architecture at Yale University. And from the point of view of environmentalists and regional planners, tall buildings are the best alternative to suburban sprawl and the best means of getting more people and businesses into a smaller footprint on the ground, putting less pressure on whatever stretches of nature remain. “I think the skyscraper is back,” says Stern. “But is it back in the same way? No.”

What Stern means is that it’s not just the silhouettes or the altitude that’s changing. After Sept. 11, security and safety became much larger issues in the thinking of architects. More lives might have been saved at the Twin Towers if the plaster-wallboard interiors of the exit stairwells had not collapsed, blocking some exit routes. The Trade Center depended on a complicated structural system of interior and exterior steel columns. Many new towers favor superstrong concrete cores that not only brace more firmly against wind–and at 2,000-plus feet, you don’t want to sway much–but also enclose emergency stairwells in solid

concrete as well. Tall buildings are now more likely to have duplicated communications systems: if one goes out in an emergency, another can still transmit directions to people and rescuers inside.

“There’s a tremendously heightened sense of structural safety,” says Anthony Vidler, dean of architecture at the Cooper Union in New York City. “Structures used to be designed like bridges, perfectly designed to meet the required need, such as getting a person from one side to another. Now we have a lot of redundancy in structures. If one thing fails, then another will hold, and if that fails, another will hold. It’s akin to having five or six engines on a jet plane.”

Though new American skyscrapers are not going to the same height as the supertalls being built in other nations, more complicated profiles are finally making their way into the U.S. skyline. Calatrava will be building a tower soon in New York City. His plan is for a structure that separates a dozen condos into discrete four-story modules–town houses in the sky. Each apartment is a $30 million, 10,000-sq.ft. package that’s separately cantilevered from an 835-ft. central core, then further supported by exposed trusses that attach to steel piers running the full height of the building. The effect is a dynamic oscillation of forms, with alternating voids and volumes, something utterly unlike the inert slab that is the typical tower.

“I have an approach to the skyscraper as a sculptural element,” says Calatrava, who likes to recall that when sculptor Constantin Brancusi set eyes on the New York skyline in the 1940s, he declared it looked just like his studio, a bristling collection of abstract statuary.

Sculptural would be a good way to describe Gehry’s work too. If all goes as planned, ground will be broken next year in lower Manhattan for what will be by far the tallest building of his long career, a residential tower rising as much as 800 ft. (about 75 stories). Though the design is still incomplete, Gehry expects it will feature some vertical adaptation of his trademark curves and arabesques. Not too many years ago, those features would have given pause to the structural engineers assigned to make sure buildings stand up even when they rise along irregular lines. In the late ’80s, Gehry proposed a design for a new Madison Square Garden in Manhattan–which was never built–with an office tower in the shape of a vertical fish. “The construction people said you couldn’t do it,” he recalls. “But since then it’s become easy to do forms that have that much curvature and complexity. It’s normal now.”

It’s normal because architects are working more closely with engineers, bringing them in at the very start of the design process to assure the stability of their daredevil schemes and superhigh altitudes. “As the buildings get taller and taller, you really need the input of the structural engineer at the beginning,” says Ysrael Seinuk, whose firm, Cantor-Seinuk, is the structural engineer for the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site. Towers have got not just taller but stranger–asymmetrical and askew. No need to worry though, says Charles Thornton of Thornton-Tomasetti Engineers, which worked on a new tower in Taipei, among many others. “Two new developments allow us to produce any shape anyone wants to do,” he says. “One is the ability to ‘build’ a building on the computer with programs that even factor in the dimension of time. We can see how components react to stress over the years, so that building doesn’t go out of plumb.” The second is that with computers, engineers and architects can also produce accurate three-dimensional designs, then a 3-D model, which is easier for subcontractors to follow accurately than the old two-dimensional blueprints or specs. “We give that to the fabricators, the steel erector, the exterior wall façade supplier,” says Thornton. “The 3D model makes for less error in the construction phase.”

No matter what the exterior looks like, the skyscraper can be a problematic building–isolated, aloof from its neighbors and boring inside, a pancake stack of identical floor plates with a lobby at the bottom and maybe a restaurant at the top. For years now, Rem Koolhaas, the oracular Dutch architect and urban theorist, has conducted an unrelenting rhetorical campaign against the skyscraper. “The promise it once held,” he wrote recently, “has been negated by repetitive banality [and] carefully spaced isolation.”

Anybody who rides the elevator in an office or apartment building knows how true that is. So the interior space of the tall tower is lately subject to a complete reimagining. The most famous answer from Koolhaas has been his cantilevered proposal for the CCTV tower, headquarters of China’s government television operation in Beijing. It’s a building that somersaults over itself to provide the maximum space in which people can connect with one another. This year United Architects, an alliance of several architectural offices, entered a no less astonishing submission in a competition to design the Frankfurt, Germany, headquarters of the European Central Bank–an undulating sphere, 504 ft. high. Although it wasn’t the winner, it made plain the radical direction in which things are moving.

The competition for the World Trade Center site, held in 2002, also made people aware, as never before, of how quickly architects are moving the skyscraper into uncharted territory. United Architects entered a widely seen proposal in the competition, an ensemble of five slightly inebriate towers. Some of them rise on the diagonal, and all of them eventually lean into one another and touch at their 60th floors. At that juncture they produce their most spectacular feature, a five-story corridor spanning the length of all five towers horizontally, making a fully enclosed loggia hundreds of feet long–a city street in midair.

“Tall buildings are turning into urban fabrics,” says Greg Lynn of FORM, one of the members of United Architects. “Architects are thinking about how to pull the qualities of the street into the building.” The United Architects design was too massive and audacious to have any real hope of winning the competition. And to a public looking for stability after Sept. 11, it was also too tilted. But the firm’s ideas about the ways public space can be brought inside a tall building were very much, well, in the air. One of the most talked about skyscrapers of the past year, Norman Foster’s 30 St. Mary Axe building in London–better known as “the gherkin” because of its shape–is a glass-enclosed vertical torpedo with sizable interior light wells and gardens scattered throughout its circular floor plates. Those permit each floor to communicate visually with others. “We can compose completely different organizational structures in terms of how you move through a building vertically,” says Thom Mayne, of the forward-looking firm Morphosis, based in Santa Monica, Calif. “It would be much more like how you would move through a city horizontally. We can make buildings with streets, walks and piazzas inside.”

“A tower is a spiritual quest,” says Libeskind. “Whether it’s San Gimignano or the Freedom Tower, it’s about the ancient poetic desire to reach the sky.” And even sometimes to reach it by pretzeled means. Twelve years ago, the very visionary architect Peter Eisenman was commissioned to design a showcase building for the recently unified Berlin, a combination of offices and hotel and retail space to be called the Max Reinhardt Haus, after the also very visionary German theater producer. For inspiration, Eisenman turned to nothing less than the Möbius strip, the 3-D geometric form produced by a single twisted surface. Had it been completed, his 34-story tower would have folded, buckled, twisted and gazed in on itself.

“It twists through itself in such a way that inside becomes outside,” says Eisenman. “We were looking at that building as a frame for looking at the city, a three-dimensional way of looking.” Eisenman’s unbuilt design has continued to resonate in architectural circles. Earlier this year a freshly minted large-scale model appeared in a show of new skyscraper design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Fifteen years ago, it seemed an impossible dream. Now it looks more like a plan for further action.

I have seen the future. And it’s taking a bow. –With reporting by Carolina A. Miranda

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