July 18, 2014

City Museum Debates the History and Future of Supertall Buildings


In conjunction with its exhibit “Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile,” the Museum of the City of New York hosted Innovators: Engineering & Design of Tall Buildings, a panel discussion about the history and future of supertall structures. Lance Jay Brown, president of the AIA NY chapter, began with an observation that has been true since the time of Babel: “We are constantly watching humanity reach for the heavens.”

Co-sponsored by the AIA New York Chapter, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, and the American Council of Engineering Companies of New York, the discussion was particularly timely for the New York architectural landscape. Within the year, the city will see the completion of the arduous task that has been 1 World Trade Center by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Residents are still caught in a debate about the supertall residential developments of Hudson Yards, Rafael Viñoly Architects’ 432 Park Avenue, and Christian de Portzamparc’s One57, all of which seem to slowly encroach on Central Park. These buildings strike discourse about such wide-ranging topics from urban planning and efficiency to wealth inequality.

To address some of the above questions, Paul Katz of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, Charles Blomberg of Rafael Viñoly Architects, William Baker of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, and Ashok Raiji of ARUP came together under the moderation of journalist Nadine Post. Post recalled the history of the skyscraper, beginning with Chicago’s Home Insurance Building by William Le Baron Jenney in 1885, which lasted less than 50 years before being demolished in 1931. Reflecting on the work of Guastavino, which is now reaching 100 plus years, the primary concern of the panel is that the modern supertall—and super expensive—skyscrapers will meet similar ends as Jenney’s work. Will skyscrapers be able to survive several generations?

All four architects argued in favor of skyscrapers, though it should be noted that all of them represent firms that specialize and greatly profit from these endeavors. Their arguments were not without qualifications. Raiji spoke about the importance of what he termed “total design:” buildings that not only meet an immediate need but also recognize the ramifications of their construction on a city’s future. Katz said that a building’s usefulness could be better gauged by becoming “in tune with a city’s context, understanding what is appropriate for that locale.” Skyscrapers, like all buildings, should not be interchangeable, but customized for the needs of the people around them. A structure must be in tune with the environment in which it is erected.

When asked whether skyscrapers will continue to be prominent in the future, Raiji pointed out the current trends in consumers. “There has been a generational shift—millennials view their environments differently. They seek out smaller personal space and more communal, mixed-use places in a central location. The high-rise answers these needs.” Beyond practicality, Baker pointed out the sheer beauty and prestige that comes with these mega-sculptures. No matter their reasoning, the skyscraper, an architectural genre that was said to be dying out only 10 years ago, is on the rise. And it raises the question: How high can we really go?

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