Places

About
Foundation
Partner Schools
Print Archive
Peer Review
Submissions
Donate
Contact


Departments

Critique
Essays
Gallery
Interviews
Multimedia
Partner News
Peer Reviewed
Poetry & Fiction
Projects


Topics

Architecture
Art
Books
Cities + Places
Community
Culture
Design History
Design Practice
Development
Ecology
Economy
Education
Energy
Environment
Film + Video
Food
Geography
Health + Safety
History
Housing
Ideas
Infrastructure
Landscape
Photography
Planning
Politics + Policy
Preservation
Public + Private
Reputations
Sustainability
Technology
Transportation
Urbanism
Water



Design Observer

About
Books
Job Board
Newsletters
Archive
Contact



Comments Posted 10.03.11 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Critique: Alexandra Lange & Mark Lamster

Lunch with the Critics: Supertall



Supertall!, July 27, 2011, through January 2012 at the Skyscraper Museum in New York. Click image to enlarge. [Images courtesy of the Skyscraper Museum]

In the latest installment of Lunch with the Critics, our intrepid interlocutors travel to Lower Manhattan to view the exhibition Supertall! at the Skyscraper Museum. After touring the show, they walked north to the Winter Garden in Battery Park City, where they sat down to compose this dialogue in the shadow of New York City's rising entry into the supertall field, One World Trade Center.

Mark Lamster: Let me kick us off here by saying what a shame it is that the Skyscraper Museum, our city's only full-time architecture museum, seems to be so beneath the collective radar here in New York — an irony given the subject matter. At $5 for an adult admission, it's one of the best deals in town, and its new show, Supertall!, is worth a visit. Certainly it's timely. The skyscraper, that typology put to premature rest after 9/11, is back with us to stay. The last decade has been the most prolific era of skyscraper building in history.

Alexandra Lange: So prolific that the exhibition has to define its terms very carefully and numerically: buildings built between 2001 and 2016, taller than the Empire State Building, 100 stories plus. That adds up to 48 projects worldwide, displayed in a wall-size grid as you enter the one-room museum. The grid is dizzying — I immediately thought, Is there going to be a quiz? — but it does allow you to pick out the dominant visual paradigms for this generation of skyscrapers. Neoclassicism: symmetry, stacked volumes, shreds of masonry cladding, spires. Or spirals: asymmetry, bundles or twists or ripples, shiny. Murphy Jahn's Nanjing Tower (2013) epitomizes the latter type: its concept model is an acrylic obelisk that might as well be a Tiffany & Co. sports trophy.

ML: I guess great minds think alike, as I was also there trying to form some system of classification for these towers, and the most creative new ones all seem to fall into the curvy pylon genre. You liked the Nanjing Tower; I was impressed by several others in this vein: Gensler's torquing Shanghai Tower with its central garden atrium, KPF's Chongqing ITCC, SOM's Seoul Light DMC Tower, and Wilkinson Eyre's Ghangzhou IFC, unusual for its external "diagrid" columns, engineered by Arup. Several of these buildings go beyond the banal pancake-stack of floorplates typical of the form. The good news: I noted only two historicist designs: one for Mecca, another for Dubai.



Left: Murphy/Jahn, Nanjing Tower. Center: Kohn Pedersen Fox, Chongqing International Trade and Commerce Center. Right: Wilkinson Eyre Architects, Guangzhou International Finance Centre.

AL: Oh no, I'm not saying I liked the Nanjing Tower. I just thought that model, prominently placed, summed up the type and the design ambitions for these skyscrapers. I found it almost impossible to tell most of them apart, and the exhibit's lack of strong graphics didn't help. One reason they all look so alike is that they are almost all designed (with associated local architects) by the firms you list above. One imagines a closet of such sculptures in their offices, ready to be brought out and shined up for each prospective client. It also points to the problem for a critic trying to say something about this show, and these towers. How can one evaluate them as anything but sculpture? I've never been to any of these cities except Mumbai. It's great that they aren't dumbly contextual, but obviously one hopes that they might acknowledge their diverse contexts — somehow — on the ground. But it is hard to see how that's possible. So many are towers in parks (or three towers plus a mall in a park); very few seem to be located within anything like a street grid. The 1880s Chicago skyscrapers shown on the opening timeline look smaller and darker every day in comparison.

ML: It's a show about the typology, so I was not so bothered by the lack of focus on contextualism. In any case, the buildings are primarily in business districts, and these are ever more interchangeable, gratis the school of international modernism put forth by the handful of firms that build these towers. And yes, it is a handful. In the words of curator Carol Willis, "If you're going to spend $3 billion on a building, you want someone who's done it before." The irony is that these supertall buildings are designed to be iconic, memorable signs for the cities that build them, but their similarity works against that desire, and instead we seem to be creating placeless modern places that look great in ads for luxury automobiles. Given the typological conceit of the show, however, I wish there were a little more focus on the new technologies that are making skyscrapers (although, admittedly, not most supertalls) more sustainable. One of the Big Ideas of the show is that the new supertower is a mixed-use vertical city, but there isn't much focus on what that really means from the perspective of the individual. It is very much, then, a structures show. A highlight, for me, and worth the price of admission, was the video of structural engineer Bill Baker explaining how supertalls actually manage to combat the physical forces acting against them.

AL: I think some discussion of the context is absolutely necessary in order to understand what living supertall does really mean, as you say, from the perspective of the individual, whether that individual is inside or outside the tower. J. G. Ballard published High Rise in 1975! While many of these projects are unbuilt, there are some that have been around long enough for sociological study. That's of greater interest to me; but even if that is outside the scope of this exhibition, it's an omission not to have a more highlighted discussion of sustainability and engineering. There is that video of Bill Baker, and there are a variety of structural diagrams, but none of that information is bolded curatorially and there are no explanatory graphics proprietary to the show that might help the visitor understand why these towers are made the way they are. What strikes you, walking around, are the big models and renderings, or the photographs indistinguishable from renderings — and these are sales tools. I wanted there to be more of a take, more of an argument. Carol Willis could have re-applied her reasoning from Form Follows Finance to the 21st-century cityscape.



Comparison of the Skyscraper Museum's 2007 and 2011 Supertall Surveys.

ML: I think it would have benefitted from a day-in-the-life case study of one of these towers. As it is, the arguments of Form Follows Finance don't necessarily apply here, as the form of these buildings cannot be explained by purely economic imperative: their height is exaggerated beyond what would optimize a return on investment (and I believe this point is attended to in the introductory panels). For that matter, one of the more interesting panels, toward the rear of the show, notes that the true scale measure of the office tower is not its height but its floor area. Of course it's a lot easier to sell an exhibit on the world's tallest buildings rather than on the buildings that achieve the greatest square footage. Willis sneaks this point in there, and more credit to her for doing so, as it almost runs counter to the raison d'etre of the show.

AL: I think more discussion of how the supertalls fall outside the realm of ordinary finance would have been beneficial — but I guess I missed that in the introduction. Their economic irrationality could bring us back to Louis Sullivan's ur-definition of the skyscraper — "It must be tall, every inch of it tall." That 1896 essay is quoted in the exhibit's fascinating visual timeline of tallness, which starts with the pyramids and makes a full geographic circle back to the Middle East. Rob Walker called my attention to a recent post on the blog Sunday Magazine, which highlights "the most interesting articles from 100 years ago this weekend," in which Ernest Flagg, architect of the Singer Building (then the tallest building in the world), asks "Are American Cities Going Mad Architecturally?" His diagnosis? "The trouble is that we have not yet applied to high buildings the same truthful, simple, and artistic treatment which ages of experience have taught us to use in monumental buildings of moderate height." If the show proves anything, it is that we can't really talk about the skylines of individual cities anymore. The dialogue, or lack thereof, is between the spires poking up around the globe.

ML: It is disturbing how indistinct skylines have become. To return to the point about the TV car commercial, I'm always trying to identify the modern urban backdrops in which these things are shot (is that ... Charlotte?), but they are intentionally cut to create the appearance of some indistinguishable place — a sanitized, streamlined and luxurious modern future, available for $299 a month and 0% APR. As for historic quotes, let me turn to Frank Lloyd Wright, who actually makes the same point about structural and artistic honesty in his classic essay, "Is the Skyscraper Doomed? Yes!," which I would posit as the sine qua non of skyscraper crank literature. Here's a bit from that piece, with Wright in full dyspeptic flower: "To some of our people, exaggeration will always mean greatness — because they know no better grandeur. To such, the skyscrapers will be the great monuments marking the spot where pride once stood to say progress is necessarily commercial. Twentieth Century gravestones!" He wrote that in 1936. Twenty years later, he presented the world his own mile-high tower, the Illinois. Which is to say, there is a certain and undeniable grandeur to exaggeration, and — whatever the show's faults — you'll find it at Supertall!.


Editors' Note

On October 12 and October 19, as part of the month-long architecture and design festival Archtober, Carol Wills, director and curator of the Skyscraper Museum, will lead gallery tours of Supertall!.
Share This Story

RELATED POSTS


On Architecture and Authorship: A Conversation


Temple of the Vanities


The Evil, Evil Grain Elevator


Fairy Tale Architecture: Halloween Edition


Please Save Modernism from the Modern



LOG IN TO POST A COMMENT
Don't have an account? Create an account. Forgot your password? Click here.

Email


Password




Donate to Places: Your Support Makes Our Work Possible



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, and author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Architect's Newspaper, Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and The New York Times.
More Bio >>

Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture. A contributing editor to Architectural Review, he is currently at work on his third book, a biography of the late architect Philip Johnson. Follow: @marklamster.
More Bio >>

DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









MORE ON New York City


"The moment for something to happen"
On Places, Belmont Freeman reviews The Making of an Avant-Garde, Diana Agrest's new documentary on the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, from its 1970s heyday to its brilliant legacy.

Resilience in Red Hook
On Places, Alexandros Washburn, chief urban designer for New York, describes the frightening onset and complicated aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the city last October.

The City and the Sea
On Places, Tom Vanderbilt surveys the landscape and politics of New York City after Hurricane Sandy, focusing on both early response and long-range planning.

An Interview with David Burney: On New York and the 21st-Century City-State
On Places, an interview with New York City Design and Construction Commissioner David Burney, who reflects on the urban design record of the Bloomberg years, the post-Sandy recovery effort, and the rise of the 21st-century city-state.

Seagram: Union of Building and Landscape
On Places, Phyllis Lambert explores the evolution of the Seagram Building, focusing on Mies van der Rohe's profound concern for the relationship between building and nature.

Past Perfect: Four Freedoms Park
On Places, Belmont Freeman reviews the controversial politics of presidential memorials, focusing especially on Four Freedoms Park in New York City, the memorial to FDR designed 40 years by Louis Kahn.

Occupying Wall Street: Places and Spaces of Political Action
On Places, Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder explore the physical places and virtual spaces of Occupy Wall Street — the "hypercity built of granite and asphalt, algorithms and information."

Occupy: The Day After
On Places, Reinhold Martin explores how Occupy Wall Street might challenge the structural inequities of finance capitalism, and how architects and urbanists can contribute to the next phase of the movement

Occupy: What Architecture Can Do
On Places, Reinhold Martin explores the role of architecture in the Occupy Wall Street movement — and in the larger challenges of constructing a better and more equitable society.

Above Grade: On the High Line
On Places, writer Phillip Lopate traces the pre-history of the High Line, and ponders whether New York City's elevated park will be a victim of its own success.

The Art of Advocacy: The Museum as Design Laboratory
On Places, MoMA's curator of architecture and design, Barry Bergdoll, describes his efforts to expand the museum's role to support experimentation and advocacy.

Queer Beacon
On Places, architect Kian Goh explores LGBT public spaces in contemporary New York, where activism confronts gentrification.

Gita Lenz: New York Views
On Places, a gallery by the mid-century New York photographer Gita Lenz, whose long neglected work is gaining new recognition.

Jane Jacobs, Andy Warhol, and the Kind of Problem a Community Is
On Places, Tim Mennel compares the radically different New York worlds of Andy Warhol's Factory and Jane Jacobs's Village — and comes to some provocative conclusions.

Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning
On Places, Thomas Campanella evaluates the complex legacy Jane Jacobs, including the ongoing marginalization of the urban planning profession.

Lunch with the Critics: Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University
For this installment of Lunch with the Critics, Mark Lamster and Alexandra Lange visit the Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University.

Street Cred
On Places, Mimi Zeiger reviews Street Value, the new book about Downtown Brooklyn and the dynamic interplay of shopping and planning, of politics and race and class.

What's Going On in the Garment District?
On Places, an interactive section created by the Brooklyn-based Interboro Partners offers a detailed look at "what's going on in the garment district" of Manhattan.

Hallowed Ground, Worldly City: Ground Zero and the Struggle for Lower Manhattan
On Places, James Sanders looks at the current controversy over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in a larger context, noting that New York City has for most of its history "abhorred the very idea of memorials." 

Lunch with the Critics: Park51 & 15 Penn
"Lunch with the Critics," a new feature on Design Observer: Mark Lamster and Alexandra Lange travel to midtown to visit the Hotel Pennsylvania, across from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.

Lunch with the Critics: The New Lincoln Center
"Lunch with the Critics," a new feature on Design Observer, begins with Alexandra Lange and Mark Lamster's visit to the recently revamped Lincoln Center.

The Water Underground
On Places, watch The Water Underground, a video from the Center for Urban Pedagogy that tracks the complex — and contested — systems of water supply, treatment and waste that serve New York City.

Green Metropolis
On Places, urban planning professor Timothy Beatley, author of Green Urbanism, reviews Green Metropolis, by David Owen, which argues that Manhattan is the greenest city in the U.S.

Adventure Playground: John V. Lindsay and the Transformation of Modern New York
On Places, James Sanders on the transformation of New York City that began in the Sixties under Mayor John Lindsay — the reinvention of the city from a workaday zone to a scenic setting for urban play, an "adventure playground."

Two Feet High and Rising: On Optimism, Speculation and Oysters
On Places, Mimi Zeiger reviews MoMA's ambitious new architecture and urban design show, Rising Currents: Projects for New York's Waterfront, which explores how New York Harbor might be adapted in the face of rising sea levels.

The City's End
Architect Beth Weinstein reviews The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears and Premonitions of New York's Destruction, by architectural historian Max Page — just in time for the season premiere of 24, which finds Jack Bauer and his fellow counter-terrorists relocated to NYC.

Bodega Down Bronx
Why is it easier to get fresh produce in Park Slope than in the South Bronx? Places presents Bodega Down Bronx, a video from the Center for Urban Pedagogy, that examines where and why New York's bodegas get their food.

The Past Is Promenade: On the High Line
Architect Ian Baldwin contemplates the High Line and sees in New York's newest park a rare and valuable form of urban place: a slow corridor.

On the Water: The New York/New Jersey Harbor
As the planet warms, rising seas will endanger coastal communities around the world. Engineer Guy Nordenson proposes a bold plan to protect New York City.

BOOKS BY Alexandra Lange

Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities
Princeton Architectural Press, 2012

Design Research
Chronicle Books, 2010

More books by contributors >>