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Saturday, August 16th, 2014

Life in the sky: Man’s ambition to touch the clouds

Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala LumpurFor most of its time on earth mankind has been a flightless creature, with no more contact with the heavens than to ponder it and send daydreams floating among the clouds. We became a more multidimensional species the day we conquered flight, a presence in the skies begun by the Montgolfier brothers and completed by the brothers Wright. Since then we have made the air our home, in more ways than one, for not only do we cleave its vapours to traverse continents and skip oceans at great speed, these days we also live, work and exist amid the rarefied air of great altitude.

All of this gives modern man a perspective that separates him from all those ancestors that came before. We can gaze down upon a world that once confined and indeed defined us, marvelling at how minuscule we still are and our habitat once was. The comparison with ants comes to mind, though increasingly they are joined by worker bees busily buzzing around in mid-air. We can now gaze across bays, mountain ranges and city landscapes, new neighbours of birds and other airborne creatures. With ourselves the ones behind glass perhaps it is the humans that are on this occasion caught within the fishbowl, yet neither this nor the novel alien environment we have created for ourselves does anything to dampen the raging enthusiasm for that most desired exponent of power and wealth: the skyscraper.

Burj Khalifa in DubaïAlthough there are many temples, palaces, church towers, minarets and even classical apartment blocks to contradict me, for most of our history mankind has lived close to the ground. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that this is our natural habitat, but enterprising little creature that he is, man desired to reach the top one way or another, and when the first discernible skyscraper was born in 1885 he had already thrown up dozens of prototypes along the way. This first official skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, was just ten storeys high, but it formed the prologue to a veritable explosion of vertical needles sticking proudly out of the earth.

With the help of inventions such as the modern lift and efficient steel-frame construction the sky literally became the limit and the skyscraper the enduring symbol of American capitalism, dynamism, ingenuity, progress and prosperity. Even today, when so many cosset it, it is something akin to a ‘Manhattan Syndrome’ that drives them, much like Freud’s penis envy but on a gigantic scale. It is perhaps not surprising to find that these structures have indeed been likened to phallic symbols, as visible instruments of power that are subconsciously designed to impress, impose and intimidate.

Once the domain of the USA, the skyscraper now belongs to all the world and more than ever is a symbol of national – or personal – power and pride. Though its real spiritual home is Chicago we associate these upright boxes with New York’s Manhattan, and it must be this image that would-be world conquerors see in their mind’s eye when they commission yet another mega tower. Such has been the building spree in the past two decades that where the early American scrapers could hold the title of world’s tallest building for decades, today’s Race for the Skies means a new one is crowned every few years.

View from the Burj Khalifa in DubaïWHO BUILDS A SKYSCRAPER?

An interesting detail about today’s skyscraper is that most no longer go up in the ‘vertical’ cities of the US, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan or Argentina, but instead in the likes of Mumbai, Shanghai, Bangkok, Caracas, Bogota, Panama City, Dubai, Manila and even Lagos – places with huge housing shortages and poverty. So are towers being used as an efficient way to solve housing problems, overcrowding and slums, as Le Corbusier proposed?

Not really. In fact, not at all. Europe’s post war dabble with high-rise social housing hasn’t quite been a successful experiment, resulting as it did in the depressing ‘modern’ estates of Peckham (London), Bijlmermeer (Amsterdam) and the banlieues around Paris. What looked good in theory has not worked in practice, and though it did help to clear out age-old city slums any sense of cohesion that held these communities together was lost, replaced by an urban jungle complete with gangs, vandalism and social disaffection.

Far from being an efficient means of housing the masses, the superstructure is actually a type of real estate best suited to luxury apartments, city hotels and corporate headquarters. It is not a coincidence then that these steel and glass towers have since become temples of commercial might that have made the reputations of architects from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to Norman Foster. Some, like Oscar Niemeyer and Richard Rodgers, have proposed alternative arrangements of the skyscraper, but on the whole the preferred format is simply glassy, tubular and tall, very tall.

The 30 St Mary Axe in LondresIn fact, when it comes to skyscrapers, size most definitely does impress, and with Taipei, Shanghai, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai locked in a ferocious battle for supremacy of the skies, actual altitude seems to outweigh even functionality and design. Modern building materials and techniques are throwing up ever more outlandish shapes, as seized upon by architects like Zaha Hadid, but these are only amalgamated into the overall equation if they do not stand in the way of soaring ambitions.

In an age that is trying to redefine itself as post-industrial, the skyscraper remains an oddly out-of-sync product of the industrial revolution, yet it is also undeniably modern and high-tech. Today’s super towers are increasingly strong, flexible and safe, not to mention energy-efficient and even carbonneutral, but as they spread across the earth they also represent the cold alienation between man and nature, have and have-not. Though in danger of thus becoming ivory towers, the skyscraper continues to fuel a modern-day fascination that revolves around technology, power, glamour and urban sophistication, as envisaged in luxury urban hotels, the HQs of global corporations and dream penthouses that throw open a window to the world and allow us to live among the clouds – something our ancestors could only ever dream of.

This article was published in Villae International Magazine 9, the official magazine of EREN – The European Real Estate Network. You can also read the online version of the printed Villae International Magazine 9.

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