Atkins | 10 Dec 2007 | Comments

The desire to build bigger and better than anyone else is a perennial human trait and skyscrapers have defined urban skylines for over a century, but how are they shaping our lives today?

“Everyone likes a view. That’s why people build things like the London Eye,” says Alain de Botton, author of The Architecture of Happiness, a treatise on the influence that the buildings in which we work and play can have on our lives.

“There’s something nice about getting a sense of order and how the landscape lies. That can be satisfying. But I suppose the most successful buildings are not just those to be viewed from, but that are also views in themselves. That’s the trick: to both offer a view and to be a view. That’s the challenge.”

It’s a challenge that has been answered nicely for over 125 years in the form of that iconic American classic: the skyscraper.

Tom Wright, Atkins’ concept architect for the record-breaking 321m tall Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, notes that a skyscraper is more than a sum of its physical parts. “A tall building is also a statement,” he says. “It’s about wealth, power and economic stability. And the tallest buildings are usually associated with one company or a government, like a world trade centre. It is very simply a tall building that informs Joe Public of the power of the organisation behind it.”

“Definitely, they generally are absolutely that,” de Botton says. “But it’s a very banal point to make, to be told by someone, ‘I’m rich and powerful’. As a viewer, as an ordinary person, you think, ‘So what? Good for you. Can I get on with my life now?”

De Botton isn’t turned on by the notion of building the tallest skyscraper in the world: “What one wants is the nicest in the world – that’s what one should aspire to.”

He also points out that, “like any building, they work better in some places than in others”, adding that when the mix of buildings is wrong, what you get is a mess.

Wright agrees that height isn’t everything: “In a meeting about the concept for the Burj Al Arab we asked the client: do you want this to be one of the most interesting looking buildings in the world, or one of the tallest? When they asked what the difference was we pointed out that one will always remain interesting, while the other will get shorter by comparison.”

The shape of things to come

Tradition and a sense of familiarity informed the look of the earliest skyscrapers. Burnham and Root’s Masonic Temple – one of the first examples of the form, completed in Chicago in 1892 – featured gables, pitched roofs and canted bay windows. The result resembled a suburban villa on a mammoth scale.

Things changed as time and attitudes moved on. De Botton argues that “modernism imposed a kind of ‘boxy’ language on the skyscraper for the second half of the 20th century. Skyscrapers that went on from the twenties to the early sixties showed some of the most interesting types of the genre.”

While fear of the unfamiliar informed the shape of 19th century skyscrapers, modernism dictated the conformity of a lot of 20th century skyscrapers. This century, however, computer-aided design and increasingly aspirational clients are fostering individualism.

“Skyscrapers are much more than just rectangular boxes nowadays,” adds Hayden Nuttall, design director at Atkins. “China’s Guangzhou TV and Sightseeing Tower, for example, has an extraordinary shape for a 610m high tower.”

Going up

“Things are blasting along and everyone is pushing technology to the edges of reason and beyond,” points out Wright.

Prowess has always played a part in the erection of skyscrapers but this drive for iconic status is a growing concern in the business: “In Dubai, everyone is trying to outdo the other in daring structures of steel and glass. The higher, the better,” says Atkins’ Lee Morris, the senior design architect for Trump International Hotel and Tower, which is under construction at the centre of the “trunk” of The Palm, Jumeirah, in Dubai.

“A split-linked tower” is how he describes this project. The lower tower legs straddle a public park and monorail track and station as well as creating a visual link through the legs up and down the main axis of The Palm.

John Roberts, Atkins’ head of building design in Bangalore, acknowledges the influence that adventurous clients are having on skyscraper design: “Today’s clients have seen the successes achieved by others who have trail-blazed new approaches and they too feel able to move away from ‘normal’,” he says.

Roberts believes that top engineers today are the ones who exploit the synergies that can now be found between developing technologies and market forces.

And while there will always be a new building to break the height record, so there is a need to do something with form to outperform. As Nuttall concludes: “Architecture is all about one-offs by its very nature. Technological advances, whether these are in analysis capabilities, materials, construction methods or damping systems, are what will make buildings more economic and allow for even more possibilities.” He reckons the sky is the limit for the shape of things to come.

“The future is increasingly complicated, but also increasingly exciting,” agrees Roberts.

As for de Botton, he remains well grounded when it comes to the question of awe-inspiring height over intriguing shapes. And he predicts that there will be fewer of them in years to come: “I think the age of the skyscraper has probably already peaked. My hope for the future is that architects and their clients will discover the interesting and perhaps greater challenges of the low-rise building.”

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