The Form Could Be Reborn

Diana Lind on the future of the skyscraper.

Photo © Nick Merrick | Hedrich Blessing

How can the skyscraper return as an icon of our time? In her essay for The Future of the Skyscraper, Diana Lind tests the idea of building tall against the more sprawling needs of new industries. She looks at how the skyscraper can recapture the imaginations of young business leaders — the potential supertall clients of the future — and regain relevance as a significant cultural object.

If not the most powerful corporation in America today, Facebook is arguably the most representative. The motto of its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is to “move fast and break things” — a call for the kind of disruption that defines our age. We all know how Facebook has disrupted what now seem like quaint forms of friendship, communication, information, and even voyeurism. But more than that, Facebook, along with all the start-up successes of Silicon Valley, has also disrupted paradigms of success and power. No longer is the American Dream defined by the idea of becoming a millionaire; now we dream of becoming billionaires before thirty. The reward of hard work is not to retire early, but to work long hours on a corporate campus that feels like a Club Med. Not surprisingly, these disruptions have caused a shift in the aesthetics that signal power and success: where once it was suits and skyscrapers, now it’s hoodies and coffee shops.

When Facebook sought to build a headquarters, it didn’t build big and tall as General Motors once did in Detroit, as Citigroup did in New York, or even as CCTV did in Beijing. Instead, it reused an old Sun Microsystems suburban park, and with the help of consultants from Disney, turned it into a corporate campus with the ambience of a New Urbanist town. The campus is centered around a faux Main Street and spread across low-slung buildings. Conference spaces feature garage doors that hark back to companies and bands spawned in suburban garages. Cafes and bench-lined corridors provide ample opportunity for the kind of serendipitous encounters that business gurus all claim will generate great ideas. The campus has many of the amenities of a small town, such as a bike shop, a dry cleaner, a candy store — though these are all owned and operated by Facebook.

This casual atmosphere suggests the corporation is anything but corporate — like a selfie that’s been Photoshopped to look insouciantly impromptu, but was actually very carefully staged. The Main Street aesthetic slyly encourages Facebook’s workers to think that their office isn’t an isolated compound but a community, that round-the-clock work doesn’t impinge upon an employee’s personal life, that a corporate campus and a small town are nearly the same thing. This kind of deceptive architecture, devoid of theory but heavy on fantasy, has become not just the norm but a vogue of our times.

This period, in which the skyscraper thrived and was perhaps its greatest emblem, aspired, in other words, to authenticity — a visual authenticity reflecting the frank expression of economic and cultural power.

While contemporary aesthetics may profess to aspire to authenticity, the real and the sincere are often confused today with a fetishization of the past. Twenty-somethings who grew up in the suburbs now inhabit cities, grouping in places like Williamsburg and Wicker Park, and they bring with them a new aesthetic, a kind of urban pastoral. Urbanites who may once have scoffed at McMansions built to mimic the great nineteenth-century homes of Edwin Lutyens, now wear handlebar mustaches and suspenders — or they go punk, pretending to live in the 1880s or the 1980s. Like Facebook’s campus, they search for the authentic by imitating it, not, as the modernists wished to, achieving it in a new, fitting, contemporary way.

As the urban pastoral aesthetic takes hold, contemporary design languishes; it has been consigned to trendy houses, IKEA furniture, and, of course, the skyscraper. Facebook’s campus — and the nostalgic interiors of restaurants, cafes, clothing stores, and offices in New York, San Francisco, and other cities — suggest that the best money can buy today is the simulacrum of a bygone time.

This looking backwards would not be a problem if the values of the aesthetic fantasy were helping in some way to move our society forward. But it’s not. At a time of increasing resource scarcity and environmental stress, we should be shunning office parks like that of Facebook’s, built a ninety-minute car commute from the urban core where most of its employees live. With population growth and rising rents showing no sign of abating, low-density, New Urbanist designs simply cannot accommodate the demand of more than seven billion people on the planet.

How, then, can this density-generating typology, which has the potential to contribute so much to solving many of our economic, social, and environmental issues simultaneously, recapture the imaginations of our new young business leaders? How can the skyscraper return as an icon of our times?

Skyscrapers continue to be built — out of practical necessity, most often, or sometimes on a personal or governmental whim — but they are no longer in sync with the aesthetic desires of our new class of business leaders. Until this state of affairs changes, we will be hamstrung in our efforts to change our cities to meet the demands of changing times. How, then, can this density-generating typology, which has the potential to contribute so much to solving many of our economic, social, and environmental issues simultaneously, recapture the imaginations of our new young business leaders? How can the skyscraper return as an icon of our times?

Driverless cars, wearable computing, and the end of personal privacy define the near-future reality in which we live. If anticipatory buzz is any indication, it appears we quite welcome a world where cars drive themselves, special glasses give us unlimited information, and every movement is tracked with geospatial and personal data. And yet, despite how much some of us love our apps and iPads, the same people who lose themselves in their screens are the ones who most need a connection back to the human scale.

That is something we might find comfort in, the retreat to the known-values of a past, whether Main Street or Mason jars, deemed to be authentically physical. But when this hunger for substance is expressed as a resistance to innovative architecture that can sensibly and responsibly increase the density of our cities, it is having a deleterious effect on our shared future.

We’ve already seen in practice the consequences of the contemporary resistance to the new. As one of his last acts in office, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg fought to upzone (increase the potential density) of the area of Manhattan known as Midtown East, allowing that already well-skyscrapered area to host even taller skyscrapers. His unsentimental approach — insensitive to wider anti-urban cultural forces — was met with great opposition (some of it for good reasons, as the plan was not fully thought through in terms of its effect on transit capacities and pedestrian-level quality of life). Yet New York grows ever more expensive because its supply of new space cannot keep up with the voracious demand by those who want to live and work there. Economists like Ed Glaeser point out that no small amount of affordable housing or inclusionary zoning will stem escalating housing prices; massive amounts of new housing, which would have to be built in tall buildings or residential skyscrapers, would be the only solution.

The Baccarat Hotel & Residences. Photo © Albert Vecerka | Esto

Still, compared to other cities, New York is relatively welcoming of increased density; in San Francisco, Boston and similar cities — where the identity of the cities themselves is contingent on quaint neighborhoods, and quaint neighborhoods command the highest prices — the resistance to accommodating growth through increased height is much greater. People’s hatred of skyscrapers is on ample display in the fights that erupt whenever a tall building is proposed in a historically low-rise community. The NIMBYs inevitably claim that the new buildings will create long shadows, devalue adjacent properties, include insufficient parking, or simply bungle the look of the place. On an emotional level, many people still equate high-rise buildings with ill-fated housing projects, bad midcentury monumentality, and, on a subliminal level, the racial tensions that decimated inner cities at the time such buildings were being built. And perhaps not surprisingly, a person’s opinion of density often depends on their age, race and economic standing. A poll conducted recently in Santa Monica, California — a low-rising city where development is hotly contested — showed that older whites were in favor of height restrictions limiting new construction, whereas younger Latinos overwhelmingly welcomed less restricted growth.

From Jane Jacobs to Andres Duany, the father of the New Urbanism, there have been persuasive arguments against skyscrapers, arguments for encouraging smaller-grained urban environments that promote varied uses and respect the human scale. Such theorists have long argued, and I would have to agree, that the traditional proportions of a well-tempered street resonate intrinsically with the human body and mind. We can sometimes see this environmental preference expressed as an economic fact-on-the-ground. To continue using New York City as an example, the area of Manhattan east of Park Avenue and north of 23rd Street remains markedly less expensive than other comparable neighborhoods in the city, such as the Upper West Side. While the east side offers good transit, plentiful public space, relative safety, and access to schools and the other amenities that tend to drive up real estate prices, it also is home to the highest concentration of Manhattan’s least-beloved mode of high-rise architecture. In the era where the urban pastoral aesthetic reigns, a forty-story white brick building from the 1960s lacks curb appeal.

Those who can choose, the workforce of the New Economy foremost among them, have chosen to live elsewhere. Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods command ever-higher prices. It would seem that the lower-scaled, tree-lined, coffee shop-dotted streets that have come to define the Brooklyn renaissance are the ideal setting for a generation of newly declared urbanites, reacting to the suburbs of their youth while seeking out the authentic experience of the real as a necessary counterpoint to their full-on immersion in the digital.

But there are factors beyond taste that have caused tall buildings to be reflexively maligned. Skyscrapers, with their typically more spacious dimensions — and with the pressures on developers to make their construction pay — are more likely to house a sterile chain drug store or bank on the ground floor than a cool new bar. The same economic pressures, the simple requirements of thrift associated with profitable development, mean that more often than not new, tall construction is not a showcase for innovative design. Instead, we see bland coloration, a lack of striking detail, poor lighting, the same old rectangular shape, and pitiful public spaces — in New York often a trade-off for increased height — that almost seem to mock the public realm. While they may offer great amenities to their residents, such skyscrapers can be deadly on the street.

While we may at times evince a cultural dislike, even a hatred for them, tall buildings remain the preeminent symbolic touchstones of our cities.

And thus, in every city, a cycle begins: neighborhoods with a large number of newer skyscrapers become soulless and bland, and so fewer people are attracted to these kinds of buildings. So skyscrapers become disassociated from the mainstream zeitgeist, from both a city’s and our society’s culture as a whole, from the very group — the growing, tastemaking cohort of authenticity-seeking young urbanites — that it is perhaps most important to habituate to high-rise living if our cities are to be reshaped to meet the challenges ahead. Certainly the residential and commercial towers of the type going up in certain New York City neighborhoods can fulfill the needs of many; young families, old people, young graduates, and value-driven renters and owners have long found these neighborhoods entirely suitable. But, by and large, for the group that matters most, the would-be denizens of the urban pastoral, tall buildings are an unappealing means to an end.

Despite being out-of-step with contemporary trends in urban living, despite our resistance to actually living in them, for nearly everyone, skyscrapers still foster a sense of delight. While we may at times evince a cultural dislike, even a hatred for them, tall buildings remain the preeminent symbolic touchstones of our cities. Drive toward nearly any city and once the skyline of downtown comes to the horizon, you know you have arrived. Even the city-loving but high-rise-eschewing resident of Wicker Park knows she is home when the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower rears above the prairie horizon, just as a Googler may welcome the sight of the Transamerica pyramid across the bay. Many downtowns where the skyscrapers exist are inhospitable by day and desolate by night (e.g. Dallas, St. Louis, Cleveland, etc.), yet from afar at least, they remain at the heart of each city’s self-image. A quick sketch of New York’s skyline still defines the city, summing up its vitality much faster, and more thrillingly, than the image of a brownstone stoop.

Photo © James Ewing | Otto

How to close this gap, then, between the ongoing romantic appreciation of skyscrapers and their practical unpopularity? How to resolve a resistance to implementing them that may come to compromise our ability to build density-promoting tall buildings in the numbers that are necessary to house a growing, increasingly urbanized world?

Perhaps style is a place to start. A century ago, as architects became fed up with the gaudy — declaring styles such as the Art Deco and Art Nouveau to be representations of economic and even moral falsity — they pursued instead an architecture of more honest materials and forms. This was the glassy, spare style promoted by the Bauhaus School and eventually popularized as the International Style, the style of the first generation of modern skyscrapers. The most famous names of the era imbued their work with theory. Mies van der Rohe, architect of the Seagram Building and celebrated residential towers on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, sought to have his architecture convey clarity, simplicity and honesty, to break free of reliance on the conventions of ornament. Le Corbusier famously called houses “machines for living.” Modern architecture, whether in the form of a skyscraper or a home, was meant to convey the image of productivity and round-the-clock activity that came to represent the pulsating metropolis of the first half of the twentieth century.

Eventually the efficiency of those skyscrapers came to represent the crudeness of capitalism. As skyscrapers became more plentiful and banal, their stock declined. But a century after skyscrapers first became part of the visual identity of cities, there is a prime opportunity for us to capitalize on their indisputable place in communicating the meaning of a city for a new era, their potential to redefine the aesthetics of our age. What is our other choice? To copy the limited virtues of the Facebook campus? To pastoralize our urbanized places? To deny the use of tall buildings in urban planning even as we need them more than ever to meet urban needs?

It is imperative that a new theory for skyscrapers be developed, one that will accommodate our culture’s values. First and foremost, the Modernist notion of connecting form and function must be decoupled. After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, several design competitions were held to reimagine the World Trade Center site. One proposal called for a framework evoking the Twin Towers to be rebuilt out of an open, lattice-like steel structure. Rather than fill the buildings with office space, this plan, by a team of designers called THINK, proposed that cultural institutions and memorial spaces would occupy a few floors of the buildings’ otherwise empty silhouettes. The surpassing popularity of this proposal — a rare moment of public consensus in that fraught redevelopment process — suggested that people loved, and even needed, the iconic stature of the skyscraper. Its function, not so much. The THINK plan was declared the winner of its competition, a decision only overturned by direct intervention of political forces defending an economic status quo.

Is there a way to capture that sense of wonder we all feel when looking at a city skyline? To transfer it to the street level, to the public plaza underneath these towers, to the expression of the exterior of the building? Is there a way to leverage that enduring and affecting romantic attachment to tall buildings in order to make possible doing what is right for our cities?

The roof garden at the Lever House. The detailing at the top of the Chrysler Building. Even the Marina Bay Sands buildings in Singapore, with its infinity-edged pool spanning the roofs. These interventions suggests ways of reinventing a skyscraper so that it can be as enjoyable as a park — ways to build tall that may be seen to be as exciting as the newest side-street restaurant in some cozy urban pastoral neighborhood. The very size of a skyscraper may be a virtue here, offering limitless opportunities to adapt its form and appearance to new conditions — but only if architects reconsider the type, question the monoculture of its use, design it entirely anew, from the spire all the way down to the sidewalk. It may not be that we build tall, but how we do it, that has removed the skyscraper so far from the central place in our culture it once enjoyed.

One admirable aspect of the urban pastoral aesthetic, one that deserves to be retained, is the trend toward incorporating nature into urban life. Vertical farming is now a hot trend, but even a less ambitious wall garden can be deployed to mediate a tall building’s necessary presence. In cities from Bangkok to Rio to Paris, there are examples of lush wall gardens that soften the buildings at street level and captivate pedestrians who might otherwise bridle at the intrusion. Rethinking the materials traditionally used in tall buildings — away from glass and steel, toward timber (another burgeoning trend) and new ecologically-friendly synthetics — is another possible means by which we can bridge the gap between the tastes and values of those who favor the urban pastoral, and the pressing imperatives of the urban present and future.

Skyscrapers, reimagined, could serve again as icons…the form could be reborn

It would also be intriguing if we could find a way to not just amplify the playfulness of the skyscraper — as we’ve seen in recent years all over the world — but to reinforce its functional relationship to twenty-first-century forms of business. Today, most skyscrapers tend to house the headquarters of an enterprise, its intellectual capital, while the production line and the call-center are in far-flung, often suburban locales. But what if the skyscraper came to embody the sites of manufacturing? If the economics can be cracked, perhaps skyscrapers could also be used as bases for the aggregation of thousands of freelancers — already thirty percent of the American workforce is self-employed and that figure is just going to grow — instead of monocultural homes for a single, large company. If the skyscraper can evolve to catch up with modern work trends, it will be exciting to see how it will have to morph its form — to function as a factory, an enormous café for people working from laptops, something else we haven’t yet dared to dream.

Skyscrapers, reimagined, could serve again as icons. Adapted minutely to contemporary conditions — the bio-engineering that will be necessary to live at modern standards during this period of climate change, the resource scarcity and population increase we must accommodate, the technological overlay of nearly every aspect of existence — the form could be reborn. But first they must recapture some of their lost allure as a significant cultural object.

The best way to do that may be to rediscover and exploit the skyscraper’s virtues of honesty and pragmatism, to offer an alternative narrative of the future at a time when we’re all falling for the fantasy of the past. If the ecological basis of increasing densification were more widely understood, living and working in a skyscraper could become a statement of environmentally savvy pride every bit as appealing as those the urban pastoral generation currently embraces. They could become symbols of the rejection of denial — the kind of denial that is palpable in office parks, served only by cars, which are secluded from the rest of the world.

As I write, Facebook has begun releasing official images of an expansion to its Menlo Park campus. Plans center around a new building by Frank Gehry. Occupying nearly twenty-two acres, reaching seventy-five feet high, and practically sunken under an enormous roof deck, it is a single room for thousands of Facebook’s engineers, a sprawling new space in an urban sprawl we can no longer afford to promote. In the past, Gehry’s buildings have been inspired by sailboats, ice hockey, the Italian baroque. This one reminds me of a skyscraper laid to rest, though not yet fully interred. It could still be resurrected.

Diana Lind is Director of Digital Audience Development at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and, and was the former Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief of Next City. This essay was written for the book The Future of the Skyscraper, a collection of essays by Bruce Sterling, Will Self, Tom Vanderbilt and more that was edited by Philip Nobel. The book is the first in a series conceived by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill called SOM Thinkers, which aims to bring together leading voices on topics related to built environment.