Lunch with the Critics: Supertall

In an 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 One World Trade Center.

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

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!.

Alexandra Lange & Mark Lamster, “Lunch with the Critics: Supertall,” Places Journal, October 2011. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.