Thursday, November 8, 2001

Skyscrapers have symbolized American strength, power and technological prowess for more than a century, but now some architects are asking if some buildings are too tall. The September 11 terrorist attacks, which carved a gigantic hole in the Pentagon and destroyed the two World Trade Center towers, have ignited debate as to what, if anything, should replace the two New York landmarks and whether skyscrapers are obsolete.
Witold Rybczynski, a University of Pennsylvania professor of urbanism, believes the WTC’s 110-story towers are a thing of the past.
“They make no economic sense,” said Mr. Rybczynski, who will participate in The National Building Museum’s symposium, “The Future of the Skyscraper,” from 6 to 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at 401 F St. NW.
“In Asia, they build such skyscrapers to draw attention to those cities, but it proves nothing. We know we can do it, but there’s no reason to do it again. They are not more beautiful buildings because they are taller.”
Boston Globe writer Robert Campbell, who will emcee the forum, says the WTC towers never did fit in with New York’s skyline.
“They were just big boxes,” he says. “They looked like the crates the real towers came in, which someone forgot to unpack. They were so big they threw the rest of Manhattan out of scale, destroying the famous skyline by trivializing it.”
Other architects will argue that strong, tall buildings are the key to America’s future.
Paul Katz, senior designer at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates in New York, says skyscrapers have switched from being an American symbol to a world symbol. Mr. Katz is helping design the 95-floor, 1,500-foot Shanghai World Financial Center, which will be the world’s tallest building, at least temporarily, when completed in 2007.
“It’s very much a part of the city of the future in places like Hong Kong, London, Tokyo and Shanghai,” said Mr. Katz. “The bulk of the building is going on in Asia, where population densities are huge and there’s a need to catch up to the West in economic growth. Cities need symbols. It’s more than just efficiency. People need to be inspired and tall buildings do that.
“By the end of the decade, more than half of the world’s population will live in cities. It is essential we find ways to do this efficiently. This may be more important in the developing world than in the United States. This phenomenon has been happening in Asia for a long time because they have no choice.”
Ever since architect William Le Baron Jenney swore in 1885 that his new 180-foot-high Home Insurance Building was at a height to rival the Tower of Babel, skyscrapers have been part of the American landscape.
“They’re like John Wayne in a Western movie,” Mr. Campbell says. “Or better yet, Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon,’ A skyscraper is tall, strong, silent, lone and self-reliant. Just like a cowboy. You look up to it.”
Thus, “Knocking off the loftiest building in New York was a way of knocking off America itself,” he says. “America no longer stood tall.”
Which is all the more reason to build again, Mr. Katz argues.
“I don’t think we need to design buildings with the thought of planes crashing into them,” he says. “If a plane had crashed into a sports stadium, would we have given up on sports events? Why give up on buildings because of one event? If people are going to be hijacking planes on a regular basis, we have other problems to deal with. They can crash into any symbol of our society.”
The World Trade Center buildings, which measured 1,328 feet and 1,368 feet high, were the world’s tallest from 1970 to 1974, after which they were eclipsed by the Sears Tower in Chicago. The towers were held up by an exterior steel wall of closely spaced steel columns along with steel columns ringing a core of elevator shafts, air ducts and stair enclosures.
Leslie Robertson, the structural engineer for the towers, was dining with friends in Hong Kong when news of the attacks came.
“I had no idea whether it was a helicopter or something,” he said, remembering that a B-52 bomber had accidentally hit the 79th floor of the Empire State building in 1945. “But when the second plane hit, it became clear what was going on.”
He mused: “No building before or since has put so much rentable space so high up in the air. Most buildings taper as they go up, but these were square cylinders. Each of the towers was larger than any other building constructed, in terms of square feet. These are really great buildings to live and work in, and the intrinsic efficiency of having face-to-face communication with people that is afforded by a hi-rise you can’t buy it elsewhere.”
He marvels that even with two-thirds of these columns taken out by planes on the north face of the north tower and the south face of the south tower, the buildings still stood.
“The lateral strength was in those exterior columns, which absorbed the force of the aircraft,” he says. “The nature of the structural system was that the building could remain standing with such an opening. Then the fire kept eating away at the guts of the building,” causing its collapse.
Which illustrates why, Mr. Katz says, tall buildings are much safer than smaller buildings in the same way large planes are safer than small planes.
“High-rises are built better, to withstand high-level winds and earthquakes,” he says, “simply because they are stronger. People in Japan live in tall buildings because of earthquakes. Their technology is quite advanced. There are very few people injured in tall buildings, which is why this was such a shock because the safety record is so good.”
Bruce Fowle, a New York architect who designed the Conde Nast building in Times Square, guesses the WTC will never be rebuilt.
“The stand-alone tower is not something that works urbanistically in today’s world,” he says. “We need buildings that engage the street, engage public activity and create a human quality at the pedestrian level, like the Rockefeller Center.
“The World Trade Center did not relate to the street in any way. The streets around it were barren, with no life in them. Buildings need to be designed so they evolve from the space around them.”
Mr. Campbell predicts that future American skyscrapers will be “greener” edifices with glass walls, like the newer skyscrapers in Europe, where every worker is within 20 feet of a window.
“They are the opposite of the huge flat boxes of the WTC,” Mr. Campbell says, “in which every floor was nearly one acre (about one football field) in area, and where workers were often far from daylight.
“As we face up to the crisis of global warming and other demands on planetary resources, America will surely move in the same direction as Europe. There is no way the WTC could be built, or should be built, in our time.”

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