- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

In the Broadway musical "Oklahoma," Will returns from the big city and astounds his small-town friends with tales of up-to-date, seven-story buildings scraping Kansas City's sky that he figures are "about as high as a buildin' orta grow." Even cosmopolitan Will would be amazed by the Octagon Museum's exhibition "Skyscraper: The New Millennium." Organized by the Architecture Department at the Art Institute of Chicago, the show examines more than 30 high-rise buildings throughout the world that were constructed or designed in the past five or six years. It does not review classic skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building or the now-destroyed World Trade Center in New York.

The skyscraper remains one of the most controversial building types. Occasionally majestic and at times banal, skyscrapers draw praise for their grandeur and also are criticized as economically driven and hostile to cities. Questions surrounding them take on an immediacy after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers.

As the exhibit's title implies, these are not your parents' skyscrapers, but those emerging in a global economy, a more varied cultural context and with more environmental awareness. The 37 skyscrapers nine of which include models are displayed on large panels and delineated in a range of graphics, including photographs, sketchbook-like studies, photomontages and computer-generated renderings.

The forces that shaped 19th- and 20th-century skyscrapers the pursuit of height, changes in elevator and structural technologies, and the drive for corporate or civic symbolism endure. The curators organized the exhibit into North American, European and Asian/Middle Eastern regions, which helps illustrate global influences on these forces and the skyscraper's origins.

The American towers, such as the reasonable 300 East Randolph building in Chicago, tend toward more pragmatic forms. The skyscrapers in Europe, Asia and the Middle East reveal possibilities stemming from geography, cultures, clients and technologies not found in the American cities where skyscrapers were born and matured. Designers in those areas are abandoning more traditional rectilinear forms and sculpting buildings into prisms and lozenges with vertical sails and wings. Displaced cubes jutting from the Shanghai Information Town building in China or the finned Scotts Tower in Singapore are only two of the new forms found outside the United States.

The race to construct the "tallest building in the world" continues. The exhibition places the titleholder, Cesar Pelli's Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and possible contenders in the same ring. One is 7 South Dearborn Street in Chicago, which will top out at 2,000 feet more than 500 feet higher than the Petronas Towers.

Clearly, ego continues to shape buildings. This is best represented in the show by the Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Local zoning restricted buildings to 30 occupiable floors. To compensate for the size limits, the architects for the tower were asked to add one-third of permanently vacant space about 100 meters, or 330 feet above the 30-story height.

Tall projects that begin to incorporate environmental concerns take the buildings into a new era. Limited mostly to Europe and Canada, ecological skyscrapers include natural ventilation, heat exchange systems and recycled and new energy-efficient materials. Vancouver's Sheraton Tower and London's Swiss Re Headquarters, both in the exhibition, are nearing the limits of environmentally conscious design in their technology and spatiality.

This exhibit offers a skilled investigation into the skyscraper as an object. Still, most of the drawings and models show little site context and give no palpable sense of the effect these buildings have on their surroundings. The Saudi Kingdom Tower, for example, will be built adjacent to Riyadh's five- and 10-story buildings, while the Petronas Towers, despite Mr. Pelli's deferential efforts, seem unsuitable in their cultural and physical setting.

Yet, the show offers an opportunity for anyone interested in seeing how we did, will or "orta grow."


Eric J. Jenkins is a practicing architect and a professor at Catholic University of America's School of Architecture and Planning. He was a curator for "Cesar Pelli: Connections," which is at the National Building Museum through April 28. Another exhibit about skyscrapers, "Twin Towers Remembered," concerning the World Trade Center, can be seen at the National Building Museum through March 10.


WHAT: "Skyscraper: The New Millennium"

WHERE: The Octagon, the Museum of the American Architectural Foundation, 1799 New York Ave. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through April 28

TICKETS: $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors

PHONE: 202/638-3105

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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