About GenslerOnCities

What makes cities tick? GenslerOnCities explores the planning, design, and the potential futures of urban landscapes.

Search GenslerOn
Cities Topics
Connect with Us
« Care to Take a Stroll on the River Thames? | Main | How an Airport Can Make the World a Greener Place »

Can Super Tall be Super Green? Part 2

Shanghai Tower

Q+A with Peter Weingarten, Part 2 of 2
The first post in this two-part series, outlining the reasons why it’s important to pursue sustainable design in super tall buildings, is available here.

In the previous post we established why creating sustainable super tall buildings is important. Let’s talk about what these buildings mean for cities.

Q: Why are super tall buildings an important building typology for tomorrow’s cities?

A: I’m from New York. I grew up in one of the world’s most densely urban environments and one of the most successful. I think people need to appreciate tall buildings from the perspective of their footprint. It’s an urban sprawl issue.

When people talk about urbanization they use very different benchmarks. My definition of urban life has a very high density. For me, urban isn’t 8-12 stories; its 30-50.

We need vertical buildings to activate the public realm with people, to create dynamic street life in cities, to populate transportation systems and to ensure the vitality of retail and other life style programs. How many people are realistically served around a transit station? Without the proper density these systems fail.

Cities need density to bring economic prosperity to their streets and dynamism to neighborhoods. Smaller businesses thrive in that environment. Density isn’t about driving to big-box stores; it’s about walking to the corner to grab groceries. What can you get within walking distance, without ever using a car? That’s the question that drives the economy of dense urban streets.

Q: Do you think the reasons we build tall buildings are changing?

A: I think there will always be people who want to build bigger and taller. The accomplishment is still a benchmark to acknowledge success, and to announce a city or company’s arrival on the global stage. That’s not going away.

In the early days of New York, height was an advertisement for a company’s financial success. Super tall buildings housed companies: MetLife, GE, AT&T, etc. Skyscrapers were symbols of security and economic prosperity. Think of the New York Life building. Their corporate advertisements still feature their building, and their slogan is “the company you keep” with the building a symbol of stability through time.

Following the age of corporate identity came the age of individual egos. Trump Towers around the globe epitomize this, and more recently, the Mori Tower and the Burj Khalifa honor an individual.

Looking forward, it’s cities and countries that will make statements on a global stage. All the symbolism is still there, but there are changes in what is symbolized.

The power of cities more than that of individuals or corporations is coming into play. It’s like asking why people want to have the Olympics in their city. What happens to all the facilities after the games? How are all the buildings repurposed? The Bird’s Nest is sitting empty these days. The efficient thing would be to have the Olympics in the same location every year, but why don’t we do that? Because the Olympics aren’t about efficiency as much as they’re about aspirations of communities to achieve great things in sport and in the pride of there place

The way we advance as a civilization is through desire, and by aspiring to achieve greater things. Super tall buildings enable us to dream, to innovate, and to inspire. New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai—these cities have accelerated at the greatest pace and their hallmarks are their tall buildings of all scales.

In the future, building super tall will be tied success of a place more than they will be about the economic success of individuals or corporations.

Reader Comments (7)

This sounds like one huge advertisement for business. Tacky, and completely misinformed. First of all, it's based on a false dichotomy, which most clever marketing usually is. Secondly, New York's average residential building height is not 30-50 stories high, and probably not even 8-12. All the 3-4 story walk-ups ,rowhouses and two story mixed retail surrounding Downtown and Midtown are as much a part of NYC's greatness as the corporate towers you hope to build and fantasize are the symbol of a cities greatness. In todays recession, I can't fault your boosterism, but you can keep the HongKong life style, I'll be in the sun.
11.30.2010 | Unregistered CommenterThayer-D
Personally I am always a bit weary to use the 'density' in relation to 'tall buildings' and draw conclusions from that as so many factors come into play when it comes to creating urbanity, let alone a sustainable one. However, I very much agree on the argument that one super-tall building is not going to make the world more sustainable, but it could change the way we look at it. Being an eye catcher, tall buildings have always been a front runner of new techniques, materials and construction methods and as such it represent what we stand for as a society today. Next to being sustainable, the current developments are represented through buildings which can be called a 'cityscraper', which more than a skyscraper or a groundscraper connects to the (urban) world around it, either by public amenities, skybridges and permeable facades.
11.30.2010 | Unregistered CommenterJan Klerks
Laughable in the first few paragraphs. The interesting parts of New York are not the high rise urban deserts of midtown. The interesting areas are low-rise areas like the Lower East Side and Williamsburg. Dubai is a very interesting and sustainable city, isn't it. What a joke of an article. How many high rise buildings add to the atmosphere in European cities? Basically zero.
11.30.2010 | Unregistered CommenterHudson
The joy of cities to me is the diversity of buildings. I love the brownstone neighborhoods, the mid-height residential gems, but also the soaring skyscrapers. Tall buildings have played an important role in the evolution of cities, and they will continue to. Shifting the symbolism of skyscraper from one of corporate power to one of sustainable opportunity? That resonates.
11.30.2010 | Unregistered CommenterErikL
This debate on urban density is missing the point a little. Nobody is suggesting that New York or Chicago should pack up its suburbs and move back into the city. But the reality is that almost 200,000 people are urbanizing on this planet every day i.e. moving from rural to urban, predominantly in China, India, Brazil etc. That means that, as a global species, we need an ‘extra’ city of 1 million inhabitants built every week to cope with this urban influx. If those developing cities follow the American horizontal model (dense downtown urban core + a massive every-growing horizontal suburb) then the infrastructure/carbon/energy for commute/pollution etc issues mean we’re all screwed with the impact on the environment. Tall buildings are not the only model for achieving urban density but, if designed right, they can be part of the solution, as shown in many cities around the world. People need to get this in perspective. Currently the USA has 3 cities greater than 2 million in population, and a further 6 greater than 1 million. China is only currently less than 50% urbanized, and has literally hundreds of cities greater than 1 million, and many already at 10-20 million with a view to this becoming common across the whole country in the coming decades. And India will surpass China in total population, in a much reduced land area, within the next few decades. Sorry if this upsets people, but it’s not really about America.
11.30.2010 | Unregistered CommenterAntony Wood
Specifically to Mr Wood, but also generally speaking: Why do so many planners and architects lack understanding of just what extraordinarily high densities can be achieved using low and mid-rise buildings? These planners and architects need to spend some time in the hill towns of Italy, probably the most densely populated spaces on the planet. There are some buildings that reach 6 stories or so, but there are no no high rises -- at the same time, many of the living spaces are quite large. Funny, every image of a high-rise I have ever seen from China or India shows a building surrounded by acres of dead, wasted space. Why not fill that space with 6-storey buildings and forget the high rise? That would be a sustainable model for the urbanizing developing countries.
12.1.2010 | Unregistered CommenterHudson
Concentrating great levels of density in cities can be very sustainable, as it leaves more rural areas open for agriculture, other species to thrive and for ecosystem services to occur.

Sufficient density does not have to be thirty to fifty stories tall. Paris did rather well at six stories, and four to ten stories is likely sufficient - depending on density of occupation and economic purchasing power.

However, with lower stories, you also generally need greater lad occupancy by buildings to achieve the needed density, than if you have fewer, taller buildings. But a successful city is not simply one thing to the exclusion of all other development patterns.

The illustration chosen here does shown one of the great problems that can come with very tall buildings. You have one large building on one large block. There are minimal entrances and activities at grade and around the perimeter of the block. The buildings and their life are effectively isolated from each other, which will limit the economic viability of retailing and community cohesion. It's generally better to have more, lower scaled buildings closer together, and to be careful to provide sufficient well placed open space. Towers in a park are very problematic.
12.3.2010 | Unregistered Commenterjon

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.