By David Olive

“I have to say the skyscraper is finished.” –Philip Johnson, prolific U.S. designer of tall towers, along with Toronto’s CBC Broadcast Centre, in a 1996 interview.

Burj Khalifa
Burj Khalifa

There must have been a time when Manhattan’s tiny Skyscraper Museum seemed an act of faith, so unpopular had the tall-tower architectural form become by the late 20th century.

Yet today the museum is pulling in crowds for its “Supertall!” exhibit, running through January. Skyscrapers are enjoying a second golden age, seven decades after the one that faded in the 1930s, making the museum’s exhibit a must-see event for urban planners and architects worldwide.

“The skyscraper, for all its gimmicks and for all of its occasional trumpery, has never fared better than now,” writes Wall Street Journal critic James Gardner. “Indeed, the form is undergoing nothing less than a revolution.”

What gives?

In the sobering aftermath of the terrorist attacks on America a decade ago this month,

Westerners especially seemed poised to abandon a building form so obviously a target, which also liberated us to complain that we’d long ago wearied of the 38-story commute for a coffee at the Druxy’s in the lobby.

Hadn’t we moved on to a new office-building format, the human-scale campuses far from downtown pioneered by Microsoft Corp. and Nike Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp. when its former Brampton plant retrofitted as global head office won world renown?

One can be forgiven missing the almost manic, continuing erection of ever taller buildings, since the centre of gravity for skyscrapers had shifted from North America and Europe long before 9/11 to the world’s fastest-growing economies, in Asia and South Asia, and the petro-economies of the Middle East.

The business case for skyscrapers is compelling. The world’s population is forecast to grow close to 40 per cent by mid-century, to about nine billion of us. Most of that growth will be in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. And overwhelmingly it will be in cities, where most of us already live. Even in a sprawling country like Canada, about 80 per cent of us are urbanites.

For the already congested, rapidly growing metropolises of Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai and Cairo, the only option in accommodating an additional 2.5 billion people is to build up, not out.

Between 2001, when developers in many in Western countries were pronouncing last rites on skyscraper development, and 2008, a stunning 105 “supertall” towers were completed or under construction. “Supertall” towers cross the threshold of 300 metres in height.

And the West has not abandoned the skyscraper form, after all. Among the world’s current list of 20 tallest buildings are two U.S. entries, Chicago’s Trump International Hotel & Tower (423 metres), and the Freedom Tower rising from Ground Zero, at a symbolic 1,776 feet (541 metres).

And reshaping the Calgary skyline is The Bow, a $1.4-billion, 58-story tower designed by the illustrious Sir Norman Foster. On completion early next year, The Bow will be the tallest building in Canada outside Toronto, at 282 metres. It takes its winsome name from a concave design evocative of the nearby Bow River.

Tall buildings always have been controversial. Charles Garnier, designer of his namesake Parisian opera house, vowed to take his lunches under the Eiffel Tower since that was the only place in town where he wasn’t obliged to gaze on the monstrosity. Two years after completion of a Chrysler Building now beloved of Gothamites, Lewis Mumford, then the leading U.S. architecture critic, excoriated the tower as a folly of “inane romanticism, meaningless voluptuousness, [and] void symbolism.”

The International Style, or Modernism, that followed was almost calculated to drain what charm remained to the skyscraper form. Very few architects were gifted with the sublime aesthetics that Mies van der Rohe brought to his Seagram Building in New York or his Toronto-Dominion Bank ensemble at King and Bay. Thousands of vastly inferior knock-offs had pretty much ruined skyscrapers as a soul-inspiring art form years before Frank Lloyd Wright dismissed them as “box on box on box.”

Worse, skyscrapers seldom paid their way. They were and remain fantastically expensive to build and maintain. The Empire State and the Rockefeller Center never realized the profitability expected of them. Rents never could be raised enough to recover costs. The magnificent “Rock Center” and the Chrysler Building each had brushes with bankruptcy.

What made possible the current second golden age of skyscrapers is advanced engineering techniques; lighter, stronger and more flexible building materials; and the computer-aided design without which Frank Gehry, by his own cheerful admission, could never have conceived a Guggenheim Bilbao that engineers and contractors could actually build.

Today’s skyscrapers are also as likely to be residential towers as repositories of cubicle farms. For urban planners worshipping at the altar of efficiencies only to be achieved through intensification of population, skyscrapers have undergone a rehabilitation from alienating urban presence to a means of getting a bigger bang for the buck from public transit, power, water, police, fire and other public services.

Neither doesn’t hurt their cause that the varied and plentiful amenities of today’s supertall structures typically include not only more rapid “vertical” transportation, but state-of-the-art energy efficiency design and even rooftop organic-vegetable gardens. Few hot buttons for civic planners – from global warming and energy security to downtown rejuvenation and locally grown produce – have not been pushed by the more astute skyscraper developers.

In order to showcase the most advanced towers piercing the clouds, “Supertall!” curator Carol Willis selected a skyscraper subset of what she calls “superlative buildings.” She raised the bar, literally, to include only those 48 towers worldwide that exceed 380 metres – the height of the Empire State Building. Each has been built or been under construction since 9/11.

For all that, skyscrapers remain one of the biggest crapshoots in business. Dubai’s $1.5-billion Burj Khalifa, the reigning world’s tallest building, at 828 metres – twice the height of the Empire State Building – nearly bankrupted the United Arab Emirate. Dubai’s neighbouring and wealthier emirate, Abu Dhabi, was successfully prevailed on to bail out Dubai. Which avoided a humiliation for the ages, as the spectacular tower was intended to prove Dubai’s arrival on the world stage as a financial centre to be reckoned with.

The death sentence the late Philip Johnson pronounced on skyscrapers 15 years ago was directed at the then-prevailing North American skyscraper form, namely the plethora of minimalist boxes of stultifying banality. But the human impulse to “want to build to the sky,” dating from the Pyramids, was another matter.

That compulsion, for Johnson, was true of any “cultural age which strives for fame and recognition – for standing,” he said in 1996. “I’ve got a bigger…than you have. It seems to be a natural will, like sex and fighting, this will toward height.”

Height for its own sake is still with us. (“Towers are power,” said Johnson, after negotiations with countless corporate CEOs.) But in this second golden age there at least are greatly improved sky-high living and working conditions to go with the mere soaring. More info