The End Of Tall Buildings

We are convinced that the age of skyscrapers is at an end. It must now be considered an experimental building typology that has failed. We predict that no new megatowers will be built, and existing ones are destined to be dismantled.

Howard James KunstlerNikos A. SalingarosOur world has changed dramatically.

Watching video of the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center in the few minutes before they both collapsed, we were struck by what appeared to be the whole history of the skyscraper captured in vignette. In the blocks east and south of the World Trade Center stood the earlier skyscrapers of the 20th century, including some of the most notable prototypes of that epoch. Virtually all of these pre-1930 ultra-tall buildings thrust skyward with towers, turrets, and needles, each singular in its design, as though reaching up to some great spiritual goal as yet unattained. And there, in contrast stood the two flaming towers of the World Trade Center, with their flat roofs signifying the exhaustion of that century-long aspiration to reach into the heavens, their failure made even more emphatic in the redundancy of their banal twin-ness. Then they and everything inside them imploded into vapor and dust, including several thousand New Yorkers whose bodies will likely never be found.

Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center before attack.

Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center before attack. (Select the image for a larger version.) Image provided by

The United States was attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001. With the recent tragedies comes a sobering reassessment of America's (and the World's) infatuation with skyscrapers. We feel very strongly that the disaster should not only be blamed on the terrorist action, but that this horrible event exposes an underlying malaise with the built environment.

We are convinced that the age of skyscrapers is at an end. It must now be considered an experimental building typology that has failed. Who will ever again feel safe and comfortable working 110 stories above the ground? Or sixty stories? Or even twenty-seven? We predict that no new megatowers will be built, and existing ones are destined to be dismantled. This will lead to a radical transformation of city centers -- which, however, would be an immensely positive step towards improving the quality of urban life. The only megatowers left standing a century hence may be in those third-world countries who so avidly imported the bric-a-brac of the industrialized world without realizing the damage they were inflicting on their cities. This essay looks at criticisms of tall buildings, while offering some practical solutions.

Tall buildings generate urban pathologies.

In a paper entitled "Theory of the Urban Web", published in the Journal of Urban Design, (Volume 3, 1998), Salingaros outlined structural principles for urban form. The processes that generate the urban web involve nodes, connections, and the principles of hierarchy. Among the theoretical results derived were multiple connectivity -- in which a city needs to have alternative connections in order to stay healthy -- and the avoidance of over concentration of nodes. When the second pathology occurs, such as in segregated use zoning, and in monofunctional megatowers, it kills the city by creating a mathematical singularity (where one or more quantities become extremely large or infinite). Many pathologies of contemporary cities are traced to ideas of early modernist planning that appeared in a totally unrealistic context in the 1920s. We quote from that paper (page 62):

"Without a sufficient density and variety of nodes, functional paths (as opposed to unused ones that are purely decorative) can never form. Here we come up against the segregation and concentration of functions that has destroyed the urban web in our times. There are simply not enough different types of nodes in any homogeneous urban region to form a web. Even where possibilities exist, the connections are usually blocked off by misguided zoning laws. Distinct types of elements, such as residential, commercial and natural, must intertwine to catalyze the connective process. Dysfunctional cities concentrate nodes of the same type, whereas functional cities concentrate coupled pairs of contrasting nodes."

Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center shortly after the attack.

Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center shortly after the attack. (Select the image for a larger version.) Image provided by

In all cases and to some degree, high-rise buildings deform the quality, the function, and the long-term health of urbanism in general by overloading the infrastructure and the public realm of the streets that contain them. Krier has referred to this as "urban hypertrophy," making the additional point that overloading any given urban center, tends to prevent the organic development of new healthy, mixed urban fabric anywhere beyond the center. (Leon Krier, Houses, Palaces, Cities, St. Martin?s Press, 1984.) Bear in mind, too, that some of the sturdiest and even aesthetically pleasing tall buildings of the early 20th century are only now approaching the end of their so-called "design life." What is their destiny?

The worst offender in this urban destruction is the monofunctional megatower. Paradoxically, it has become an icon of modernity and progress -- how can images dating from the 1920s be considered modern? Indoctrination at its most subversive has successfully identified the glass and steel boxes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with a phony "efficiency." Voices raised against the skyscraper include that of the architect and urbanist Constantine Doxiades, (documented by Peter Blake inForm Follows Fiasco,1974):

"My greatest crime was the construction of high-rise buildings. The most successful cities of the past were those where people and buildings were in a certain balance with nature. But high-rise buildings work against nature, or, in modern terms, against the environment. High-rise buildings work against man himself, because they isolate him from others, and this isolation is an important factor in the rising crime rate Children suffer even more because they lose their direct contacts with nature, and with other children. High-rise buildings work against society because they prevent the units of social importance -- the family ... the neighborhood, etc. -- from functioning as naturally and as normally as before. High-rise buildings work against networks of transportation, communication, and of utilities, since they lead to higher densities, to overloaded roads, to more extensive water supply systems -- and, more importantly, because they form vertical networks which create many additional problems -- crime being just one of them."

Peter Blake condemned megatowers inForm Follows Fiascoon several points. One was the disastrous wind shear that their surfaces created; the other was fires that had burned out of control in two skyscrapers in Latin America. He warned the world that (page 150):

"The first alternative to Modern Dogma should obviously be a moratorium on high-rise construction. It is outrageous that towers more than a hundred stories high are being built at a time when no honest engineer and no honest architect, anywhere on earth, can say for certain what these structures will do to the environment -- in terms of monumental congestion of services (including roads and mass-transit lines), in terms of wind currents at sidewalk level, in terms of surrounding water tables, in terms of fire hazards, in terms of various sorts of interior traumata, in terms of despoiling the neighborhoods, in terms of visually polluting the skylines of our cities, and in terms of endangering the lives of those within or without, through conceivable structural and related failures."

We just saw two of the tallest buildings in the world burn and implode so that all their construction material (and contents -- furniture plus people) was particulated and the residue compressed into the space of the underground parking garage. All of this happened on the order of minutes. Did no-one read Blake's warnings? Certainly many people did, but the persuasive force of the modernist architectural image of slick, shiny towers going all the way back to Le Corbusier's first drawings in the 1920s was more seductive than practical realities and risks.

As of September 11, 2001 we cannot afford to be so complacent -- or so easily entranced by the totems of "modernity." Every would-be terrorist who is now a child will grow up and be instructed by those surreal, riveting images of the two airplanes crashing into the World Trade Towers.

A new urban life, and alternatives to megatowers.

The New Urbanism has some (though by no means all) solutions that could reintroduce life into formerly dead urban environments. These ideas go back to several authors, including Christopher Alexander. In his book A Pattern Language (1977) Alexander proposed with his co-authors 253 'patterns' that describe how to satisfy human needs in the built environment, from the scale of a city, down to the scale of detailed construction in a room. Two of those patterns are relevant to our discussion:

  • Pattern 21: FOUR-STORY LIMIT. "There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy. Therefore, in any urban area, no matter how dense, keep the majority of buildings four stories high or less. It is possible that certain buildings should exceed this limit, but they should never be buildings for human habitation."
  • Pattern 62: HIGH PLACES. "The instinct to climb up to some high place, from which you can look down and survey your world, seems to be a fundamental human instinct. Therefore, build occasional high places as landmarks throughout the city. They can be a natural part of the topography, or towers, or part of the roofs of the highest local building -- but, in any case, they should include a physical climb."

Lower Manhattan on September 15, 2001.

Lower Manhattan on September 15, 2001. (Select the image for a larger version.) Image provided by

We agree that the first of these 'patterns' might appear utopian and irrelevant to the industrialized world. However, our purpose is to reexamine the most basic aspects of urbanism, and in particular to look at those factors that have been destroyed by the megalomania of architects and the speculative greed of builders.

A city requires high buildings, but not all of them should be high, and they should certainly be of mixed use.

It is not possible to state with any certainty exactly what the optimum height of buildings ought to be, since buildings greater than ten stories are an experimental product of industrial technology -- itself an experiment for which the results are not yet in. We do know that the center cities of Paris, London and Rome achieved excellent density and variety at under ten stories, and have continued to thrive without succumbing to the extreme hypertrophy characteristic in American urbanism.

Within the upper limits of proven traditional type, it might be prudent to confine future constructions to, perhaps, ten-story office buildings, whose four bottom stories are strictly residential. Coexisting with the first type might be five-story residential buildings with a commercial ground floor devoted to retail and restaurants. Both of these are a good compromise between traditional typologies, the ideal solutions proposed by Alexander, and the unfortunate, inhuman, alienating extant urbanisms that have been produced by modernist planning.

One of the most pressing commercial questions after the terrorist devastation of lower Manhattan is: where is the financial world going to find several million square feet of office space? The answer is right in front of our noses. Move into and renovate the numerous depressed areas just a few subway stops away. With the proper mixed zoning legislation needed to protect residents and guarantee a thriving street life, this could mark the rejuvenation of parts of the city that for years have had the same bombed-out appearance as 'ground zero' of the Twin Towers have now (except that the slums are not shown on the evening news).

President Bill Clinton has set a shining example by moving his offices into Harlem.

Should the World Trade Center be rebuilt as a symbol of the defiance of the American people, as some sentimentalists have proposed in the aftermath of their collapse? We think not. If nothing else, it would be a disservice to humanity to rebuild proven deathtraps. Obsessively returning to the models of yesterday?s tomorrow would refute mankind's past architectural achievements -- and, curiously, would be a frightening parallel to the dogmatism that led the terrorists to do their mission.

It's the fault of the architects.

Why are the above solutions, all available for decades now, not implemented to regenerate our cities? Several factors, including zoning, commercial speculation, and the tax structure created a favorable climate for erecting megatowers. That era is now over. We conclude with a broad indictment of the architectural and building professions as responsible for destroying our cities, and for putting people at risk in firetraps from which they can never be evacuated in time. From Bernard Rudofsky inStreets for People(1969):

"Unlike physicians, today's architects are not concerned with the general welfare; they are untroubled by scruples about strangling the cities and the misery that this entails. Architects never felt the urge to establish ethical precepts for the performance of their profession, as did the medical fraternity. No equivalent of the Hippocratic oath exists for them. Hippocrates' promise that 'the regiment I adopt shall be for the benefit of my patients according to my ability and judgement, and not for their hurt or for any wrong' has no counterpart in their book. Criticism within the profession -- the only conceivable way to spread a sense of responsibility among its members -- is tabooed by their own codified standards of practice. To bolster their egos, architects hold their own beauty contests, award each other prizes,decorate each other with gold medals, and make light of the damning fact that they do not amount to any moral force in this country."

Charles, the Prince of Wales, spoke out courageously against megatowers, and was consequently accused by architects and the media as being 'against progress'. The reaction was so severe that for awhile his succession to the throne was in question. It is worth recalling his remarks, which, through his choice of words, now seem eerily prophetic. In criticizing the then-unbuilt Canary Wharf tower in London, Charles said (A Vision of Britain, 1989):

"What hope for London now? Cesar Pelli's tower may become the tomb of modernistic dogma. The tragedy is that it will cast its shadow over generations of Londoners who have suffered enough from towers of architectural arrogance."

Charles' remarks were only one decade too early.

James Howard Kunstler is the author of the two books The Geography of Nowhere, and Home from Nowhere. His next book, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition will be published by Free Press (Simon and Schuster) in January. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York State.

Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros is professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and is the author of numerous scientific articles. A collaborator of Christopher Alexander, he is recognized as one of the leading theorists of architecture and urbanism today.

French version: La fin des "bâtiments-tours"
Published in Archicool, an electronic architecture magazine based in Paris.



Empty Speculation from the Theoretical Fringe

There are, I believe, two ways to interpret this irresponsible, and rather ridiculous article.

1. The authors are making a desperate attempt to be provocative and thus attract attention to themselves.

2. The authors are completely removed from the realities of contemporary construction.

The reality is probably a little of both.

There is certainly something to be said about how extreme point density reduces the quality of an urban environment. This topic requires an educated debate, however, replete with facts, figures and research from which to draw rational conclusions. To suppose that a quote from the likes of Leon Krier is enough to prove a valid point is an insult to rigorous intellectual discourse, and an insult to the people who read this article.

To further assert that high rise buildings are death traps in light of recent events represents a sad attempt to use a national tragedy to further one's cause. Real facts regarding fires in high rise buildings must be presented to assert this claim, otherwise it is completely without merit. Any building subject to the impact of a large jetliner is a deathtrap, and this includes the Pentagon, which was not a high rise building.

To blame Architects for "destroying our cities" is to credit the profession with having more power than it actually does. I assume that the authors' view of reality works something like this.

CLIENT "We need 500,00 square feet, but only want to do an environmentally sound, low rise building which covers eight city blocks."

ARCHITECT "No, no, you must build a high rise monument to my ego"

Are we really to believe that people like Donald Trump have been subject to this sort of insidious, anti-urban influence by the "architectural and building professions"? Let me be the first to deliver reality to your doorstep. It's the people with the money who shape the cities. And that's certainly not the architects.

High rises are America

I must say that such a narrow-minded and elitist view of American building typologies has no place in the discussion of a national tragedy. To somehow place blame on architects, engineers, planners, or investors is unprofessional and does not create constructive dialogue. I am ashamed to be associated with those who use a disaster to promote a planning agenda.

The World Trade Center towers were indeed an icon of the city, the country, and the free world. How else to explain their incredible appeal to investors, office tenants, and countless visitors who, yes, from one of the highest vantage points on Earth, were able to see the city where millions of Americans got their start?!

As a planner, I applaud and admire the ability of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, to name perhaps a most famous few, to create unique urban environments with combinations of cultures, building types, and architectural styles unique in the world. Indeed skyscrapers have historically represented our quest for bettering our urban cores and have created some of the world's most desirable and admired places. It was this "blank slate" in the Americas that led to new ways of thinking, of planning, of designing. And while this form of living may not be appreciated or accepted by all, or even by all planners, it is, nonetheless, an ideal that continues to have relevance and desirability, as evidenced by continued construction of and proposals for high-rise buildings.

To somehow suggest, however, that one tragedy gives undeserved credence to the backward thinking, narrow-minded planning ideals mentioned in this article is outrageous. I challenge that we are not faced with a new urban dilemma; rather, we must strive to build in a way that continues the adventurous, world-renowned, and often-emulated spirit of this great nation.

Can we do both?

I agree with the premise that the era of the mega-tower is over. However, I am concerned about the second part of that equation. While clearly this presents an opportunity to build better urban communities, I wonder whether the companies that lost housands of employees will go along with this idea. Something tells me that they will be much more comfortable moving their operations to exurban glass boxes surrounded by a sea of parking spaces than becoming a part of reinvigorating real urban neighborhoods. Perhaps New York will experience a mass exodus of people and commerce that will result in a Detroit-like scenario. As a proud native New Yorker I hope the city will recover and come back strong. Hundreds of NYC firefighters gave their lives to save others. I hope the companies don't respond by saying essentially, "thanks for the help but we're moving to Jersey."

The End of Tall Buildings: A Historical Perspective

Your conclusion that tall buildings will not be buildt and many will be dismantled does not take history into consideration.

One, human beings will always forget the past, given enough time. Our culture revolves around us making the same mistakes over and over again.

Two, our world has not changed other than the technology we use. Those who caused the events on Sept. 11, 2001 will find other targets, say athletic stadiums, where large crowds would gather or Churchs, which directly stand opposed to their religion. But if they are attack should we completely change the way we live. Your solution to those might be everyone watch games/services on TV, no live audiences.

Third, many cities are constantly growing with little regard to land and environmental concerns. I am not saying that one single building 100 stories is better than 100 one story buildings, but in areas such as New York high rises do save green space. From a planning stand point New York is one of the only cities which its downtown is still alive after 5pm. That is clearly due to its density. Spreading the buildings out will do the opposite of buiding communitees. Use the standard office park in every city of America as an example, they are ghost towns at night, on the weekends and most everyone commutes to lunch by car.

For a while the skyscraper will be on hold. Not for very long though.

End of tall buildings

I can tell that the authors of this article have little knowledge of the realities of the building construction in general. All buildings that are built in the United States are essentially built with constraints determined by zoning, building codes and budget. These issues are often decided by a whole range of people with a wide spectrum of professional qualifications. The birth and conception of a building is a large and complex process that includes developers, financiers, state and local design review boards just to name a few. Architectural influence on modern buildings have had a much reduced role in the determination of the size and image of a building since the dawn of the industrial and commercial age. I submit to you that the largest buildings in the world, the Petronas towers, were destined to be large tall political statements, regardless of weather an architect was involved or not. Architects are, in most cases, compelled to build what the market can bear and accept.

Architects in the United States are building larger, safer buildings than ever before with reduced schedules, budgets and influence. There is no doubt that the nature of high-rise buildings will have to be reviewed for life-safety issues in view of the recent events but to suggest that architects are irresponsible for "death-traps" and to fault architects for the nature of a city skyline is simply absurd. The authors' column reflects a level of ignorance that would conclude that airlines are faulty because of a single air accident.

tony tan

The tyranny of theory

The words "insensitive" and "unrealistic" come to mind when reading this soap box editorial shrouded in academic theory and incongruent, outdated citations. Do you gentlemen not recall a commercial airliner plowing into a SIX-STORY building called The Pentagon? What about the plane in PA supposedly headed for Air Force One or that sprawling megalith known as The White House? Were not the 180+ victims in The Pentagon just as unsafe last Tuesday as those in the WTC? One can argue that Manhattan has created its own nature; a unique place to be celebrated and, now, honored and remembered. Is urban sprawl your answer? I'm unsure what your solution is in this situation. Where else but up, Mr. Kunstler? Where shall we place 50,000 American workers? Agreed, towers do not equal progress or prosperity, but I wonder what our answer will be. My urban planning philosophy was shaken to the core last week, and I honestly ask: Where shall we go from here?


I wholly concur with Kunstler's interpretation of the modernist dogma and the ramifications of the WTC assault. I believe the market will reinvigorate the drive to decentralization. Megatowers may disappear, but what of urbanity altogether. Has this incident punctuated the demise of our urban core. The process began almost a century ago, but now with technological innovation, evolving consumer-demand, and pervasive fear, the core city may have received its coup de grace with the world trade center collapse. As planners, are we still acting in support of the public interest by bolstering the city? I believe we are, but doubt persists.

And, maybe the beginning of non-collision bathroomives

Comments regarding:
Michael Blowhard's remarks on Prince Charles of Wales'
published "A Vision for Britain":

I recently read Guardian - Feb 12, 2006 - New Frontier
of World Architecture. This article staged Spain and
the recent cutting-edge designs going into citizen's
psyches there. A hand went to British Sir Richard
Rogers, architect and another hand went to the new
airport Madrid Barajas. I personally have a love of
domed cities concept from jest of the architecture and
network layout in the novel After Worlds Collide by
Philip Wylie (1930s).

In a balance of this article for glass and steel
scrapers of egoism, is the movie The Matador with
Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear, current release. The
scenes and views of architectural and landscaped
Mexico City are mind-expandingly fresh and tropical
colorful. The aerial views are as well blushing with
color of the tropics.

I would find Britain a subtle blend between these past
and future examples. However, for Britains' tomorrow,
do you know what Parure` Consciousness is? It is the
origin step in place to become the future's Parure`
Logic. This logic is to follow in line: Skyline
Logic, Shadow Logic, Helanomo Logic (generally from
356 B.C.-Alexander the Great to 1961 pre-space
exploration), into Parure` Logic.

While Britain's future may not be the DVD Player or
lap-top computer in any egoism extension(s) of
architecture, it is important to notice that Prince
Charles is asking what is the focus. What is Parure`
Consciousness to be and let us use architecture to
express it. Perhaps Prince Charles' offer to hold the
artist's paintbrush and capture the logic of his times
is what is more noteworthy. I hope his King's Fund
and Prince's Trust finds Britain's path to a modern

Obviously, one can appreciate the art of Renoir's
Haystacks which is Shadow Logic. Closing Shadow Logic
to further Don Quixote's question of what was logic of
his (1605). The answer is Helanomo Logic, of Monet's
lily ponds, Degas' ballerinas, Van Gogh's nights and
self-portraits, dot-matrix paintings, etc. and, today
with 3-D graphics.

Piccaso is a blatant insult to females and their
comfort. And, Dali's melting clocks are a howling
statement of impending global genocide. Both reknown
artists stand as fathers of glass and steel scrapers,
egoism architecture and, fried-egg shaped chair(s).
Neither Piccaso nor Dali contribute to Quantum
Mechanics, which is a fine example of Parure`

I also happen to like and endorse ergonomic furniture.
As for hospitals and Parure`, I might stay with
Dali's genius in stark, by regarding in architecture
any potential patient as a solar clock walking (solar
plexis/chemically-balanced bio-regenerative).


End of skyscrapers?

Sure! No new megatowers will be built? If that's the case then maybe that doesn't include an a tower under construction in the middle east that will be over 2600ft high, 2 planned 2000ft towers in Chicago and Moscow, various taller than Sears Tower buildings going up in China, and countless others


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