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.

11 minute read

September 17, 2001, 12:00 AM PDT

By James Howard Kunstler and Nikos A. Salingaros

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.

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