Through the Lens: Why High-Rises Need A Hero

Since the emergence of the modern multi-storey building in the late 19th century, screenwriters and art directors have embraced the high-rise building as both backdrop and prop in the drama of feature films. It’s easy to understand the fascination. The precarious nature of a skyscraper – their height, their reliance on competent engineering and emergency systems, and their all-controlling security – provide abundant opportunities for action and disaster. And all with a built-in view.

But while Hollywood loves a high rise, it hasn’t treated them well. Plot lines usually tap into a general scepticism about the kind of engineering feats which make them possible and often carry some underlying moral message about the dangers of technology and advancement. 

Towering Inferno © Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation & Irwin Allen Productions

1974’s Towering Inferno was one of the first well known films to tap into the underlying fear that the new ‘skyscrapers’ were inherently unsafe. As an electrical sub-contractor’s shoddy work sets off a chain of events that prevent safe escape from the building, we are given a lesson in the wisdom of relying on the integrity of architects and building contractors. 

The original Die Hard, released in 1988, started somewhat of a tradition in making commentary about the dangers of smart buildings and automation. Terrorists use the building’s technologies against itself, manipulating security controls and vertical transport systems - a theme carried on through many films over the years, including two more recent releases, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) & Tower Heist (2012), whose characters outsmart the building by deliberately avoiding designed systems (albeit in a fairly crude manner - removing a panel of curtain glass and traversing the building externally).

However, while the film industry likes to magnify the inherent risks associated with high rise buildings, it also likes to keep up with contemporary architectural trends. 

Since Ken Yeang first devised his ‘Bioclimatic Skyscraper’ and won acclaim for the Menara Mesiniaga in Malaysia, the thinking around multistorey building design has evolved from self contained artificial environments to more interactive buildings, which participate within the wider city environs. Its common to see permeable skins, green spaces and external platforms featured amongst finalists of the International Highrise Awards.

Surprisingly, Hollywood has followed suit. Both fictional buildings devised for last years The Amazing Spiderman and The Avengers sport open air balconies and accessible roofs on which gravity defying action scenes and epic cinematic shots are set.

Stark Tower, The Avengers. © Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures

Of course, it’s easier to achieve these kind of advances in fictional form than to try to meet building standards and comply with the regulations in real life (Stark Tower’s rooftop terrace with precarious 1m rail-less glass balustrades are hardly safe, let alone practical. Particularly if you intend to defend the earth from an inter-dimensional invasion from the roof of the building).  

Sadly commercial realities often see terraces and green spaces removed in early design stages as Developers try to mitigate risk and wind back capital cost. Awards can be as much about congratulating an architectural firm for convincing Clients and Developers to invest in unconventional (and often more expensive) mechanical plant or vertical transport systems, than they are about forging new territory. 

Stark Tower, The Avengers. © Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures

While Hollywood would rather see open air roof terraces and twinkling bars on the roofs of multi-storeys, the roof of an average high-rise building is generally far from inspiring. Traditionally, it’s the location to hide all manner of ugly mechanical plant and equipment, plus, the drab crowning of skyscapers in cities is also often exacerbated by local planning codes. Los Angeles’ Helicopter Landing Code, for example, has long dictated the shape of the LA skyline.

But perhaps for once the film industry can help. Any real estate agent will tell you that the marketing of a building is only as good as the images that can be captured and we now have a new generation of cinematographers who agree that a buildings best angle is from the air. If nothing else, Hollywood knows how to sell, and if the film industry sells green features like rooftop terraces and open air platforms as a high-rise building’s best asset, then Developers might begin to follow suit.

About this author
Cite: Charlotte Neilson. "Through the Lens: Why High-Rises Need A Hero" 13 May 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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