Almost a century ago, the world was introduced to a new architectural typology that changed the entire construction industry. Starting off with the Home Insurance Building in 1885, leading to the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in Manhattan, skyscrapers became a symbol of power and financial abundance. Soon enough, they were being constructed in almost every city across the world with state-of-the-art designs that defy engineering norms. But with all the changes taking place in the architecture practice, what does the future hold for these heavily criticized yet constantly developed buildings?
More than half of the world’s 7.8 billion population live in cities and urban areas, and 2.5 billion more are expected to join them within the next 20-25 years. High-rise buildings, particularly residential ones, have proved to be beneficial in densely-populated cities where vacant plots are almost impossible to find. In areas like SoHo, where the ground level is highly congested with pedestrians and vehicle traffic regularly, constructing low-rise commercial and residential buildings is inadequate for the occupants’ physical and mental wellbeing; suppose staying more than 7-8 hours a day with constant visual distractions, nonstop honking, and uncontrollable traffic and headlights, to name a few.
To make the best of these prominent landmarks, architects began opting for mixed-use buildings by integrating commercial spaces and public amenities within residential buildings to offer residents an all-inclusive experience. Towers with outdoor terraces, a feature that is heavily pushed for in contemporary projects, offer occupants an elevated and private gathering space away from the city’s commotion. Even in terms of visual aesthetic, architects are no longer limiting their design to highly reflective glass-wrapped towers, but are incorporating landscape, interior courtyards, locally-sourced materials, and “windproofing” solutions for all-year-round balconies built on high levels.
Regardless of skyscrapers' apparent solutions to urban challenges, many residents, developers, and government officials seem to have a strong standpoint against them. According to NYC Audubon, between 90,000 and 230,000 of nocturnal-migrating birds are killed in New York City every year by crashing into glass skyscrapers and falling dead onto the pavements. This is due to the fact that stormy weather and artificial night-time lighting in cities have confused birds’ vision and misguided them towards the buildings instead of clear air. In addition, the New York Times has announced that residents of NYC's 432 Park Avenue, one of the most expensive lots in the world, are suing the project developers for $125 million in damages citing “multiple floods, faulty elevators, “intolerable” noise caused by building sway, and an electrical explosion in June — the second in three years — that knocked out power to residents”.
Changes in regards to the future of skyscrapers have started to take shape around the world. New London Architecture (NLA) published the results of the 2021 edition of its annual Tall Building Survey, an annual survey that covers the status of London's high-rise development. One of the key findings of the report highlights that in 2020, only 24 tall buildings began construction, in comparison to 44 during the previous year. The UK government has also recently announced that planning approval will not be granted for Foster+Partners' Tulip tower due to concerns over the design's embodied carbon and the possible negative impact on the surrounding architectural heritage. The 305-metre tower would have been the tallest building in London's financial district, but will no longer move forward as it would “add little public benefit to the city and might negatively impact London's skyline”, as explained by the 2019 Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.
China, home to some of the world’s tallest towers, has decided to limit the construction of super skyscrapers as a means of reducing the country’s energy consumption. The government labeled these structures as “vanity projects”, explaining that low-density cities where massive skyscrapers are impractical and can be replaced with other typologies that better compliment the urban fabric. The country’s new construction rules dictate that skyscrapers taller than 150 meters (490 ft.) will be strictly limited, and those higher than 250 meters (820 ft.) will be banned for areas with a population of less than 3 million. In cities with over 3 million people, the government decided to limit structures taller than 250 meters.
Dense cities that don’t have enough empty lots to build low-rise projects on are restricted with only erecting structures upwards to accommodate their populations. Regardless, numerous solutions are being proposed to explore different feasible options that could take advantage of the scale of towers but offer a more environmentally and socially responsible approach.
With today’s environmental awareness and need for tall structures in dense areas could tall wood construction be the future of high-rise buildings? Over the last couple of years, the construction industry has seen a shift from steel and concrete to tall wood structures, transforming the world of skyscrapers and high-rise buildings. In 2017, the Canadian government unveiled the Green Construction Through Wood (GCWood) Program, which offers funding for innovative wood projects and systems. Following the same approach, the International Code Council approved 14 changes to the International Building Code to increase the permitted height of mass timber construction to 80 meters (270 ft.).
Responding to global concerns of the environment, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) has proposed Urban Sequoia, an architectural concept inspired by the ecosystem at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow - COP26. The design features “forests of buildings" that isolate carbon and produce biomaterials that create a new ecological and resilient urban environment. The project comes as a response to the universal need to transform the building sector, since it generates nearly 40 per cent of all global carbon emissions.
CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati has also recently unveiled Jian Mu Tower in Shenzhen, China, a 218-meter "farmscraper" incorporating a large-scale vertical hydroponic farm across its entire facade that produces vegetation that can feed up to 40,000 people per year. Although the 51-storey tower occupies the last vacant plot in Shenzhen’s Central Business District, the self-sustaining proposal allows residents to cultivate and consume fresh vegetables and fruits from within the tower, producing an estimated 270,000 kilograms of food per year.
As of 2021, commercial buildings across the globe became filled with empty hallways and office desks, and towers stood as reflective spatial markers. This, along with numerous other environmental and economical reasons, pushed architects to find innovative ways to make the best of high-rise architecture.
We want to know what you think: Where do you stand with the future status of high-rise towers? Do you think they are here to stay or will they gradually lose value and stop being built?
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