A Glimpse into Our Vertical Future

This month New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff posed a startling question: “Does Manhattan have a future as a great metropolis?” City planners had just slapped a height restriction on a proposed tower whose peak would have hovered too close to the Chrysler and Empire State buildings’ famous mid-town spires. The building’s upper levels, they said, lacked the aesthetics to be viewed alongside those icons of the city’s upper canopy. “The greater sadness here,” said Ouroussoff, “has to do with New York and how the city sees itself.” In his view the commission’s stubborn willingness to dispense with the new in favor of the old threatens to turn America’s most dynamic global city into “a museum piece” and “an urban mausoleum.”

I recently took in a special exhibit at New York’s Skyscraper Museum, which juxtaposes New York’s development history with Shanghai’s current damn-the-ether building boom. The exhibit portrays Shanghai as the twenty-first century’s Manhattan, rising metaphorically and physically as it prototypes the future of global urbanism. The new 1,614-foot World Financial Center is taller than anything in the U.S. The Shanghai Tower will eclipse it by more than 450 feet. Meanwhile New York’s One World Trade Center inches glacially ahead year by year amidst the din of official bickering. Someone simultaneously watching the Chinese one-party state bash its way forward might see this as an example of political pluralism hindering progress.

Could our messy process of democratic development hinder the new tilt toward enlightened urbanism? The futuristic urban visions to be exhibited next year at Shanghai’s World Expo do indeed look more enlightened than the motor driven utopia posited famously by General Motors at New York’s 1939 World’s Fair. This new vertical movement is about density rather than dispersal. It champions efficient rather than superfluous use of space. Mixed use, “greening,” and improved pedestrian life are all the rage for Expo planners heading into 2010. By virtue of building up rather than out, by cramming umpteen usages into a single project, the ever-efficient super tall city promises to live within its environment rather than consume it.

The vertical era’s rich symbolism prompted Forbes’s Joel Kotkin to write that high-rise office towers “have emerged as the biggest signs of the new order among global cities.” True, the newest vertical cities have nowhere near the global reach that New York has today. But the young century’s architecture offers conjectures about where the world is headed. These projects tell us that we’re moving toward a poly-centric world of open market metropoles, where the pinnacles of human progress move eastward. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat reports that most super tall commercial towers will be in China, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Russia by 2020. The authoritarian world is aggressively pushing the architectural envelope while the West suffers a crisis in confidence.

But the vertical movement isn’t as simple as the boiler plate passing-of-the-torch narratives suggest. It’s a global phenomenon that draws on resources and ideas from around the world. Western firms regularly design and co-finance these odes to autocratic capitalism. The city governments that push vertical construction seek high-tech infrastructure that attracts global investment. Internationalized demand for local space fuels real-estate booms that push the poor and semi-poor into slums or further out on the periphery. Manhattanization in the developing world entails much more than the cosmopolitan vertical aesthetic that awes so many commentators. It also means an intensified competition for shelter that favors the wealthy.

In the process developers have deracinated whole districts and viciously depressed wages in order to clear land and build upward. Shanghai’s construction boom displaced more than a million households. It relies on the country’s low cost labor force of second class migrant citizens. Nor is it likely to live up to its environmental promise. Trying to stave off pollution with energy efficient skyscrapers is like trying to fight emphysema by smoking only filtered cigarettes. Ever increasing commercial square footage in central business districts undoubtedly causes rather than solves excessive power plant emissions, not withstanding the cottage industry in so-called green certification.

If the super-tall skyline is visionary, elitism is endemic to the vision. Sadly embedded in the vertical movement is our quick willingness to discard basic humanitarian values in favor of ambiguous notions of “progress.” These projects aren’t harbingers of a better future; they’re signs of the current system’s worst excesses. I’m for pushing boundaries, but how about pushing in the direction of humanism, democratic pluralism and fairness?

Tags: new york citybuilt environmentchinashanghaidubaiskyscrapers