The Take

Next-generation high-rises offer glimpses of our urban skyline future

Next-generation high-rises offer glimpses of our urban skyline future

Posting in Architecture | From Issue 19 June 2 & 9, 2014

The world's cities are sprouting with plans for new towers and skyscrapers, a sign of twin booms in creativity and wealth.

When London has 250 new skyscrapers planned and building departments in cities from New York to Abuja, Nigeria, are bursting at the seams for new tower permits. The new designs display greater technological prowess, unimaginable beauty and true innovation in how people will live in tomorrow's intelligent, dense, high-rise world.

Most of them are for condos and apartments. One proposal for London would be a death-defying sliver that stands 73-stories tall, with a Foster + Partners design for the city's tallest residential building. The firm, whose leader recently spoke in New York after his public library design there went down in flames, is also behind a Philadelphia tower that will further obscure the statue of 17th-century English real estate mogul William Penn. The $1.2 billion project is for Comcast, the cable mega-giant that just six years ago built a nice, modern tower by Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

In London, 22 planned new towers would be more than 50 stories tall, including The Pinnacle, now under construction, which will be second only to last year's The Shard. In New York, towers are sprouting up everywhere, including at Hudson Yards, where 5,000 new sky-homes will shatter all records for stealing views from its lower Midtown neighbors. Meanwhile, Abuja has 20-plus tall buildings on tap, and Lagos is aiming for Africa's tallest tower, at 64 stories.

In Asia, the pace of high-rise building is not as hectic as it has been in recent years, but it is still breathtaking. The boom even extends to nether regions like North Korea, where at least 17 high-rise buildings are opening or under construction in the Phyongchon area of central Pyongyang, Curtis Melvin, an expert in Korea-U.S. relations at Johns Hopkins University, told Reuters. (It was the collapse of a recently built 23-story apartment block in that neighborhood -- a few steps from leader Kim Jong Un's office -- that brought this building boom to light.)

As in North Korea, many of the towers being built globally are residential -- and designed for the rich elite.

Design prowess

The designs of these skyscrapers are getting better and better, thanks to hungry investors and favorable market conditions.

Consider the 38-story twin towers planned for Bishan, Singapore, which will be joined by multiple, parklike bridges including one you can swim across. Called Sky Habitat, the 574-room downtown residential block designed by Moshe Safdie has a truss-walled infinity pool signature Sky Pool on its 38th floor. (The renderings are enough to terrify acrophobes.)

The sky is the limit in Lima, Peru, where the Sky Condo's terraces are designed to cantilever the residences' pools dangerously outboard of the tower. Or try the "sky beach" at Verve Suites in Kuala Lumpur, a little plot of sand only steps from other sky-amenities, like a sky-gym. The 1000 Museum tower in Miami by Zaha Hadid tops its two-story sky lounge on floors 60-61 with a helipad to make it more alluring than ever. (Drop by some time, you hear?)

Sky gardens -- a visually appealing notion best associated with brutalists like Paul Rudolph and later by green-thinking architects like the Malaysian eco-skyscraper advocate Ken Yeang -- are among the most common gesture in today's super-stratospheric, super-expensive chalets on high.

Singapore's tallest residential building, the Clermont Residences, offers two sky gardens, while the nearby Ascentia Sky (a modest 45-story effort) has hanging "gardens in the sky" that divide up the apartments.

High honors

Technology and science are married with pure design innovation in many of the best high-rise designs. Because of their scale and repetitive nature, towers benefit from many of the mass-customized fabrication advances in building systems. Along with this formidable ally, many architects are simply creating unexpected designs thanks to the wider use of parametric modeling -- another industrial advance.

To give some structure and context to the design achievements, a few awards programs offer insights into what's working.

The Emporis Skyscraper Award, for example, takes advantage of an international panel of experts to review more than 300 skyscrapers of more than 300 feet tall, built over the past year. Among buildings eligible in the latest awards period -- those finished in 2013 -- Renzo Piano's Shard carried the day. Second place goes to Dominique Perrault Architecture's 650-foot-tall DC Tower 1 in Vienna, Austria, a bipolar affair with its funky faceted side and straightlaced side.

The best example of pure innovation took third place: the Lake Tai donut of the Sheraton Huzhou Hot Spring Resort, not far from Shanghai. Known for bad pollution problems, the lake is also home to a 375-foot-tall ferris wheel, built in 2008. Now with a circular high-rise hotel, the location will be known for at least two circular forms -- propitious symbols of oneness and unity in Chinese culture.

Dubai is also in the mix, of course: the Cayan Tower by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill took fourth place in Emporis competition, and all are duly impressed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects' Tour Carpe Diem in Courbevoie, France.

Unexpected cities appeared on the list. The rich oil town Baku, Azerbaijan, has its Flame Towers, which could change the phrase from the Bilbao effect to "the Baku effect." This may be the best work from HOK in recent memory. In Brno, home to the influential 1930 Tugendat Villa by Mies van der Rohe, there is now another landmark: AZ Tower, by a creative Czech firm, Burian-Krivinka.

Other notable new skyscrapers are rising in places where high-flying excess is expected (Mercury City in Moscow) or where high-rise innovation is a local tradition (Jean Nouvel in Sydney).

Sorry to say, but the United States lags horribly in this global test of architectural bravura. No towers from North America even made it to the final ten.

But no worries: The plan is to build more.

Image: A fly-through of Bishan, Singapore's SkyHabitat, designed by Moshe Safdie. Courtesy Sky Habitat

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C.C. Sullivan

Columnist (Architecture)

C.C. Sullivan is principal of a marketing and advertising agency by the same name focused on the shelter, construction and architectural markets. Formerly, he was chief editor of the magazines Architecture and Building Design & Construction, and launched the Home of the Year awards with Metropolitan Home. He holds a degree from Yale University and previously worked for the architects Tai Soo Kim, Emery Roth & Sons, and Angel Fernandez Alba (Madrid). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure