The most interesting place in New York I've never seen is the Skyscraper Museum, located at the south end of Manhattan. But if I've not yet dropped by this small architectural showcase, an exhibition that recently opened there has definitely pushed a visit to the top of my to-do list. It's called (with a Gotham shout) SUPERTALL! World Towers above 380 Meters (that's the height of the Empire State Building) and it continues through January, 2012.
Organized by Carol Willis, director and curator of the Skyscraper Museum, the survey uses models, renderings and animations to tell the stories of 48 extremely tall structures that have been completed around the world in the last 10 years, or are slated to reach their full stature by 2016.
If touching the sky is not top of mind for most developers in financially troubled North America and Europe, the race is on in Asia and in the Middle Eastern oil kingdoms to see who can raise the highest man-made thing on earth. The current world title-holder is Dubai, whose Burj Khalifa (Khalifa Tower), a residential-hotel-office complex, was designed by U.S. architect Adrian Smith, and stands 828 metres (or 2,717 feet) high.
But Dubai will drop into second place in a few years, if Mr. Smith's Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, goes forward as planned. The $1.23-billion glassy needle, the design of which was unveiled last month, will be a kilometre tall and will contain a Four Seasons Hotel, serviced apartments operated by the Toronto-based hotelier, office space and condominium units.
As you might imagine, the venue of the exhibition being lower Manhattan, Ms. Willis is paying considerable attention to Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's One World Trade Center. This 541-metre (1,776-foot) titan, now going up on the site of the 9/11 calamity, is on track to become the tallest building in the U.S. when completed in 2013.
The competition to get the world's tallest, glassiest, classiest tower often seems about as graceful and useful as a celebrity cage-match. Throwing up towers higher than the Empire State Building, after all, makes no hard financial sense at all. The main motive for doing so appears to be a very old one: Size matters, and it affects status – meaning that whoever has the biggest one at the end of the day gets the prize.
That said, the extravagantly large tall-building projects completed or under way in Shanghai, Dubai, Jeddah, Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere outside North Atlantic civilization are occasionally engaging as slender, aloof aesthetic objects or, more often, as technical experiments. To raise the Burj Khalifa, for example, engineers had to come up with ingenious new solutions to the problems posed by the building's great weight and height.
One World Trade Center, on the other hand, invites no admiration. It's just the dull-as-dishwater result of the long rebuilding squabble among planners, city officials, architects, financiers, civic activists and other players that started immediately after 9/11. Thoughtful and beautiful schemes were put forward, one after another, by talented architects, mulled over by the powers that be, argued over in various public forums, and ultimately rejected, one and all. This dispiriting process went on for years, exhausting everyone and leaving the most pedestrian design in the lot as the compromise choice for reconstructing Ground Zero.
The bitterness and boredom of that process, added to the shock of the 9/11 attacks themselves, have led numerous observers to contend that the illustrious century-old career of the tall building in North America ended on 9/11. The banality of many high-rises put up across New York, Toronto and other large cities over the last 10 years, along with the egregious show-offishness of some very tall towers that have recently come on line, seem to underscore this conclusion.
But the current show at the Skyscraper Museum argues that the tallest new structures, at least outside North America and Europe, can sometimes be sites of remarkable invention. In a few of these buildings, vigorous artistic and technical imagination is being applied to formidable problems, with inspiring outcomes.
Be that as it may, it's surely significant that the creative know-how poured into many of the most arresting projects here is coming from the United States, where the fascinating story of tall buildings began. In the ongoing, worthwhile work of intensifying North America's urban centres and edges, that is, developers have, right here, all the expertise they need. They don't have to join the feverish, fabulously expensive contest to build the highest edifices. They can, instead, build the best ones, using North American resources.
If developers were to become far-sighted, and willing to invest more energetically in design excellence, Toronto and other North American cities could have tall buildings as exciting and innovative as anything rising into the Asian and Middle Eastern skies.