The Skinny Skyscraper: More Than Just a Trend?

The Manhattan skyline is marked by several skyscrapers and buildings with unique architectural designs, in addition to which we’ve seen an explosion of super-skinny towers in New York in recent years. The slender, compact design of these buildings gives them an edgier, futuristic look and many are now used as high-rise apartment complexes and business offices. Experts are claiming that this is almost a new phenomena in architectural trends, a combination of economics and engineering, according to professor of architecture at Columbia University, Carol Willis, who is also the founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum.

Are skinny skyscrapers, also called pencil towers, more than just a trend? Here’s a closer look at this emerging architectural design and what we can expect in the construction and design world in the oncoming years:

Notable Skinny Scrapers in New York

According to City Lab, the number of skyscrapers in New York City that are 1,000 feet or taller are going to increase significantly. Today, the skyline features just seven of theses super skinny buildings but there are already several multi-million dollar projects underway for new construction buildings that will transform the area around Central Park and Billionaires row, reports City Lab.

What’s most significant about these buildings is their structural aspect ratio. Willis explains that some are built with extreme of a 1:23 base-width to height ratio which means the building is an architectural feat — and certainly a sight to behold.

The tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere is located at 432 Park Avenue. It was designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects and stands 1,396 feet tall with a height to width ratio of 15:1. The building was completed in 2015 and boasts nearly birds-eye views of New York. It’s a welcome addition to the bustling streets of New York City since it doesn’t take up much space on the ground. The tower looms high above many New York buildings, changing the famous New York City skyline.
Another iconic building in New York City is The Icon, a 43-story residential tower on West 48th Street. This was the first skinny skyscraper in New York and also has a height to width ratio of 15:1. Residents of this building enjoy views of the Hudson River, Midtown and Central Park.

Skinny Skyscrapers Push the Boundaries of Architectural Design

Skinny skyscrapers and super-slender buildings certainly push the boundaries of modern design, architecture, engineering, and real estate. In cities like New York where space is a commodity, it would seem the skinny skyscraper is the perfect solution for saving space on the ground while increasing available space above.

Building developers and construction teams may also be able to save money on materials in both the short-term and long-term since they need to use higher-strength steel and composite structures to ensure the buildings do not collapse, and also so the building maintains its structural integrity and original design for several decades to come. We are already seeing this trend influencing construction and building design in Melbourne, Australia, and in London, United Kingdom where we are seeing a combination of skinny skyscrapers and sculpted buildings scheduled for construction in 2017 and beyond.

Optimizing Architectural Design and Construction of Skinny Skyscrapers

The effects of heavy traffic on roadways near the building, stormy weather and even strong winds can all shake a building from the foundation upward, causing vibrations and even structural damage. To counteract the impact of environmental factors in the bustling city of New York, architects are designing these buildings with additional features.

As The Lyncean Group of San Diego points out, slosh dampers can be installed to absorb vibrations on lower floors, something that many residents or office workers in a skinny skyscraper experience because of the construction of the building. Mass dampers can be placed on user floors to reduce the impact of wind forces. These technical and engineering modifications may soon become a necessary part of the design and building process of very high and slender buildings, something that is may not always have been required when building traditional skyscrapers.  

Architects working on skinny skyscraper buildings are now using advanced structural modeling techniques to determine how to optimize the design of the skyscraper to handle certain environmental effects, such as wind turbulence and heavy traffic, as well as the overall weight load of a building based on its use. For example, residential towers may have different structural requirements than a commercial use building. Mixed-use buildings may need to be designed with certain specifications to ensure they can accommodate for certain weight loads and activities.

Since they can be constructed for both residential and commercial purposes and take up less space than traditional skyscrapers and mixed-use buildings, skinny skyscrapers are likely more than just a trend. In some of the world’s biggest cities where space is increasingly limited, the skinny skyscraper may be the best solution for accommodating for a growing population. Architects that know how to use advanced computer technologies and modeling systems to create these buildings will able to render futuristic, edgy and awe-inspiring designs that are also structurally sound and meet local zoning laws.

Featured image: Richard Schneider via Flickr 

By |2018-10-31T16:20:39+00:00July 22nd, 2016|Urban Planning|

Why Many From-Scratch Cities Are Failing to Thrive

Rome. Paris. New York City. Beijing. Some of the most powerful and beautiful cities are centuries old, with some having been built up and outwards for thousands of years. Many new, built-from-scratch cities may not be destined for the same success — in fact, hundreds of shiny, modern metropolises lay dormant in spite of high hopes and intelligent design.

With global urban population expected to rise to six billion by 2050 from 3.9 today, new cities will be essential for growing communities to form and thrive. Public and private projects around the world are aiming to design and build these idealistic cities of the future, but have been proven flawed in both approach and outcome.

Flawed planning, hazy results

A Hologram for the King, a Dave Eggers novel recently made into a film starring Tom Hanks, portrays a fictionalized example of how new cities can fail to get off the ground. In it, the protagonist Alan takes a trip to Saudi Arabia to present his company’s IT system, which he hopes will be adopted by the in-the-works King Abdullah Economic City. Throughout the course of the story the city remains in a state of limbo, likely never to live up to the King’s exaggerated claims or marketing promises.

King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced “cake”) is real: though perhaps not as bleak as rendered in the book, the desert megacity has been underway since 2005 as one of four new cities proposed to control sprawl and congestion. The city is supposed to become larger than Washington DC, but remains only 15 percent completed, gaining only several thousand inhabitants over a decade post-conception.

Other Middle Eastern countries have traversed this road already to minimal success. The United Arab Emirates’ carbon-neutral smart city Masdar, though completed, remained virtually empty to this day. Built to house 50,000, the population is only 1,000, consisting mostly of students attending the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology there.

China is perhaps the posterchild for from-scratch cities: the nation has used more cement in the last three years than the US in the entire 20th century, and invested more time, money, and space into brand new cities than any other country. Called “overnight cities” by some, a fleet of metropolises have been popped up across rural land in anticipation of rapid population growth.

Roughly 600 new cities have been built since 1949, many in the 80s and early aughts. Hundreds of these remain empty or under-populated, often referred to as “ghost cities” or compared to dystopian fantasy settings. The buildings shine, but the streets echo; they are eco-friendly, but until they are people-friendly their sustainability is a moot point.

China’s top-down approach to urban planning is smart in theory but lacking in practice: you can plan a city all you want, but over half the appeal of cities are their community and culture, which are inherently organic. Even the best marketing plan can’t disguise the deficit.

In spite of China’s struggles with the matter, down in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made smart cities a major goal of his administration. One of such cities is Lavasa, a completely privately-run metropolis. Like the others, it is unfinished. Visitors remark that it is more suitable for vacation than for living, as it lacks adequate hospital and schooling systems. And like many other new cities, it doesn’t solve problems like poverty because it’s too expensive to live there.

Other high-tech, eco-friendly city projects — like Portugal’s fully sensor-embedded PlanIT Valley — have halted construction over economic concerns.

Whether public or private, from-scratch cities face similar issues: attracting people, solving problems, and investing large sums into an uncertain fate.

People bringing promise

Why is it, exactly, that historic cities flourish while new ones flounder? Old cities face troubles of all sorts, especially as older infrastructure crumbles, populations fluctuate and architecture becomes outdated. Systems fail, buildings overcrowd, and yet they remain resilient in their complexity.

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. This is obviously true: modern Rome was built over the course of two and a half thousand years, and is thusly one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Europe. Even newer cities like New York have had a couple of centuries to develop character, layers and intricacy.

New cities may never have the chance to make it to that status, and it doesn’t help that they lack the appeal and vibrancy of old cities. As the architect of the still-budding city Loseva said in an interview, “soul is something that the city develops over time.” The older the city, the stronger the soul.

The location of age-old cities also reflects the cream of the crop in real estate: they are natural and ideal spots with the best weather conditions and access to water supply and trade. Their economies and communities have thusly developed both financial and cultural capital over the ages, not out of a goal of perfection but out of necessity.

This said, not all from-scratch cities in recent histories have or will necessarily falter. South Korea’s Songdo is among the most successful so far, whether by design or chance, it’s reached a population of 70,000, which is expected to triple by 2018. Though it’s largely a blank slate still, Koreans already accustomed to the high-tech slickness of cities like Seoul may be ideal adopters to fill it out with the color and energy it needs.

Songdo may be an outlier. Either way, the planet needs more cities. Perhaps people simply don’t want to live in cities of the future — not yet anyway.

What is the solution? Unfortunately, I don’t think there a hard and fast rule — it may be that time and population growth alone does the trick. Even so, the territory is uncharted and the variables are many. Knowing what we know about people, about culture, and urban planning, better practice should at least be in reach.

As Jane Jacob wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Perhaps this is the core issue: city architects should plan and build alongside people rather than simply for them.

There must be room to go off the books, room for the unexpected, room for a little bit of chaos to seep between the buildings. If urban planners have to compromise their ideals to get there, it may just be worth it: without people, a city is simply a glorified diorama. With them — flaws and all — it can develop a spirit along with its skyscrapers.

By |2018-10-31T16:18:14+00:00July 7th, 2016|Urban Planning|

How Urban Planning Shapes Art, Music and Culture

The structure and a design of a city is integral to the way in which communities come to use its space. This is true of the basics — like recreation, work and residential — but it’s also true of art: where it thrives, where it’s created, and how it’s consumed. From music venues to street art and theater districts, there are reasons why certain cities and spaces spawn cultural renaissances.

You see, the size and layout of homes and public places impact what people choose to do there. So if a building is conducive to creative activities, the area will develop to reflect it. Then, as the location begins to adopt creativity into its ethos, the art has it’s own impact, and may affect urban planning moving forward. This cycle of environment and art is something often considered overtly.

For people interested in art, culture, urban design or all of the above, the cause and effect of environment on cultural innovation is a topic worth exploring. With this knowledge, urban planners can design spaces that organically spark creation, and artists can choose spaces that serve their needs based on both historic accomplishments and future goals.

Art & culture

Artistic movements are induced by time, attitude, persons and place. The importance of environment in art-making cannot be overstated — just think about the classic pastoral, impressionism, and expressionism, all inspired by nature.

The natural world has always been impactful for artists, but so have cities in a different way. Urbanisation has birthed its own art movements based on factors like the city layout, population, and the social and political realities of the times. The symmetry and tight design of a cities contrasts greatly with nature, so it makes sense this the art that comes from it characterizes more grit than greenery; more angles than angels.

For example, modernism as an art form was shaped by the rapid growth of cities and industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th century. When people began to move into cities to seek their fortunes, the environment inspired a new outlook that rejected the certainty of enlightenment and the limits of traditionalism. Modern cities, defined by order and the promise of enlightenment, inspired art, literature and philosophy that affirmed human power to create with the aid of science, technology, and practical experimentation.

In this way, modernism was a reflection of urban environments: their stoicism, their nihilism and their promise. It’s a testament to the functionality of city design during the industrial revolution: when machines and manufacturing were introduced via factories and plants, economic growth and innovative thinking flourished. In fact, modernism inspired a new era of urban design that followed the logic of mass production by implementing large-scale solutions citywide.

Around the same time, city design that prioritized industrialization faced artistic pushback in the form of the Arts and Crafts movement. Due to anxieties over the prominence of industrial life, handcraftsmanship surged in the early 20th century to prove the value of human creativity and design.

But in the wake of two world wars, cities and cultural attitudes would change. Times of hardships and the inability of cities to keep urban spaces safe and clean made clear that even modernism had its faults: in city planning, architecture, and in philosophy. Postmodernism emerged as a result of these failures, exemplified by the decline of American cities. It rejected the totality of modernism in favor of a more contextual and skeptical approach less devoted to perfection.

But even in times and places in strife, art has thrived: as it turns out, abandoned warehouses served the needs of artists as well as they did mass production. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, large abandoned factories proved ideal for artists seeking cheap rent and ample, light-filled spaces. The town was revived as a hub for creative types, and remains one of the hippest neighborhoods in the city.

Music making

Another key example of how our designed environment shapes culture is music, which has developed in garages, living rooms, churches and garages. The distinct personality of different genres has in part to do with the history of the space through which they first emerged.

1960s Detroit, it’s argued, gave birth to MoTown for several reasons: first, the northern migration of African Americans from the South for factory jobs, and second, because single-family houses had ample space for pianos. A musical heyday was relinquished even in the face of the city’s imminent decline because African American residents used this extra space to gather and make music.

“What this suggests is that cities shouldn’t despair too much about their existing built form, even if in many cases they are struggling with it,” wrote Aaron Renn on this phenomenon. “The question might be, what does that form enable that you can’t get elsewhere?”

The Detroit-Motown connection prompted journalist Ian Wylie to explore how urban planning shaped other music scenes in an article for the Guardian. When considering the grunge scene in Seattle, Wylie writes, both architecture and weather contributed to its cultivation. The inclusion of garages in local homes gave musicians a place to practice, and the damp, moderate climate convinced them to spend more time there making music, regardless of season.

Wyle also writes of how tower blocks in London made ideal transmission spots for illegal radio stations promoting grime music: the towers were fortress-like labyrinths that concealed the pirate stations from police, allowing the widespread broadcasting and popularization of grime music.

Then there are Berlin’s abandoned warehouses, which gave rise to electronic music. Not unlike Williamsburg’s abandoned factories, these large spaces provided ample from for experimentation and dance parties.

“DJs enjoyed the liberation of making music in places where previously they might have been jailed or even shot for trespassing,” Wylie writes. “The large warehouses of cold war-era Berlin also became spaces for artists and musicians to convert into studios.”

Lastly, New York City’s community centers played a part in the growth of hip hop: DJs and other hip hop artists held shows at sponsored community talent shows and dances more often than they did on the streets. The existence of these centers allowed a blending of generations and cultures, which contributed to hip-hop’s unique and eclectic sound.

What it all means

Where there are cities there are humans, and where there are humans there is art. Whether the city as a whole inspires a political and artistic movement, or simply certain elements of its design, environment will always play an important role in cultural evolution.

Many of the world’s cities tell the stories of the complex relationships between buildings, communities, and art. When the space informs the artist, the art informs the community, and then the community informs the future of the space. It’s a known phenomenon that when art flourishes, it invigorates neighborhoods, and invites the further development of both art and business.

Both urban planners and artists can take this information into stride in their future endeavors. It’s a common goal of developers to build spaces that are hospitable to young, artistic individuals and communities. Building spacious community centers, rooms, and public spaces where collaboration can happen could prompt the artistic renaissances of the future.

For young creatives, cities continue to offer the inspiration and flexibility to kickstart new projects, movements, genres, and works of art. Whether or not urban planners intend it — and as evidenced by abandoned spaces, perhaps especially when they don’t — creativity finds a way to fill in both cracks and canals.

Featured image: Vincent Anderlucci via Flickr

By |2018-10-31T16:10:38+00:00March 29th, 2016|Culture, Urban Planning|