Towering anachronisms?

Peter Buchanan in Harvard Design Magazine:

St_m Is the tall building an anachronism? Does it, like sprawling suburbia and out-of-town shopping malls, seem doomed to belong only to what is increasingly referred to as “the oil interval,” that now fading and historically brief moment when easily extracted oil was abundant and cheap? The answer is probably “Yes,” particularly for the conventional freestanding, air-conditioned, artificially lit tower that guzzles vast amounts of energy and is built for short-term profit out of high-embodied-energy materials, many of them petroleum derivatives. Such buildings are utterly contrary to the requirements of times of increasingly insecure and dwindling oil supplies, in which even the United States must one day embrace the quest for more sustainable lifestyles and forms of development. Energy-wasteful buildings also offend values held by more and more people.

Nevertheless, such buildings continue to be built, and more are proposed, particularly for boom cities like Dubai and many in China. Yet the contrived sculptural forms and vulgar flashiness of so many of the towers there and elsewhere suggest rather desperate attempts to enliven a tired and dying type. Even towers by superior architects, like Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, proposed for the Ground Zero site in New York, seem vapid. And the gigantism of towers proposed by Renzo Piano for London and Foster for Moscow register as brutally intrusive and inappropriate. All these seem last-fling sunset effects from a waning era when, beside the defects listed, towers helped create dismal cities and aptly symbolized their extreme economic and social inequalities.

But ironically, the green agenda and quest for sustainability, the death knell of these kinds of towers, might reinvent and reinvigorate the tall building. Reaching up into fresh air and abundant daylight, tall buildings cry out to be naturally lit and ventilated, bringing energy savings, healthier conditions, and more personal environmental control. Touching tall buildings is abundant ambient energy in the form of sunlight and wind, only a little of which needs to be harvested to serve all their energy needs. Various European architects are now investigating towers that accelerate wind past or through them to drive turbines and towers big enough for water- and waste-recycling systems, with “gray” water from hand-washing use to flush toilet, and even “living machines” processing sewage on site.1

Picture shows 30 St.Mary Axe, London.

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