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Brief Historical Overview of Tall Buildings

In different periods of the history of architecture, man has incessantly challenged heights in construction, being limited only by its technological capacity. Naturally, what could be called as a tall building has changed dramatically over the years. Verticality has always been a symbol of superiority and power. In medieval times, San

A ‘glass tower’, recently built in Cascais, Portugal

Fig. 5.1 A ‘glass tower’, recently built in Cascais, Portugal. Unfortunately, Glass Architecture is today fashionable, symbolizing economic status. It leads to excessive energy consumption (e.g., due to air conditioning), poor comfort levels, and damage to the environment. It is in flagrant contradiction with a truly sustainable design practice

Gimignano in Italy was considered the Manhattan of its era. Cathedrals lashed up in the sky during the Gothic age in a symbolic attempt to bridge the mundane life on earth with heaven. The vast interiors reminded the religious community of their smallness in relation to the Almighty, and at the same time imposed respect towards the Holy.

Literature has it that the term ‘skyscraper’ was used to classify tall buildings by the end of the nineteenth century, and beginning of the twentieth. In modern times, it is widely accepted that in the 1920s and 1930s the tall building typology was already an architectural force. The United States is considered the birthplace of high-rise buildings in our contemporary society. The American cities of New York and Chicago began competing for the world’s tallest building. Buildings in Chicago like the Tribune Tower (1925) at 141 m were promptly beaten by buildings in New York such as the Chrysler Building (1930) at 319 m and the Empire State Building (1932) at 381 m high. Engineering seemed to have no constraints, and technology was pushed to its limits. “This was a period of fascination with the tall building, its iconic forces and its dazzling views from unimaginable heights. Buildings of that time are still recognized today as some of the most spectacular and grandiose worldwide—the Empire State Building representing one of the last models of the art-nouveau and art-deco periods, the so-called ‘golden age of the skyscrapers’” (Gon§alves 2010).

In Europe, leading the modernist concept of ‘form follows function’ and ‘less is more’, Mies Van der Rohe proposed ‘glass’ skyscrapers for Berlin, responding to the need for modern office buildings. Another building designed by Mies and Philip Johnson in 1958, the Seagram Building in New York City, became an icon of the International Style. The Seagram Building is a clear expression of functionality in line with construction rationalization in tall buildings, making it lighter and cheaper than any other at the time. During the same period, Walter Gropius also contributed with innovations, proposing designs for the first residential buildings in the European continent. Le Corbusier was another modernist involved in new aspirations for tall buildings, proposing in 1923 the idea of the City of Towers, where he idealises the future city dependant on high-rise buildings, housing 4000 people each. Other utopian designs appeared around that time. Russians had some proposals, but probably the most far-fetched example came from Frank Lloyd Wright in 1956, with his 1600 m high design for a building in Illinois.

It is interesting to notice that although air conditioning already existed by then, the buildings from the first half of the twentieth century relied on natural ventilation for cooling. Its internal environment was dependent on its relation to the external environment. Therefore the benefits of daylight, passive cooling, and acoustic comfort were based on the interaction of the building design and its fabric with the exterior.

The post-war period saw the spreading of the International Style, where tall buildings increased the size of their (deep) plans, leading to the excessive use of artificial lighting and air conditioning. The extensive repetition and banalisation of the design guidelines from the International Style in the United States and elsewhere resulted in a building model of poor contextual relationships with urban culture, climate, and urban design. This was a rupture of designing with the climate, and the beginning of a vicious cycle of buildings was totally dependent on artificial energy sources for lighting and cooling.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the industrial business in the United States was booming, which led to another race for the world’s tallest building. This was a statement of power and wealth. One of the two main buildings, which resulted from this period, was the World Trade Centre in New York in 1972, with 417 m, and which was eventually destroyed in a terrorist attack on September 11th 2001. The other iconic building of this period is the Sears Tower, built in 1973, 442 m high.

Soon after, in 1973, there was an economic turnaround and a world energetic problem with the oil crisis that halted the skyscraper race. For the first time, people’s attention was directed to the fragility of our natural resources and our deep need of its preservation. The rational use of fossil fuels and the environmental quality in spaces in tall buildings were beginning to be discussed. The profound dependency on air conditioning also brought an increase in health problems, and awareness of the sick building syndrome (SBS), caused by its poor air quality. Consequently, the 1980s saw the first moves to a more environmentally friendly design for tall buildings, and the publication of the Brundtland Report (1987), addressing the issues and concepts of sustainability. This report was eventually followed by a green agenda, officially known as Agenda 21, resulting from the UN summit in Rio, in 1992.

The 1990s saw a spread of the phenomenon of globalization and the economic pressures resulting from it. New financial centres were booming around the planet, especially in big urban cities of developing countries like Taipei, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, and Dubai. This led to a great demand for office and commercial buildings, rapidly transforming the urban grid of already densified cities. The capitalist transformation and consequent economic development forced a vertical building boom in places of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The most representative building of this period is the Petronas Tower, built in the capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, in 1997. Its 452 m beat the Sears Tower as the tallest building on the planet, until then.

In a different direction, tall buildings in Europe were being discussed in the light of environmental awareness. High-rise buildings with sustainable concepts were appearing, such as Norman Foster’s headquarters of the Commerzbank in Frankfurt in 1998. Its design included passive strategies for cooling, daylighting, and heating. Sky gardens and a central atrium were also incorporated. It is said that for over 80 % of the year the building is naturally ventilated. The Commerzbank is acknowledged as the first and one of the most important environmental tall buildings in Europe. The recognition of the importance of sustainability and environmentally responsible buildings led to the introduction of rating systems such as BREEAM, which assesses how ‘green’ is a building.

Since the late 1990s and throughout this young twenty-first century, there has been another, yet much greater, race for the world’s tallest building. Countries like Dubai and Abu Dhabi have with incredible speed completely transformed their natural environment into a sea of tall glass buildings, totally disconnected to their climate and completely unaware of their energetic cost and environmental damage. This trend is not stopping so soon, as there is a new ‘generation’ of buildings planned, and others already being built, over the next decade.

There is no doubt that tall buildings play a significant role in today’s society. It expresses wealth, power, status, economic capacity, and technological accomplishment. Nevertheless, concerns regarding environmental performance, public welfare, and sustainable development are not a choice anymore, but a necessity.

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