Friday, November 7, 2008

Is the Skyscraper Obsolete?

It was with a long pang of sadness that I read of the current financial difficulties of the developers of the lovely Chicago Spire. Financing always was dicey for this mega-scraper, even at the peak of the boom, which is why the original plans for the building were altered twice before the third and final version was settled on; and now it begins to look like the building might not get built at all for lack of adequate financing. At this time, only one third of the units have sold, and that might not be sufficient to get the project off the ground in the current crisis.

I would so much rather have had this beautiful and appropriately sited structure than the Trump building on the Chicago River that has destroyed the beautiful sightlines along Michigan Ave from Wacker Drive. But, hell, I'm not the one putting up the money, so it was not exactly mine to say, even though I feel strongly that the city should have blocked the Trump building because of the total mismatch between the building and its site among the dense grouping of much-smaller vintage buildings with their intricate ornamentation, that are among the city's chief architectural gems.

Of all the creations of the Age of Fossil Fuels, the thing I'm personally most loathe to give up is the high-rise building and the type of city that these buildings have made Chicago.

Will the Trump tower be the last building of its type and scale built in this country? Will the magnificent skyline of Chicago become a symbol, not of human ingenuity and ascendancy as a species, but the gravestone of a mentality and a society that didn't know when to stop and whose major achievement was the ability to build things that are just too big? Many people think so. In spite of the many "green" features now incorporated into mega-scrapers, such as the geothermal cooling system designed for the Spire that will use lake water to provide air conditioning, these extremely large buildings carry disproportionately large internal energy loads, that more than offset efficiency gains made by high population density and concentration of services; and many critics contend that these buildings will be rendered unusable as we move further into the age of resource depletion, and are destined to become slums, or scrap. Additionally, these really large buildings of 50 stories or more are much more difficult for first responders to deal with in the event of emergency-consider the challenge of evacuating an 85-year old off the 124th floor when the elevators have stopped running, as they are programmed to do in the event of a fire. Thus, these buildings require many redundant systems and fastidious maintenance thereof, as well as battalions of highly trained personnel to keep them running and to deal with such emergencies as might arise. Most come with their own power generators and fire protection systems, and most of them are highly dependent upon the ongoing availability of resources, such as natural gas, that are in steep depletion and might be unreliable twenty or thirty years into the future.

While I tend to think that substitutes can be found for these resources on the scale that a large building requires, they will most likely not be economical, and we can be thankful most of the inhabitants of these mega- structures are extremely affluent. However, it's not only the extremely affluent who live in buildings 20 stories or more, for Chicago and other cities contain thousands of buildings ranging 20-60 stories with hundreds of thousands of lower, moderate, and middle-income residents shoehorned into their flanks. The high-rise lifestyle has been, for most of those who live it who are above poverty level, a very comfortable and convenient existence, and the population densities it makes possible are crucial for the support of city services and amenities such as dense, various commercial and entertainment districts, and most of all frequent, and reliable public transit that can only be supported by these types of densities.

Can we make our existing stock of skyscrapers sustainable into the future, and should we build any more? It might be wise to impose height limits on residential buildings outside the downtown area, of twenty stories or less. The New Urbanist ideal is 4-7 stories, 7 stories being the maximum comfortable walking height in the event of a power failure. Some neighborhoods have limited new construction to that height, and that might be pragmatic, in addition to keeping new construction to the scale of an area of historic homes and buildings.

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