Optimizing Skyscraper Performance

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

By Scott Johnson

Since the Tower of Babel, humanity has conspired to live in the heavens. In the late 19th Century, architects in Chicago set about designing the first modern skyscrapers, enabled by a furious speculation in real estate and the inventions of the elevator and the lightweight steel frame. Not long thereafter, New York City overtook Chicago in both the number of tall buildings and their height. Throughout the 20th Century, the skyscraper was seen to be an American invention, and the world’s tallest buildings, usually office towers, always were built in the US.

Toward the end of the century, other cities around the world built their own tall and super-tall buildings, vying for “the world’s tallest” title and frequently stacking multiple uses (offices, residences, hotels, amenities) atop each other. Super-tall buildings with their inevitably short-lived titles were products of high-technology and state-of-the-art engineering, and they became visual symbols of modernity and national aspiration. For the same reasons, they also often provoked questions of appropriate style and cultural identity. Should a tall building in, say, the Middle East or Asia look and feel like a sleek consumer object from the West? Or, as their cultural landmarks had done for time immemorial, should they reflect the visual legacy of their own histories? The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa all have struggled to project a fusion of indigenous culture and global technology.

With the advents of the computer, global trade, and multinational design teams, the architecture of tall buildings now has entered the Performative Age. In a world of big data, software programs can measure virtually all aspects of a tall building’s performance, be it environmental, structural, construction, or cost related. Algorithms can optimize performance criteria while presenting a dizzying array of visual forms and patterns. This has led to a new era of tall buildings.

Notwithstanding media events from Die Hard to The Towering Inferno or real and tragic events such as 9/11, no one predicts an end to the proliferation of tall buildings. With the continued migration of populations into cities (50% of the global population today, 75% by 2050) and concerns surrounding unsustainable sprawl, there will be more tall buildings, and they will continue to be taller. They will achieve higher levels of performance, and a new generation of designers who are in equal measure technicians and artists will be required to produce the tall buildings that will leave their marks on history.

Scott Johnson is a design partner at Johnson Fain, an international design firm based in Los Angeles. He is the author of Tall Building: Imagining the Skyscraper and the recently released Performative Skyscraper: Tall Building Design Now. He is currently designing tall buildings in the US and abroad.

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