Tall Buildings, A Cut Above The Rest

A pair of Canadian skyscrapers have been dubbed the "Marilyn Monroe" towers due to their shapely form. In Abu Dhabi, twin towers are shielded from the sun by computer-controlled shading screens. Architect Antony Wood discusses features of some tall buildings that make them standouts across the world.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

When people use words like curvy figure, breath of fresh air, veil to protect from the desert sun, it might sound like they're describing a beautiful woman from a far-off place. But in reality, these words describe the feature of a set of award-winning skyscrapers from around the world. These architectural marvels were recently recognized for their innovation, sustainability and connection to their urban surroundings.

Antony Wood is executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the group that named the world's best tall buildings of 2012. He's also associate professor in the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ANTONY WOOD: Hi. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: What makes a great building?

WOOD: Well, what makes a great tall building is a building that stands out from the normal run of the mill stuff which is - which makes up most of the tall buildings that are being built in cities around the world. The four buildings this year that we've honored from each region are definitely breaking away from the norm.

FLATOW: Let's talk about - let me just remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Let's talk about the Absolute Towers in a suburb of Toronto. These towers were named best tall buildings of Americas. They've been named the Marilyn Monroe Towers because of their sky-high curves. They're curvy-looking, yet they - the curves serve a function.

WOOD: The curves do serve a function. And what's unique about these buildings is, again, against the backdrop of 99 percent of tall buildings being fairly boring rectilinear boxes, these are very curving organic towers, which look iconic and look incredible, but they serve a purpose.

You know, one of the main forces on a tall building are wind pressures. It's not gravity. It's about wind, you know, counteracting the wind and in some areas seismic. And so a curvilinear building helps to kind of confuse the wind and split the wind around it as opposed to creating a vertical face for the wind to blow on.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. A skyscraper overlooking the Sydney Harbor was named best tall building from Asia and Australia. Why? Why was this tall building a standout?

WOOD: Well, this, again, is a very beautiful tower, but that is innovating in that a large part of the building is naturally ventilated. And we lost our way with tall buildings in architecture generally maybe 60, 70 years ago when we had the freedom to disconnect them from their environment by creating enclosed, mechanically ventilated boxes.

So this is a, you know, a 60-story tower in Sydney which uses the wind, the ventilation, to naturally ventilate a huge atrium, which runs the full height of the building. Quite innovative.

FLATOW: You say that 95 percent of the tall buildings in the world are terribly designed.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD: Yes. Well, you know, tall buildings tend to be designed in one or two ways. They're either extruded efficient floor plans - really, they're just commercially clad space - or they tend to be just sculptural icons.

And what concerns me about that is that, you know, I'm interested in the differences between cities, the differences between cultures, not necessarily the similarities. And architecture is homogenizing cities around the world, and tall buildings are homogenizing cities.

A tall building may become synonymous with a place, but it doesn't mean that it's born of that place. You can almost pick it up and put it in any city around the world and it would become synonymous with that city. And it denying thousands of years of vernacular architectural tradition, you know...

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

WOOD: ...to relate to environment and all these other things. So that's where the 95 percent figure, an arbitrary figure, comes from.

FLATOW: The Twin Towers in Abu Dhabi received the tall building innovation award. These buildings carry their own sunscreen, in a sense.

WOOD: Yeah. This is, again, completely innovative. You know, part of the problem that we have with tall buildings is building them all out of glass and then having to go to gymnastics to kind of cover them up on the outside, and we see that in America. But in intense solar environments like the desert, it makes even less sense.

This is an innovative way to control this. It actually, to my knowledge, for the first time creates this skin on the outside made up of, you know, hundreds of modules, which can open and close by computer control, depending on the angle of incident sun. So if the sun's on the other side of the building, the modules open up and allow natural daylight into the space. And if the sun is incident on the building, then those modules close up and block the sun from entering.

FLATOW: Is what makes a tall building great the ability to actually look like it fits in with the rest of the buildings in the neighborhood or the culture of the people?

WOOD: I believe so. That's - you know, as a professor, that's the thing that I advocate. I believe that a Chinese tall building or a, you know, an American tall building or a Middle Eastern tall building should be different to each other in the same way that, you know, religious and other architecture is clearly identifiable.

FLATOW: So just sticking - as you say, sticking one of these boxy buildings smack-dab just doesn't do it.

WOOD: It doesn't do it, no. And that's what's great about the Doha Tower, which we didn't discuss yet, which is the winner of the Middle East region, a project by Jean Nouvel Architects, which have a fantastic, beautiful Islamic fretwork on the outside of the building which is doing two things - one, again, it's protecting from that intense solar environment, but it's also a beautiful expression of the local culture. It's a building that if you picked up and put it down in Chicago, people would say, why is that Islamic building in the middle of our city? It's rooted into its culture.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break and come back and talk more with Anthony Wood, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, associate professor of the College of Architecture, Illinois Institute of Technology. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri. We'll talk a few more minutes about tall buildings and take your phone calls. So stay with us, we'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Anthony Wood, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, and that group named the world's best tall buildings of 2012. Anthony, I want to talk to you about skyscrapers. Has there been a renaissance in skyscraper development lately?

WOOD: Well, I would say that renaissance is a huge understatement. What we've seen in the last 15 years is unprecedented in the history of mankind, in that we have often, throughout the 20th century, seen huge skyscraper activity. But it's tended to be regionally concentrated. You could think late 19th-century Chicago or Art Deco New York or post-Second World War Europe. But what we've seen in the last 15 years is the simultaneous construction of more and taller tall buildings across virtually the entire globe.

And although that has been, you know, held a little bit in check by the economic recession, certainly in Western countries, the interesting thing is that the global numbers of tall buildings being completed every year has continued to rise year on year, every year for the last 15 years, and will continue to do so for the next few years, despite the recession, because of Asia.

I mean the tall buildings that are coming online in China, India, Indonesia and places like that is incredible, so in terms of global numbers, absolutely increasing the number buildings and great height. So renaissance is a kind of understatement, really, to what's happened.

FLATOW: In October you're going to announce the overall winner? How are you going to decide that?

WOOD: Well, we have a jury, a seven-member jury consisting of architects and engineers, and I'm very privileged to sit on that jury. And first of all, we have to, you know, kind of whittle the many, many submissions that we have down to the four regional winners that we have already, and then it's really about debating the merits of the four buildings against each other to decide on which is the - which should get the best overall title.

It's a nice thing to do, you know, that one takes the title overall. But really, they all have such different agendas, different location, different programs inside them that it's not something that's really too serious. I think all these four buildings are excellent for a different set of reasons.

FLATOW: All right. Well, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us, and good luck on your contest.

WOOD: Thank you very much. Nice to speak to you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Anthony Wood, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat and associate professor in the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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