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The Future of Skyscrapers
The Sept. 11 Attacks have Forced a Reassessment of Tall Buildings

listen Listen to Susan Stamberg talk with architects about skyscrapers on Morning Edition

Nov. 28, 2001 -- A skyscraper, as Susan Stamberg says in opening her report, is "a marvel of engineering, a thrilling landmark, an act of egotism and ingenuity."

And, since Sept. 11, a target of terror. The future of skyscrapers is less clear than it was last summer. But people had been questioning the need for very tall buildings well before the terrorist attacks. And while most architects and urban planners say skyscrapers will continue to be built, many of them are questioning how high they need to be.

Petronas Towers

At 1,483 feet, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur are the world's tallest.

As for erecting particularly tall buildings -- say, higher than 50 stories -- "there's absolutely no reason to do this in Manhattan, or anywhere else for that matter," says Witold Rybczynski, professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of several books about urban planning.

The skyscraper was born in the United States, and Rybczinski says that in one sense, "it represents us in an almost perfect way. This is a big country and we've always liked big things." That was particularly evident around mid-century, when the skyscraper wars between New York and Chicago were under way, peaking in the early 1970s with the construction of the Sears Tower and the World Trade Center towers. Back then it was thought by many that whomever had the taller tower also had the better city.

But things have changed. Not many people feel that way any more. "The fact that you have the world's tallest building in Kuala Lumpur doesn't really prove that Kuala Lumpur is the world's greatest city, because it isn't," says Rybczynski.

Architect Bruce Fowle goes one step further. Building anything beyond 50 stories is "irresponsible," he says. His firm, Fox and Fowle, stopped at 48 for the Conde Nast building in Times Square. Going past 50, he says, takes buildings out of human scale, and alienates people from the built environment. And Rybczynski points out that, past a certain point, the higher you build, the less economic sense it makes, given the costs of maintaining the building and operating its systems.

Nevertheless, skyscrapers keep going up. The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, now the world's tallest, are soon to be eclipsed in height by buildings in China and India.

Other Resources

Lehigh University's Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat maintains an online database with facts and figures about more than 8,000 structures.