Should we keep building up?

ROBERT BEVAN
Last updated 05:00 21/06/2014
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THE DUBAI MODEL: The UAE is the mecca of mega-architecture. But should we be emulating places that have hardly any heritage buildings to begin with? (Oh, that tall building, the Burj Khalifa is over twice as tall as the Sky Tower at 828 metres).

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LONDON'S TALL TOWERS: The tallest tower is known as The Shard, the white topped building next to it the Walkie Talkie, and the curvy job to the far right is The Gherkin.

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Now, across the English-speaking world, there is more demand than ever for high-rise living. With a May report finding that New Zealand has the highest house prices in the OECD, experts are calling for a move to build up, especially in Auckland. But should we? 

Worldwide, Melbourne is building some 41 towers across its CBD, Southbank and Docklands including the Australia 108 which will be the tallest tower in the southern hemisphere; London has about 230 in the pipeline (80 per cent of which will be residential); and last month Sydney's Urban Taskforce put forward proposals for dozens more super-tall towers, arguing that they are necessary if the city is to maintain its global status. If these projects all go ahead, they will change our cities forever.

Their proponents argue that future cities have to be denser if they are to be greener and that something needs to be done about the housing shortage endemic to desirable cities the world over. Others worry that while a wealthy few will benefit from these luxurious windows on the world, their host cities will suffer the consequences.

Carol Willis, the director of Manhattan's Skyscraper Museum, has staged an exhibition, Sky High: The Logic of Luxury, to examine the phenomena of the trend.

"New York and London are both hot markets for luxury housing, and in both, developers are adding conspicuously tall new towers to the skyline to answer demand and compete for the attention of wealthy investors," Willis says.

Slender genre benders

New designs are constantly evolving to make super-skyscrapers a preferred luxury living option.

The form these take varies from city to city. In New York, it is super-slim tall towers that are the go. These are made possible by advances in lift technology, materials and wind-bracing.

Manhattan's zoning laws allow unlimited heights in some areas as long as set ratios of floorspace-to-height are maintained. Developers can even buy up the unused development rights from neighbouring sites. A dozen towers of between 50 and 96 storeys are planned or under construction.

"Slenderness," notes Willis, "is a strategy that produces several benefits. Piling fewer apartments per floor higher into the sky allows for open, panoramic views. Having fewer units per floor - often only one or two - speaks of exclusivity and luxury."

This also has the effect of reducing the area of the [building] core devoted to lifts, as does the use of 'scissored' escape stairs where staircases are entwined together within the one stairwell.

Weird forms

While New York is aiming for super-slim, London is forever searching for the next novelty act with towers incorporating gimmicks such as wind turbines that don't turn, or throwing fantastical shapes that attract instant nicknames: the Gherkin, the Shard, the Walkie Talkie, the Cheesegrater, the Can of Ham.

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Most of these are office or mixed-use towers with residential-only skyscrapers a little more sombre, such as the grey cylinder of One St George's Wharf that has been likened to a nose-hair trimmer. A whole comic book of giggly-shaped towers is set to emerge around Battersea Power Station designed by Frank Gehry, et al.

Some of these weird forms have derived from developers wanting to maximize the size of a building without fouling the invisible spider's web of protected views criss-crossing the sky above the city, including those safeguarding the setting of St Paul's Cathedral.

Dubai precedent

Many Londoners are horrified at what will happen to the traditional scale of the city and its skyline. London Mayor Boris Johnson promised that he would now allow "Dubai on Thames" to emerge - a reference to the Gulf city's fondness for vertical bling - but that's exactly what the UK capital appears to be getting.

While it might be reasonable to use grandiose skyscrapers in an attempt to put a city on the map that has only emerged from the sand a few decades ago, it suggests a juvenile lack of self-confidence to argue that long-established cities such as London or Sydney need to emulate Dubai and Doha to be relevant. Tell that to Berlin with its strict height controls. A changing skyline might be one sign of a healthy, dynamic city but a deliberate free-for-all smacks of desperation or an ideological, 'let-the-market rule', attitude to planning - as in London where regulations are often simply set aside.

Meanwhile, down on the street

Perhaps more important than skylines is the effect skyscrapers can have at ground level: Londoners were mischievously delighted when the concave glass façade of the Walkie Talkie (officially 20 Leadenhall Street and also by Viñoly) accidentally concentrated the sun's reflected rays on a Jaguar parked nearby, melting its panels.

That's an extreme case but all tall buildings create their own microclimates if not carefully handled. Wind turbulence can create permanently blowy conditions at street level or throw whole areas into shade for part of each day. This is less of a problem in sunny climes where a certain amount of shade might provide welcome relief, but can become a big issue in temperate winters.

Even super-slim skyscrapers can create substantial change when they arrive in numbers. New York's Municipal Art Society has warned that seven of these new luxury towers planned for the south end of Central Park will throw extensive areas of its lawns into gloom during the winter months.

Slums in the sky?

Critics of Melbourne's tower frenzy are also warning that apartment blocks are being built too close together, shading each other and creating future slums in the sky.

Part of the problem is that, despite the benefits of being able to pile a lot of building onto a relatively small site, skyscrapers are still enormously expensive to build in comparison to lower blocks. So while luxury fit-outs might be necessary to attract buyers, corners are cut with cheap external details and materials. They are equally expensive to repair and almost impossible to replace.

Despite all these potential pitfalls, Daniel Safarik, a spokesman for the international Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, argues that such towers are inevitable: "We're running out of developable space in our cities, and that means there is nowhere to go but up," he says.

As well as super-slim or architecturally shouty, Safarik points to other tower trends including a move to mixed-use projects that aim to introduce street-life at height such as shops at a tower's midpoint.

There is also a realisation that access to greenery and fresh air is important, he adds. "In places with temperate or warm climates particularly, we are seeing sky gardens and green walls at height, and bridges connecting multiple towers in clusters. Singapore is one of the leaders in this area."

Star towers, star trappings

Other star towers are coming with star trappings. In Miami, the 60-storey Porsche Design Tower, being developed in partnership with the German sports car company, comes with amenities including plunge pools on most balconies. According to The Atlantic magazine's Citylab, 22 billionaries - some 2 per cent of the world's total - have bought units there.

These are investment homes, architectural safety deposit boxes designed to appeal to Russian oligarchs, China's business elite or Indian steel magnates in a time of global political and financial uncertainty. They may never be actually occupied before being resold.

Their expense also means that these cloud-bothering buildings are not a solution to the mass housing needs of most cities, despite what tower-backers in many cities argue. It's true that almost 90 per cent of Singaporeans live in high-rise social housing but these are cheap, grim affairs. Super-tall, super-snazzy towers will remain the preserve of the rich and famous, the kings and queens of all they survey. In this market, Chicago's Spire looks like it might be revived.

It all depends on local factors, however. In Melbourne, the supply of apartments is 60 per cent higher than demand, with rents likely to fall in consequence. Suddenly, luxuriously tall towers can look like bad investments. In the white-hot premium property market of London, Renzo Piano's $2.74 billion Shard, the tallest tower in Europe, has just celebrated the opening of its Shangri-La hotel but many of its other floors remain unrented, its $91 million apartments unsold. Just across the Thames, meanwhile, the Gherkin has gone into receivership 10 years after is elegant snout was completed.

Bubbles this size will make an almighty bang should they pop.

This story originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review's Luxury magazine.

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