Battle of the skyscrapers

A building frenzy is raging in Asia, Russia and the Persian Gulf. And cities like New York don't have the money to compete. Will the West soon look outdated?

Topics: China, Russia,

For an entire century, New York was the city of skyscrapers, the epitome of the vertical city. It just kept growing into the sky, faster and faster. It was an exhilarating adventure in stone, steel and glass — and seemingly unsurpassable.

In “Delirious New York,” his legendary 1978 book about the giant city of skyscrapers and its magic, the young Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas raved about what he called the “colonization of the sky.”

Even the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center have not diminished the enthusiasm the now world-famous architect has for the skyscraper as a model of success. Despite the disaster, says Koolhaas, the skyscraper is still “about the only type of building that has survived the leap into the 21st century.”

Koolhaas is apparently right. The tower has survived as both a form of architecture and a status symbol. The impressiveness of a city’s skyline is seen as a reflection of its prosperity. Skyscrapers serve as a physical expression of an economic upswing, and bear witness to an economy’s level of adrenaline.

From a Western perspective, at least, this is precisely the problem. Economically booming megacities — such as Beijing, Shanghai and Dubai — where extravagant skyscrapers are shooting up all over, mean that cities like New York are beginning to look old and outdated, despite attempts to modernize. In Europe, the eastern part is beginning to look more modern than the western part. Cities like Istanbul and Moscow are more dynamic than London, Paris or Milan.

There have never been this many skyscrapers on the drawing boards, and most of them are planned for the world’s new boomtowns. The West is eyeing this development with jealousy, all the more intense for its inability to compete. The massive downturn in the American credit market has caused the cancellation or postponement of many major architectural and urban-planning projects.

The battle for the best skyline, which has been under way for more than 100 years, is entering a new round. And it already seems clear who the winners will be: the Middle East and the Far East. Kazakhstan and Qatar could soon be aesthetically more dominant than Europe or the United States. It is an architectural clash of civilizations. One of the most ironic aspects of this development is that, in many cases, it is the West’s leading architects who are driving the transition. Working for newly enriched governments and real-estate tycoons, they are being given free rein to do what would now be inconceivable in their home countries.

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An angular building in the shape of a colossal triumphal arch? One designed by Koolhaas was recently completed in Beijing to serve as the headquarters of China Central Television.

A landscape of tall, asymmetrical buildings reminiscent of icebergs? One designed by American architect Steven Holl now stands in the Chinese city of Chengdu.

A pyramid for Moscow that climbs 450 meters (1,476 feet)? It is the work of prominent London architect Lord Norman Foster, who is also designing Crystal Island, the Moscow development that will include it. According to Foster, it is the “world’s most ambitious construction project.”

The megalomania of this boomtown euphoria requires more than just tall buildings. Nowadays, spectacular shapes and glittering surfaces are in demand, eccentricities that are noticeable even from great distances. The “wow effect” is everything; it translates into structures mimicking lilies, harps, trophies, tents and other unconventional shapes.

Hamburg, Germany, architect Volkwin Marg, who runs a thriving business in China with his partner Meinhard von Gerkan, isn’t fond of this tendency toward representational building. For Marg, these “iconic buildings” lack social significance.

Peter Schweger, another architect from Hamburg, describes the current trend as “absurd, atrocious blossoms of sculptural architecture.” He has also noticed an impact on Western architectural aesthetics, where “buildings are starting to be designed like commercial products that can be aggressively marketed.” Schweger describes his own skyscraper designs, such as the reflective Twin Towers he designed for Moscow, as rational.

The investor and the other architect collaborating in the Twin Towers project are Russian, while most of the construction workers are Chinese. At 500 meters (1,640 feet), the larger of the two towers — with its so-called panorama needle — will go down in history as one of the tallest buildings in Europe.

But not for long.

Schweger has just signed a contract to design a new business park in Moscow. The development will consist of 400,000 square meters (4.3 million square feet) of office space. Compared with its surroundings, though, this almost seems modest. As Schweger puts it, the amount of new construction under way in the Russian capital “is almost difficult to fathom.”

Schweger is critical of Russian building standards. “Many buildings are 10 years behind the Western standard technologically,” he says. “The developers have no interest in questions of energy efficiency.”

There are other good reasons to criticize today’s hectic global building trend — aesthetic, environmental and ethical reasons. But few investors or architects are interested. Instead, they prefer to immortalize themselves and watch their towers grow.

Calling it “too brutal,” Schweger says he’s not interested in China. Instead, he is focusing his design efforts on a collection of skyscrapers in Dubai, part of a development somewhat cheesily named “Dubai Pearl.”

The emirate of Dubai is the promised land for real-estate speculators. It is said that half of all construction cranes in the world are in Dubai. But is architectural history really being written there?

Dubai consists of two peninsulas on its western side and an older section on the eastern side, with a kilometer-long line of skyscrapers in between. The skyscrapers look somehow familiar — and not accidentally so. Many of the building’s architectural elements, including the bell tower from St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy, and the silver arches of New York’s Chrysler Building, are borrowed.

Giant billboards line the highways cutting through the desert. They advertise the names of urban visions to come, names like Arabian Ranches, Emirates Hills, Springs, Meadows, the Old Town — all in English. Even the names seem borrowed from America.

“Almost everything here is paid for with oil money,” says a man employed by the ruler of Dubai, “but not our own.” The emirate has little more than a few puddles of oil left, and only 4 percent of its current economic output stems from the oil business. Instead, it has created a real-estate bonanza that is attracting billions in investment money that in the past would have gone to New York. The area’s slew of real-estate fairs — with names like “Cityscape Dubai,” “Cityscape Abu Dhabi” and “The Property Shoppe” — attest to how eager investors are to invest here.

The situation in the West is radically different. In the United States, the current guiding principle appears to be: the more glamorous the utopian vision, the more potential investors are determined to back away from the project.

Until recently, borrowing money — and even huge sums of money — was relatively easy. “If I or someone else needed money,” says Donald Trump, America’s most prominent real-estate czar, “all it took was a quick call to the bank, and they’d send the cash over in a car. There was a huge amount of money floating around.”

This is how it was — until the financial crisis hit. The crisis itself was triggered in 2007 in the United States by an overheated market for mortgage loans that private citizens had taken out to buy houses and condominiums. Since then, the banks have been far more tight-fisted. Ironically, it is more or less the real-estate industry’s own fault that it has now become so difficult to borrow money. The boom is over.

A high-profile casualty of the credit crisis is a complex in Las Vegas called the Cosmopolitan Resort Casino. The shells of the two 180-meter (590-foot) skyscrapers are already up. For the lobby, developer Ian Bruce Eichner had ordered 9-meter (30-foot) robots that would play the song “Disco Inferno” on oversize guitars.

The project is now headed for foreclosure, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. One of the investors, Deutsche Bank, is at risk of losing about $1 billion.

Another example is in Los Angeles, where construction on the Grand Avenue Project has been delayed several times. The collection of hotel, apartment and retail towers was intended to revitalize downtown Los Angeles at a cost of $3 billion. The complex was designed by Frank O. Gehry, another top name in the U.S. architecture scene known for buildings clad in stylishly shimmering materials.

The work, initially scheduled to begin last December, has now been postponed until next February. The developers, Related Cos., blamed the delays on the real-estate crisis. Soon one of the investors — Calpers, California’s largest pension fund — withdrew from the project. Now the developers hope their new primary shareholder, the royal family of Dubai, will take a more patient approach.

Yet another of Gehry’s urban improvement ventures has run into difficulties. Gehry was commissioned to transform an industrial wasteland in Brooklyn, N.Y., into a mixed-use architectural pearl. The price tag of the Atlantic Yards project — which New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised as a “colossal achievement of one of the world’s leading architects” — was $4 billion. But demand has been unsatisfactory, and Gehry was forced to reduce the size of the largest tower in the complex. According to the developers, construction of several of the planned buildings will be placed on hold.

It’s a tough blow for New York. For real estate aficionados, it remains the “ultimate 24-hour American city,” a place that attracts the global elite. But it takes some effort and a constant series of face-lifts to keep it that way. Where else but in New York is there so must distaste for any form of inertia?

The mayor had a plan to revitalize Manhattan, the heart of the city, with a special focus on the West Side. His vision included building a modern train station, which would have required tearing down the well-known arena Madison Square Garden. But now Bloomberg no longer knows how he is going to raise the $14 billion the project is estimated to cost.

The original plan also called for an ambitious expansion of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, a project that has now been considerably scaled back. And the search for an investor for the new Hudson Yards business district — a project that even jaded New Yorkers describe as “megalomaniacal” — recently became nothing short of embarrassing.

Tishman Speyer, a real-estate development company, had initially planned to cooperate on the project with German-American skyscraper architect Helmut Jahn. But then it surprisingly withdrew. Now Related Cos. has stepped in to take advantage of what may well be a historic opportunity. It could take months before the contracts are worked out and before a series of cliffhangers finally comes to an end. This in a city where the sky has traditionally been the limit.

And what about Europe? Will the Old World have to start getting used to the idea of becoming a museum — picturesque, but without any real chance of keeping pace with the iconography-rich growth of other continents?

According to a study by the Urban Land Institute in Washington, a large number of major European deals that were until recently in the planning stages are now “clinically dead.”

Perhaps Vittorio Lampugnani, an Italian architect who works in Milan and teaches architectural theory in Zurich, Switzerland, is merely trying to comfort himself when he says that he doubts whether cities like Shanghai will remain attractive in the long term. As he sees it, with their “layers of history,” European cities “offer the sort of quality of life that will be in demand in the future.” This is what Lampugnani calls “enduring cityscapes.”

At the same time, a sharp division is naturally emerging. Lampugnani admits that the newly minted architects who opt to go to Asia are essentially building skyscrapers right off the bat, while graduates who stay in Europe can count themselves lucky if their first commission is to design a weekend home for their parents.

Still, “if Europe manages its heritage intelligently,” Lampugnani says, “it can be a huge opportunity, not just for culture and the quality of life but also for the economy.”

But more than anything else, the economy is standing in the way. In Spain, for example, the association representing Spanish construction companies estimates that the number of new projects in 2008 will decline by more than 70 percent over the previous year.

Many European cities are not at all interested in becoming open-air museums. For example, London — as Europe’s most important financial center — would like to liven up its Victorian grandeur with a few more futuristic landmarks.

When Norman Foster placed a bombastic, egg-shaped tower in the center of the old city early in the new millennium, it kicked off a wave of modernization. For the most part, Londoners approached the update of their skyline with humor, and Foster’s skyscraper immediately earned the nickname of the “erotic gherkin.”

With plans to construct at least 20 other towers in the coming years, London is enthusiastically launching itself into the 21st century. Although few of these projects have left the drawing board, some have already acquired nicknames. One skyscraper project has been dubbed the “cheese grater”; another is the “splinter.” Others are called “head over heels,” “boomerang” and “walkie-talkie.”

But even in London, where prices had been headed steeply up for a long time, the real-estate industry is grappling with a softening market. Investment volume there is expected to decline by 30 to 40 percent in 2008, and Londoners are not accustomed to this sort of slowdown.

Almost all major projects in London are now considered highly speculative. And what about the fate of the controversial “walkie-talkie” venture? The investor won’t say.

Of course, shopping malls rarely prove to be aesthetic highlights, and architecture fans probably won’t bemoan the prediction that 40 percent fewer shopping centers than planned will be built in Great Britain over the next five years.

But the decline in new construction also affects more ambitious projects. A London architectural foundation that had commissioned British architect Zaha Hadid to build its new headquarters pulled out of the venture, citing “economic nervousness.” When stock prices fall, so does charitable giving, and the foundation relies heavily on private donors.

Although she made it clear that she was disappointed, Hadid has already moved on to other projects, for example, in Dubai and Warsaw, Poland. The modern architect has become a nomad. Like the itinerant tradesmen of the Middle Ages, architects go where the work is. A route that once may have taken them from court to court now leads from continent to continent.

Germany boasts 121,000 architects, the largest number in Europe. Although the country is considered one of the more stable markets, major urban projects — such as Hamburg’s HafenCity — are the exception. Architects are upset that there are so few competitions open to everyone and that the opportunities for young, avant-garde architects to prove themselves are few and far between.

Project cancellations, no matter how discreetly they are handled, are noticed. BMW, for example, decided to cancel plans to build a new “Designhaus,” although it now intends to “prioritize” other projects.

It has been only a year since the Federal Foundation for Building Culture was founded in Potsdam, outside Berlin, yet the new organization has already been sharply critical of the mediocrity of German architecture. Unfortunately, as the foundation’s president, Michael Braum, puts it, it’s been standard in Germany for quite a while “for owners to want everything, but for half the price.”

Distant lands, where developers plan in larger dimensions, seem seductive. Léon, Wohlhage, Wernik, a Berlin-based architecture firm, made a splash in 2007 when it won a competition with well-known competitors to design the new government district in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. The architects named their design “Tripoli Greens,” combining arabesque minarets with parklike settings. However, construction has been postponed and architect Hilde Léon speaks of “a holding pattern.”

As a rule, says Léon, she believes it is important to work in places where high-quality architecture is in demand. “Some countries simply have some catching up to do,” Léon says. At the same time, though, cooperating with controversial regions like Libya doesn’t seem to bother her.

Léon already has her sights set on the next market. It is only a matter of time, she says, before all of Africa will be “the next big thing.” In this context, the word “big” is no exaggeration. What a paradisiacal concept for architects: all that undeveloped land for what Friedrich Nietzsche called representative architecture’s “eloquence of power.”

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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