Book Review: Under the Skin

By Michael Webb

Performative Skyscraper: Tall Building Design Now. Scott Johnson. Balcony Press, $45.

The wow! factor was there from the start. We have all gazed upwards in awe. For centuries, Gothic spires dominated the city skyline and then, thanks to the invention of the steel frame, elevators, and several other key advances in building technology, office towers outreached them, and the competition to build ever higher is as lively as it was a hundred years ago, when the Woolworth palazzo broke the record. In his second book on the high-rise, Scott Johnson moves beyond height and structure, to review ways in which skyscrapers can perform better and make a positive contribution to the environment.

In five thematic chapters, he uses case studies to show how radical developments in glass and other materials, shading devices, and novel configurations have reduced the carbon footprint of tall buildings and made them better neighbors. His examples are primarily located in Asia and Europe; very few have been built in the country that invented the skyscraper and pioneered all the major advances for the first 80 years. US developers are unwilling to invest in sustainability, and archaic regulations hamper innovation. That’s why Johnson Fain and other top American firms are now doing their best work overseas.

The book’s title is awkward, but Johnson has a rare talent for explaining complex issues in simple language. “…architects have always been working parametrically, even without computers, ” he  writes. “… the computer did not invent parametric design, nor did it redefine architecture or the profession. It has provided a valuable tool that enables architects to design and construct innovative buildings with more exacting qualitative and quantitative conditions.” His text is a wake-up call to architects who pursue form for its own sake, to act responsibly and make more productive use of the tools and materials at their disposal. For instance, office towers are fully occupied for no more than 10 per cent of the time, and they could be designed to generate power for the city when they are not in use. Nothing prevents such an advance but the Neanderthals who block every reform, and the myopic profiteers who dominate the market.

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