(This interview was part of an article by Daniel García Casillas for syndication within Metro’s newspapers, and it has appeared in editions from Santiago to Montreal)
What the benefits of high buildings for a city?
The denser our cities, the less their per capita carbon footprint. A spread-out city like Houston has way higher energy costs than say Hong Kong or London, starting with transport.
And dense cities create more social interaction, which is good for innovation, creation, and breaking down rural prejudices.
Plus, we don’t burn up the limited resource of countryside by building on it. High-rise is a way to increase density- but it’s not the only way. Hong Kong is super-dense, but Paris is high-density too, and skyscrapers have been banned there until recently.
What are the negative ramifications of erecting tall buildings?
We lose history and we lose community. If skyscrapers are not limited, developers maximise profits per square metre far more than with medium-rise. This increases the pressures on heritage buildings and traditional neighbourhoods. For example, many fine buildings were lost building up Manhattan, and nowadays millions are getting displaced from (for example) Chinese hutongs.
Residential high-rise is also associated with social apartheid. In the mid twentieth century, they were like concentration camps for the poor (think Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis, for example), nowadays they are exclusionist enclaves for the super-rich (think of the new 57th Street towers in New York)
What do the skyscraper represent to society? Why are they so popular?
To corporations, cities and states, they represent power and status. There is a penis-envy dynamic in the way some places (Gulf states, China) and developers (Trump, say) compete for height.
For super-rich penthouse occupants and for corporate execs in high-level boardrooms, there is the God-like feeling of looking down on everything.
But there can also be incredible beauty that makes cities exciting and for everyone to share- New York’s classic skyscrapers did that, and buildings like London’s Shard do that now.
Is it advisable to work or live in such high places?
Yes, it’s great. But skyscrapers’ fortunes can change. Some exclusive high-rise may become future slums. Some offices become obsolete.
As long as society is stable, and there is electricity to run elevators, skyscrapers will be desirable. That may not be forever, though.
Torre David in Caracas was to be a bank HQ, but until recently, it became a poor but vibrant community without electricity. Even so, I’ll bet it was exciting to be there!
What is your opinion about The Kingdom Tower in Jeddah that will rise at least 1,000 metres into the Saudi Arabian sky? Is it too high?
It’s un-necessary, the height is pure vanity. It’s a fantastic and brilliant design by Adrian Smith, but it is a sign of Saudi Arabia’s schizophrenia in simultaneously trying to be super-modern and maintaining a violent, anti-human religious regime. And it copies Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which is a lot more fun and is in a far cooler place. In less it may well be an abandoned ruin.
How much higher can our cities’ skyscrapers will go in the future?
The best skyscraper architect in the world, Adrian Smith, reckons a mile or more (1600m+).