Sky City Fantasies

For the Fallen World of September 12, Visions of a Vertical Future

In New York's last Dark Age—the late '70s—David Byrne sang as a Talking Head that he had to "find a city, find myself a city to live in." He was a Manhattanite then; he's a Manhattanite now. There probably was never a question. But today, as this city struggles to find itself after a terrorist attack, the future of the ultimate 20th-century declaration of place—the skyscraper—has fallen into doubt. Fear has hushed giddy chatter of record-setting skyscrapers from Chicago to India, and revered buildings like the Empire State have begun hollowing out as nervous tenants flee them—and some the city itself—before the other shoe drops.

Though the music, poetry, painting, discourse, and dance in which cultured New Yorkers take justified pride are rarely born in skyscrapers, we're forced to ask again what these steel, glass, and stone behemoths contribute to the life of this city. The atrocities committed by Al Qaeda magnified our awareness of the precious contents of what might appear at first as mere mountains starkly rising from the landscape. Look hard at the Chrysler Building with new eyes, and you can almost pick up the heat signatures of beating hearts—janitors from the Bronx and executives from the Upper East Side, secretaries from Staten Island and grad student temps from Elmhurst. It hits you that the spire isn't the point—skyscrapers are our most profound ingathering of human beings, the mission of the city.

Tokyo’s proposed Millennium Tower
A real, and potentially historic, threat is that fear will snuff out the first glimmerings of a new vision of skyscrapers incomprehensibly tall and massive, yet "green"—self-sustaining structures sheathed in solar cells, run through with wind turbines, recycling their water, and dispersing natural light with elaborate mirror arrays. The Ultima Tower. X-SEED 4000. The Bioclimatic Skyscraper. Sky City 1000. The Tokyo Millennium Tower. The Bionic Tower. The Hyper Tower. A whole "arcology"—architectural ecology—movement. These cities unto themselves would be home to millions of inhabitants who'd enjoy vast open-air wooded parks, giant waterfalls, and automobile-free neighborhoods high above the ground. Not biospheres to shut out a polluted Earth, but our best bet for preserving our environment from cancerous development. Hemp wearers might hate to hear it, but in terms of energy use and consumption of green space, a person living in Trump Tower is already doing the planet more good than an organic farmer in Vermont. A "Sky City" would take that truth to new heights.
Sketch for a new World Trade Center
illustration: Paolo Soleri
Sketch for a new World Trade Center

"I think proposals for cities within a single building that seem outlandish at the moment are definitely going to come to pass within the next 25 or 30 years," says architect William Pedersen, designer of the anticipated next tallest building in the world, the World Financial Center in Shanghai. Pedersen tells the Voice that the challenge "is if you can bring the street up into the sky."

The biggest dreamers are looking amazingly far through the fog of fear.

"I'm a bit worried about my Orbital Towers after September 11! However, multiple redundancy will enable them to survive—they will need that anyway to cope with the occasional asteroid," says Arthur C. Clarke of the kilometer-wide skyscrapers reaching from Earth into space, a project he envisions in his 3001 installment of the Space Odyssey series. Sir Arthur is perhaps the most colorful living futurist, having foreseen in 1945 the communications satellite and, later, notepad computers. NASA's on board with the rough concept, as it plans elevators to space to succeed dangerous rocket launches. Researchers developing robots, radically new materials, and nanotechnologies say they might foment a skyscraper revolution to blow our minds.

Right. Every artist has an opus in his head, and Sir Arthur's misfired predictions have included a few doozies. Meanwhile, Byrne isn't pining for a taller skyline. "Skyscrapers are the temples in the American religion. It is a religion that has found converts as far away as Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur, but it is a pretty empty religion at heart. Needless to say, there's a generous amount of male sexual anxiety involved as well, but don't tell that to the architects," Byrne says today, invoking the cliché of skyscrapers as cathedrals of capitalism.

But who looks at the Chrysler Building and thinks of a car company? The twin towers reflected off the night-darkened lower Hudson as the comet tail of Manhattan. "From 40 miles out at sea they would come up like spires over the horizon before you could even see the coastline. They were phenomenal," remembers F. James Wilson, chief boatswain's mate with the U.S. Coast Guard in New York. The great ones surpass their origins in a glance.

Yes, skyscrapers are loudly American. Yes, skyscrapers are arrogant. Yes, skyscrapers have the charged sexuality of blatant totemic phallicism. That's why we love them. They are architectural swing, disciplined but exuberant. The two art forms fruited in the same cities—New York and Chicago—at the same moment; Cab Calloway came to New York from Chicago in time to unleash the jitterbug in the shadow of the newly minted Chrysler and Empire State buildings. America announced a new culture to the Old World, one that couldn't be dismissed as derivative, and for decades New York and Chicago relished the spectacle as they volleyed between themselves the title of the World's Tallest Building.

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