Sky City Fantasies

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

Before the invention of the true skyscraper, George eschewed the land-grabbing sprawl for which a disapproving Lewis Mumford later generously coined the term "romanticism of the pioneer." After observing how an egalitarian gold-panning culture in San Francisco morphed into a divided society of barons and landless workers in a mere generation, George wrote that the only just tax is one on speculation. In George's view, a plot of land left vacant in Manhattan still rises in value, because it creates an artificial land shortage that drives rents up. Thus the landlord is imposing a hidden tax on his neighbors.

To correct this, George proposed that land be taxed at its full rental value, but that anything done with the land would be tax-free. That would provide an overwhelming incentive to build ever higher. "A perfect Henry George city might look from a distance like a huge pyramid interrupted by parks" with buildings that decrease in size as they recede from the urban center, says Michael Curtis of the Henry George School in Manhattan. George's influence is far greater today in Taiwan because the godfather of that island's government, Sun Yat-sen, was an early admirer, notes Curtis.

What seems to really offend Jacobs and Johnson is the top-down nature of skyscrapers. At street level, Jacobs sees the apparently chaotic web of relationships that becomes a city's sense of self as "organized complexity," while Johnson has popularized the principle of "emergence" for the digital generation. Both ideas are to some extent reincarnations of Adam Smith's "invisible hand," the molding of a greater society from individuals acting in their own interests. Even skyscraper advocates concede that this dynamism doesn't happen in deck upon deck of fluorescent-lighted boxes.

Sketch for a new World Trade Center
illustration: Paolo Soleri
Sketch for a new World Trade Center

But what, as architect Pedersen asks, if the street could be brought into the sky? We already live a vertical existence—at Rockefeller Center one can emerge from a subway, ascend to an underground shopping and dining concourse, and then ride an elevator directly onto an exposed street-level plaza at the foot of a skyscraper. Imagine the skyscrapers linked in a cat's cradle of pedestrian or conveyor skyways that themselves house shops, and you are suddenly living in a city defined as volume, not cardinal directions.

To take one example among many, Eugene Tsui's two-mile-tall Ultima Tower would have a base more than a mile wide with acres of parkland, and he wouldn't design a single studio apartment for its million inhabitants.

"It should be as if nature grew upward. I emphasize raw forms on each floor. Let spontaneity form how people live—let them create as they would. The whole idea is not to overplan such an environment," he explains. "Landscape an area and let people create a pattern of walkways through actual use, and then pave it." He imagines that human desire for change and assimilation would lead to the seeding of ethnic neighborhoods and shifting artists' havens. A funky Williamsburg on Level 132.

Tsui advocates "evolutionary architecture," the assumption that nature's fierce trials would spawn the most efficient systems. The term also keeps him mindful of the environmental mission of his new city. Before Johnson drew on entomology to validate "emergence," Tsui took lessons from termite mounds to design the Ultima Tower with minimal materials.

Jacobs isn't impressed. "The hanging gardens of Babylon do not satisfy needs for open space. They're boring . . . and there's not enough variety," she says. Even if Tsui prevents micromanagement from turning his city into a cruise ship, where the shuffleboard deck will always be the shuffleboard deck, the temptation in such a semi-enclosed environment would be to keep things tidy. In a "real" city, we're constantly reminded of our past, if only because we so relentlessly wear through the present. Wander down side streets along the waterfront, and inevitably your feet will fall on patches where the asphalt has peeled back to reveal cobblestones, the tubercled skin of the extinct city. Would a flaneur in the Ultima Tower be rewarded with that sense of place?

Of course, perhaps the biggest obstacle to grand ventures is the cost. "It's only fair to mention that ideas like these have not been built, and for good reason. It's not as if all we need is enough hubris to go ahead," Jacobs notes. She's right today, as she would have been in 1893, when the first half of the Monadnock Building went up in Chicago—a then remarkably tall structure at 16 floors, but made of masonry. With six-foot-thick base walls, it was an economic dinosaur before its doors opened. The steel frame and elevator were already germinating the Skyscraper Age. Flash forward: At this very moment, laboratories are cooking up new materials, omnidirectional elevators, and even nanobots that might one day construct towers atom by atom.

Carbon nanotubes, cigar-shaped molecules with atoms connected in a kind of hexagonal chicken wire, are 100 times stronger than steel, at about one-sixth the weight. "Individual tubes are the strongest, meanest damned thing going," says professor Richard Smalley of Rice University, who in 1996 shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry for work that led to their creation. And theoretically, "you could grow them from Earth to the nearest star." Anticipating Clarke's Orbital Towers, Smalley imagines that rather than building upward, architects might be able to hitch a central pillar onto an orbiting satellite and "drape a skyscraper down."

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