Sky City Fantasies


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.

“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.

The base of Soleri’s new WTC
illustration: Arco Design

Still, many urban planners feel they’re sailing between the Scylla of soulless vertical gigantism in our cities and the Charybdis of suburban sprawl, with its monotony and automobile fetishism. Jane Jacobs warned against both 40 years ago in her ringing jeremiad, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. While she laments the bloodshed, she has derided the twin towers as having been “predators” that devoured public funds. Jacobs tells the Voice that skyscraper competition is “literally very childish, like children playing with blocks.”

She sees a World Trade Center that, like many skyscrapers, was insidiously dehumanizing, a corporate version of the housing project. Ideally, skyscrapers prevent glum office boxes from eating up precious acres of pedestrian commons. “They free up space on the ground for things people want and need, like flowers and trees,” comments Henry Guthard, chief engineer of the World Trade Center design for the architectural firm Yamasaki & Associates. Jacobs, though, argues the street-level plaza beneath the twin towers was a windswept absence overshadowed by stacks of anonymous cubicles.

Jacobs, who left Greenwich Village for Toronto a generation ago, wields tremendous influence still. Her arguments, coupled with security concerns and thin wallets, could add up to blander skylines. Duke University historian and engineer Henry Petroski posits that the pressure to not stand out—as a target or financial risk—could produce skylines “as flat as mesas.”

There’s a hunger for something more stirring. In posts to the grassroots, amateurs imagineered designs that yearn for the heroic.

Skyscrapers have never been just a fad. They’ve never faded to the margins—and probably won’t—because in their American way they continue a much deeper tradition of upward striving, from East Asian pagodas and the ziggurats of Mesopotamia to the pyramids of Egypt, Central America, and Angkor Wat. The last standing shard of the World Trade Center stood as morbid testament to the cultural ties between foes at ground zero: Leading the eyes to smoke and nothingness were pointed arches, a legacy of Arab culture and engineering passed on to Europe.

The symbolic power of skyscrapers to put the world on notice is obviously still potent today. Asia has famously taken up the torch, with the twin Petronas Towers reigning as the world’s tallest, albeit by a needle. They’re seconded on that continent by the Jin Mao building in Shanghai. A plan for a Korean unification railroad would boast the world’s tallest building as its golden spike, and other plans back-burnered by the recession could be revived in a few years’ time.

Skyscrapers become the face of a city to outsiders, but do they inspire residents? Would David Byrne have become a Talking Head without the towers that defined True South for Manhattan? “Down El Paso way things get pretty spread out,” he sang. “People got no idea where in the world they are./They go up north and come back south./Still got no idea where in the world they are.”

Byrne didn’t like what he saw out west, and the highway’s daughter, the Internet, is a force for decentralization again. In a Wired magazine piece, Steven Johnson, Internet journalist and author of the new Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, asserts that breaking cities into nodes might cut our losses in the event of a chemical or biological attack, or simply another explosive one. He admires the “distributed density” of the “hill towns of northern Italy.”

Johnson doesn’t advocate satellite cities of office parks, or even the “garden cities” in which last century’s New York planners dabbled. His thesis is that urban vitality can be birthed in hubs of 100,000 moderately neighborly people separated by parkland. New York started that way, in fact, and we’re seeing smaller enclaves once again come into their own as artists and immigrants get priced out of Manhattan. Painters wander the wilds of Long Island City and Williamsburg, and Asian businessmen fly into Kennedy or LaGuardia and do business in Flushing without ever leaving Queens. But Johnson places a lot of faith in technology to weave together the creativity of these myriad street lives. Besides, it’s a bit late for New York to revamp itself into vineyard villas. A single neighborhood here can exceed 100,000 inhabitants.

Even so, it takes more than an East Village to raise a Byrne. The twin towers may well have fed off subsidies, but their impact flowed far beyond rent collections. The most talented people in business wanted to be near them, if not in them. If they were trophies, it was to New York’s advantage to have such trophies, such lures, to offer. The salaries those workers took in, and the wealth they produced, poured into the city through taxes, restaurant tips to waiters who are really actors, gallery purchases, theater tickets, cash donations to nonprofits, and book sales. That all eventually gets recycled into cover charges at CBGB.

Plans for the Ultima Tower
illustration: Tsui Design and Research Inc.

Henry George, a political economist and populist who in the 19th century was twice nearly mayor of New York (Tammany Hall apparently made sure ballots in the first election wound up in the East River, and George died of natural causes days before a predicted victory in the second), would have reveled in our crowded streets, massive libraries, and especially our breathtakingly tall buildings. His landmark work, Progress and Poverty, tossed aside the squeamishness over the press of flesh with which Thoreau marked American philosophy, writing of the city, “Here are the granaries of knowledge. . . . Here intellectual activity is gathered into a focus and here springs that stimulus which is born of the collision of mind with mind.”

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.

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.”

Just don’t look for that anchor in Times Square. Though Western architects have led the vanguard in sky cities for more than a hundred years, the consensus is that such skyscraper dreams will be realized in Asia, where architects and engineers say crowding, cultural acceptance, and government backing may in this century drive humanity’s most ambitious construction. Then again, maybe Tsui will get his Ultima Tower in New York Harbor despite the misgivings of Gothamites today.

As Clarke, a transplant from Britain to Sri Lanka, says, “There is no such thing as human nature. It’s infinitely flexible!”