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Contemporary Skyscrapers Turning Nowhere into Somewhere

Stephen Graham

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1“The skyscraper is still the stuff of heroes. Superman and Superwoman can aspire to the executive floor, or even higher. The timid out-of-towner can suitably palpitate on entering the auspicious lobby. The only problem is, as a designer, how to make your tall box different from the rest.” (Peter Cook, 2012, p.9)

2November, 2014. Twenty kilometers north of the ancient city of Jeddah, on the banks on the Red Sea, lies an unprepossessing building site (Fig 1). One of countless similar sites dotted across Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, its cluster of cranes, geometric concoctions of steel girders, and busy groups of bonded South Asians workers are common sites across the region’s fast-expanding cities.

3On the margins of Jeddah, the building abuts hundreds of miles of dusty desert. Empty, hard-baked ground stretches away from the busy cranes and trucks to the sandy horizon. It’s hard to imagine that there could ever be sufficient demand from businesses, residents, tourists or investors for a super-tall tower in such a location. Certainly, anyone schooled in the traditional geographic ideas that it is intense competition for prestigious sites at the centres of large cities that drives skyscraper development would laugh at the prospect.

4And yet, by 2018, the building under construction on this site will stretch vertically upwards for over a kilometer to be – at least for a time -- the tallest skyscraper in the world. From the dusty desert floor a tapering tower of steel, concrete and aluminium will ascend skywards for fully three quarters of a mile.

5Such a realisation is even more remarkable when it is realised that this tower has actually been downsized. A combination of the 2009 financial crisis and in-depth geological excavations meant that an earlier design - designed to complete the full vertical mile to mimic Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs for “The Illinois”, a tower in Chicago in 1956 - was reduced in scale. Anchoring a major new city, like most Saudi megaprojects, the 1.1 billion euros tower is being directly driven forward by the Saudi Royal Family. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, nephew of the recently deceased King Abdullah, is Chairman of the company building the tower. At least in part, Bin Talal is clearly building ‘his’ tower - a gateway to the holy Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina - in a personal bid to out-do Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai.

Gigantic Logos

6Jeddah’s Kingdom Tower symbolises perfectly how the geographies and politics of the world’s tallest skyscrapers have been revolutionalised over the last few decades. Traditional corporate headquarter-skyscrapers centred in the global North’s finance capitals have, of course, not disappeared completely. However, processes of globalized urbanisation over the last few decades have led, in cities like Jeddah, Riyadh and Dubai, to the growth of the super-tall skyscraper as urban or national brand.

7Such structures are being brought into being by super-rich national elites as attempts to quickly manufacture sites and cities that matter, and that have a new degree of centrality, within contexts of the intense globalisation of leisure, tourism, finance, business and real-estate. “Skyscraper megalomania... is never only about attracting foreign investments,” anthropologist Aihwa Ong stresses, “but fundamentally also about an intense political desire for world recognition.” (Ong, 2011, p. 210)

8Real estate specialist William Murray puts it succinctly. “Supertall buildings are gigantic logos,” he writes. They are “brand identifiers for the countries that built them. They create a skyline, a marker and a recognizable shape that help us to remember, relate to and form positive associations about a place”.(Murray, 2012)

9Changes in the technologies used in financial and corporate services, meanwhile, have made large towers less appropriate to the headquarters of many large corporations. Many such firms now occupy lower, boxier structures in downtowns or on the edges of big cities in order to house the boxy structures of contemporary trading flows and financial services complexes.

10Both remaining and new corporate towers in the centres of New York and Chicago, meanwhile, are less and less marked as the symbols of large corporations. Indeed, in the aftermath of 9/11, such corporations have increasingly sought more anonymous real estate; their efforts to build symbolic capital now relate less and less to the building of physical structures. Many of the largest sky scraper-users in the 20th century have also been swept away by economic changes.

11“Visibility is no virtue in the late capitalist society,” writes architectural theorist Kazys Varnelis (Varnelis, 2005), perhaps over-emphasising the demise of the skyscraper as corporate symbol:

“the first outrageously tall skyscraper of the twentieth century, the 792' tall Woolworth building, completed in 1908, emptily symbolizes a chain of discount stores that closed in 1997, mainly due to competition from Wal-Mart which replaced the now-empty symbolic value of the towering corporate headquarters with the real economic utility of a computer database reputedly second in size only to that of the Pentagon.”

12In addition, some central office towers in London and New York have, in turn, now been converted to now more profitable residential use; most new towers in these cities are also residential towards built for the super-wealthy. Some skyscrapers also blend commercial and residential uses (Barton and Watts, 2013).

13Beyond the cores of older global cities, skyscraper construction has a different logic driven less by escalating land values and corporate semiology, the new skyscrapers, rather, are often material embodiments of contemporary dynamics for circulating the vast capitalist surpluses of oligarchs, oil sheikhs and global financial and super-rich elites. Since 1996, when the Petronas Towers opened in Kuala Lumpur, the tallest towers have been developed in the Middle East and Asia – the first time since the building of Europe’s Norman and Gothic cathedrals that the world’s tallest structures have not been in the West (Sudjic, 2006, p.356).

14Indeed, geographer Andrew Harris (Harris, 2014) now identifies what he sees as a ’vertical fix’ in the fast-moving political economies of capitalism. By building highly vertical structures carefully orchestrated to emerge as the centre of huge cycles of hype, spectacle, branding and advertising, the new super-tall towers work to transform complex debt, investment and speculation into lucrative real estate assets more powerfully than do other less visible or less vertical structures.

15The new towers, thus, can pretty much emerge anywhere where such surpluses become grounded within ambitious megaprojects backed by hubristic local elites. The argument, these days, is very much: “if we build it, they will come”.

Specious Greenwash

16Most arguments that the new skyscraper towers are necessary to improve urban densities, reduce sprawl, increase ‘sustainability’ and so on, are almost entirely specious.

17French urbanist Jean-Marie Huriot (ibid.) sees such discourses as little more than a smokescreen camouflaging the powerful symbolism of extreme, vertical architecture. He emphasises the much higher build and operational costs of very tall compared to conventional buildings.

18Huriot also stresses that overall urban densities are often higher in densely-built streets than in cities dotted with clusters of huge towers. The population density in Paris’s 13th arrondissement, for example - a Haussmann-style neighbourhood of classic six - or seven-storey apartment buildings built in the 19th century - is significantly higher than that in Les Olympiades, a nearby district made up of more recent 100m towers.

19Calling the new towers “deplorable symbols”, Huriot (ibid.) concludes that, beyond the camouflaging rhetoric, the main reason for their proliferation can be found simply in “the intimately linked symbolisms of performance, prestige and power.”

20Questioning the lust for height as a de facto objective of planning policy in many contemporary cities, Huriot questions the motives of the radical verticalisiation of cities in the name of ‘urbanity’ or ‘iconicity’. “One must build higher, ever higher.” he writes. “But with what aims for society?”

“To sell, to speculate, to generate profit at the expense of truly urgent social issues? These towers are nothing but deplorable symbols... Decision-makers, get your feet back on the ground and desecrate these towers and all that they symbolise!” (ibid.).

21The fact that a growing portion of the height of super-tall skyscrapers is actually so narrow that it is actually ‘vanity height’ – little wider than the lift shafts and therefore completely unlettable – adds further weight to Huriot’s arguments. If the new towers were really a response to the need to house booming populations, increase urban density or improve ‘sustainability’, why design them so that large portions of the building are little more than unused monuments to the hubris of developers or the super-rich?

22In 2013, the ArchDaily’s James Taylor-Foster calculated the proportion of new skyscrapers made up of unusable ‘vanity’ height around the world. In the U.A.E., the country with the largest proportion of vanity height, he found that, on average, fully 19% of the height of UAE skyscrapers was completely unlettable and unoccupiable. Of the combined height of the ten tallest skyscrapers in the world in 2013, moreover, fully 27% was entirely superfluous ‘vanity height’ (Taylor-Foster, 2013). Fully 85 floors of Jeddah’s 1km Kingdom Tower - to be complete in 2018 - are too narrow to be lettable in any way whatsoever.

23Such statistics powerfully reaffirm architecture critic Deyan Sudjic’s conclusion that “there is of course something ludicrously childish about the irrational urge to build high, simply for the sake of being the world’s highest” (ibid, p. 358).

24It is clear that the new super-tall towers act at key anchors within the wider construction of what Mike Davis and Dan Monck (2011) have called ‘Dreamworlds of neoliberalism’ – enclaves of largely unregulated capitalism organised around the production of speculative, fantasy landscapes for leisure, consumption, investment, finance and tourism. In a world of extending, identikit suburbs and transnational urban regions stretching to, and beyond, the horizon, the towers are engineered in ways that allow extreme verticality to signal (at least ambitions of) significance, power and centrality.

“Promissory Values [of] Geopolitical Significance”

  • 1 Currently, ‘super-tall’ skyscraper projects in Azerbaijan, China and Qatar are at various stages of (...)

25The competitive and much-hyped ‘race’ to build the tallest skyscraper only adds to the search for centrality, spectacle and symbolic capital in a struggle to evidence ‘national arrival’ on the world stage.1 The Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats, who are based in New York, calculate that, in July 2013, there were 73 ‘super-tall’ skyscrapers in the world over 400m high and 2 ‘mega-talls’ over 600m – a category that didn't even exist a few years ago. Widespread debate, research and design efforts are already underway, moreover, for the next generation of ‘ultra-talls’: towers higher than 1,6 kilometers (Davids, 2012; Malott et al, 2015).

26It is important not to neglect the political aspects of contemporary skyscraper development. Aihwa Ong emphasises the ways in which the building of spectacular vertical megaprojects can be seen as part of an effort by Asian and Middle Eastern states and their associated elites to attract speculative capital whilst asserting a self-assured sovereignty in the face of extremely mobile flows of finance, people and imagery.

  • 2 LSE urbanist Marijn Nieuwenhuis, when discussing the obsession with skyscraper building in contempo (...)

27The frenzied building of spectacular structures, Ong stresses, works to leverage real-estate values whilst also raising hopes amongst many local stakeholders about urban and national futures. It helps build a world where competition between rival cities and states becomes indexed and fetishised through the relative size and scale of vertical urban forms and spectacles.2

28Here, as with the skyscrapers on Chicago and New York in the late 19th century, mega-tall buildings gain their power through their inspiration of wonder, awe and terror: a technological sublime that makes it easy to connect them in some putative vertical ‘race’ with other similar structures around the world (Nye, 1996). “This is the sublime terror of the abyss and the peak,” business theorist Martin Parker writes “Of elevation and descent.” (Parker, 2015, p. 217-234. 218).

29Above all, the structures work to offer what Ong calls “promissory values about the geopolitical significance of the city and the country” within the changing geo-economics and geopolitics of global capitalism. In other words, “a huge tower makes nowhere suddenly into somewhere.” (Sudjic, ibid, p. 358).

  • 3 Fully160 floors of the Kingdom tower’s total of 200 will be used for apartments, hotels and viewing (...)

30In such a context, the new super-tall towers tend only to house little or no commercial space. Much more important are hotels, restaurants, leisure attractions, viewing platforms and extremely expensive super-luxury apartments from which owners and investors can look over their new domains3. In 2000, only 5 of the world’s 20 tallest skyscrapers were mixed use; by 2020, only five won’t be (Risen, 2013). Such a shift symbolizes and reflects wider transformation of many cities from landscapes of production to centres of consumption and leisure.

31Crucial to the success of the new towers is the way the buildings themselves become the focus for a myriad of symbols and promotion and marketing drives to represent the places that they spring from – and associated commercial and elite capital.

32“The symbolic function of the iconic skyscraper in the contemporary metropolis is to define the presence of the city on a world stage,” UCL’s Michele Acuto emphasises. Importantly, too, Acuto stresses how the towers emerge as dominating of aspiration and status locally; as symbols of the ‘aspiration of local political, planning and real-estate elites on the world stage; and, as short-hands to signal and represent the locality in myriad of adverts, product placements and tourist and investment drives.

33Also important to the rise of the new towers are the complex ways in which their ascent is lauded by a myriad of supine, superficial and boosterist media and architectural commentary. These endlessly reinforce discursive formulations simplistically equating vertical height with power, wealth, importance, quality or modernity.

34"Our vision for Kingdom Tower is one that represents the new spirit of Saudi Arabia," Adrian Smith, one of the Tower’s Chicago-based architects, and a key designer as part of the SOM practice, of super-tall towers across the world, stated in 2011. Not surprisingly side-stepping the House of Saud’s truly execrable record of human rights abuses and its global promotion of terrorist violence, Smith (2011) continues:

“This tower symbolizes the Kingdom as an important global business and cultural leader, and demonstrates the strength and creative vision of its people... With its slender, subtly asymmetrical massing, the tower evokes a bundle of leaves shooting up from the ground—a burst of new life that heralds more growth all around it. We're thrilled to be working with His Highness [Prince Alwaleed bin Talal] and Jeddah Economic Company to help define this path for the Kingdom."

  • 4 Excluding that below ground in mines; see the ‘Mine’ essay.

35Deep vertical linguistic traditions and metaphors are intrinsic to such boosterism. “Saudi shoots for the stars, the” U.A.E.’s National newspaper gushed in its reportage of the Kingdom Tower (Barnard, 2013). Design Middle East magazine, meanwhile, analyse excitedly the ‘lift off’ of the Tower’s 65 super-fast elevators, five of which will be double decked, made by the Finnish company Kone, and tested in their test facility in a mineshaft near Helsinki (Ames, 2015). The tower’s 59 new elevators, will, CNN gushed, allow “high-rolling residents [to] be able to communicate directly with the lifts through their phones.”(CNN, 2014) Some will reach ‘the world’s highest liveable floor’ in only 52 seconds (a speed of 35 km/hour). Others will race 660 metres uninterrupted to the observation deck – the world’s highest elevator single rise.4 Such a leap is possible only because of Kone’s new carbon-fibre elevator ropes.

Desperate Iconicity

36To understand the contemporary fetish for ‘iconic’ tall towers and their super-fast elevators from a broader perspective, geographer Maria Kaika draws important links between the hypermobility of the world’s corporate and super-rich elites and the often craven efforts to brand new skyscrapers as easily identifiable everyday objects. Here, London’s new range of skyscrapers – nicknamed the ‘Gherkin’, the ‘Shard’, the ‘Cheesegrater’, the ‘Walkie Talkie’, and so on – offer especially powerful examples.

37Kaika calls such structures, appropriately, ‘autistic icons’ or ‘serial objects.’ She links their proliferation to the hypermobility of global elites, and the ways in which such groups no longer tend to link their identities and financial fortunes to growth coalitions within one specific city (as did the likes of Guggenheim or Rockefeller in the 20th century). Instead, those in control of processes of neoliberal globalization now seek to operate within networks of key global cities whilst not being limited – or, indeed, responsible - to one of them.

38By developing strings of obviously identifiable toy-like skycrapers, which quickly become crassly packaged as ‘iconic’, the so-called ‘transnational capitalist class’ (Sklair, 2001, p.5-6) of urban politicians, occupiers, developers, rentiers and investors benefit from the construction of extremely lucrative ‘premium’ products that saturate global media circuits. Efforts to develop urban design and planning policies to shape the rapid verticalisation of London’s skylines have had some success been able to protect a few historical vistas. However, they have been unable to prevent the sense of a vertical free for all in unprotected urban spaces beyond, encouraged by a nexus connecting national and mayoral encouragement with a huge bubble speculative financial investment (Appert, 2011).

39Local planners and politicians, Kaika emphasises, in turn support the increased development of super-tall structures as necessary so that they are ‘not left behind’ in some putative ‘race’ between global cities. In global financial cities like London, the stress falls on the ways in which the new buildings will ostensibly become emblematic of the status of their cities as powerful and instantly recognizable ‘global’ hubs. Again, the naïve equation of height with economic power, and the desperation, as real estate economist William Murray puts it, to “stand out in a congested landscape”, runs riot (Murray, 2012).

Figure 2: Cheese-graters and talkie walkies in the London’skyline

Figure 2: Cheese-graters and talkie walkies in the London’skyline

Manuel Appert, 2014

40Caught in the pincer between these forces, and the growing privatism and elitism of many urban planning regimes in neoliberalising cities, the city’s resident population, Kaika argues, is often left to deal with arrogant landscapes of power made up of strings of poorly designed, highly secured and unbreachable “objects of desire” that are inaccessible to all but the elite or wealthy few (Kaika, 2011, p. 968- 992, p. 969-984).

41To compound matters still further, concerns about ‘security’ are now widely justified to fortify and remove the new skyscrapers – with their interior gardens, expensive roof top restaurants and penthouse terraces – ever-further from the wider public and the wider city. Such a process only aids the enigma of extreme exclusivity that surrounds the new towers. In London, ‘public spaces’ around the base of the new towers are actually highly secured and privatised plazas, patrolled by private security forces who prohibit even photography.

42“Even if the next skyscraper to be erected in London's or New York's skyline does not relate to anything that Londoners or New Yorkers can identify with,” Kaika emphasises, “the city's public is nevertheless bombarded by so many expert opinions on its significance, sublime design, and aesthetic value.” Once the tower is raised to the sky, all that remains for London’s citizens, she continues, is to “`kneel down' and admire it, hoping that the subsequent ritualisation of the building into the city's everyday life might justify this belief.”

43Worse still, the hyping of new towers often works to over-ride already squeezed traditions of democratic accountability in urban planning. Maria Kaika shows how the public enquiry over the ‘Walkie Talkie’ tower completed in late 2014 in central London – and memorably described by the Guardian as “bloated, inelegant an thuggish” (Moore, 2015) - was dominated by promises that the structure would emerge as ‘iconic’. Francis Golding from the developer Land Securities exemplified this attitude when he prophesised that: ``[the] ‘Walkie Talkie’ [will] become as iconic a part of London's skyline as the Swiss Re ‘Gherkin’.” (Clift, 2007)

44Renzo Piano’s ‘Shard’ on London’s South Bank, meanwhile, was widely lionized within messianic discourses about the future of London before it was even constructed. ``Something ... significant [is] simmering south of the Thames,” gushed the Independent. “Something that transcends iconic architectural statements, and is poised to deliver a key step-change in vertical city planning. We're talking size, and we're talking clumps. The Shard, designed by the brilliant Renzo Piano, may prove to be a building of the highest quality and drama...'' (11 February, p. 12).

45London’s emerging skyline, violently and rapidly reshaped by a growing number of apparently arbitrary shapes jutting into the sky, lends itself to parody. “Oh, man, and just look at London’s privatised skyline”, urges journalist Ian Martin, “It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so cartoonishly tragic. This one looks like a Nespresso machine. And that one, a cigar, is it? Potato? Full nappy? The utter capitulation of London’s planning system in the face of serious money is detectable right there in that infantile, random collection of improbable sex toys poking gormlessly into the privatised air.” (Martin, 2015)

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Notes

1 Currently, ‘super-tall’ skyscraper projects in Azerbaijan, China and Qatar are at various stages of development in the struggle to top Dubai's Burj Khalifa’s current record of 830m. They may even surpass the height of 1km Jeddah’s Kingdom tower. See Aihwa Ong, ‘Hyperbuilding’, ibid.

2 LSE urbanist Marijn Nieuwenhuis, when discussing the obsession with skyscraper building in contemporary China with a architect academic in Hong Kong, was told the story of Chinese tourists visiting neighbouring Thailand. “Visiting Chinese tourists disappointingly complain that the buildings there are not high enough, not modern enough” he was told. Nieuwenhuis, 24 April 2014.

3 Fully160 floors of the Kingdom tower’s total of 200 will be used for apartments, hotels and viewing platforms; the tower’s largest penthouse will have its own private exterior gardens 3,000ft up in the air.

4 Excluding that below ground in mines; see the ‘Mine’ essay.

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Stephen Graham, « Contemporary Skyscrapers Turning Nowhere into Somewhere », Géocarrefour [En ligne], 91/2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2017, consulté le 29 juin 2017. URL : http://geocarrefour.revues.org/10129 ; DOI : 10.4000/geocarrefour.10129

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Stephen Graham

Newcastle University Architecture Landscape and Planning steve.graham@ncl.ac.uk

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