a tall building bible for urbanists

Recent reports and coverage show that the skyscraper is very much alive in the post-9/11 world, despite recession and lowrise alternatives to modern urban development.   Hence the timely release of consulting engineer Kate Ascher’s new book, The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (Penguin Press, 2011), a remarkably plain-language reexamination of tall buildings in a sustainability-conscious age.

Ascher previously profiled the built environment, on a broader, more horizontal basis.  In The Works, in 2005, she examined New York City infrastructure in layperson’s terms, with similar, graphically rich precision.

Now, with the assumption that skyscrapers are both urban building blocks and small cities in themselves, she provides a necessary primer on the hows and whys of contained vertical settlement amid an otherwise horizontal landscape.

A telling hint from the outset:  The table of contents is a “directory” and the chapters display in reverse order, as if building floors, ascending, in elevator fashion, from introduction, through elements of constructability, function, maintenance, sustainability—and topping off with a look to the future.

The book is a remarkable confluence of coffee table display, children’s book fascination, and quick study fact-finding.

According to a reviewer, Ascher followed inspiration from David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work.  The Macaulay-like show and tell style predominates—but for grownups—as Dave Banks notes in Wired.

Full of color diagrams, perspectives and narrative detail, factoids abound.  Topics range from superstructure to building elements (e.g. glass, skin and steel), and include corollary systems (e.g. elevators, air conditioning, safety, fire prevention and energy conservation).

Among the learning: Ascher expects that Dubai’s Burj Khalifa will remain the world’s tallest building for a decade or more.  Yet, the last chapter predicts more of the same “supertall” examples, such as China’s pending, 121-story Shanghai Tower.

After summarizing approaches to reduced environmental footprint and diverse tower shapes, a last section, entitled “How Will We Live?”, entices the urbanist with predictions of the further evolution of mixed-use skyscrapers.

Consider, for instance, the 750,000 inhabitants of the visioned Shimizu Pyramid, a mega-structure standing over piers in Tokyo Bay, with miles of interconnected tunnels below.

While not entirely devoid of context and backdrop, Ascher’s vertical approach in her 2011 effort is more building-specific than citywide.  She glosses over history, regulation and interdisciplinary perspective in favor of design, construction and long-term site maintenance.

One compelling diagram illustrates the basics of floor-area ratio through a comparison of a 1.3 million square foot mixed-use skyscraper versus the same land use spread over a suburban setting.  I would have enjoyed more of such contrasts—about urban form as a whole—and the interrelationship of buildings, streets, blocks and transportation.

But, in fairness, this broader view is not Ascher’s premise, and my preference actually contrasts with Ascher’s core purpose of educating readers, through robust illustration, about the basic wonders and challenges of building tall.

While some other reviewers are in a quandary about the book’s intended audience, I have little doubt that Ascher has created a laudable, one-stop summary that goes beyond lists and photographs of tall buildings. and gives the rich grounding in vertical basics that all students of cities both need and deserve.

Book cover reproduction courtesy of Penguin Press. Building image composed by the author.

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