In an Age of Climate Change Should we build Skyscrapers?

San Francisco: Center / Periphery

Tall buildings are a phenomenon of capitalism created to concentrate capital at the city center. They set up the clear center/periphery of capitalist cities with the tallest of buildings being in the central ‘Financial District’ and smaller buildings on the periphery of the city. They follow the laws of speculative development built to create wealth. Functional use is an afterthought. Non-capitalist functions are pushed it to the periphery: working class housing, industry, and agriculture. High-rise buildings are designed first, then tenants and functional uses are defined later. ‘Build it and they will come’ is the motto.

Skyscrapers function as monuments to capitalism, colonialism, and empire. They set up a monument at the center of the ‘financial district’ from which the rest of the city is the periphery. This sets up a clear hierarchy of importance with capital accumulation being the most important. All other functions in the city support the skyscraper: transportation, energy, housing, and infrastructure.

To design sustainable tall buildings it is imperative to provide performance-based building standards where energy consumption can be modeled and tested. Western countries are in the process of defining codes and standards for their energy consumption. As these laws become more stringent high-rise buildings will be slowly phased out as the cost of construction will make speculative development impossible. American cities are designing for a post-capitalist, post-industrial, post-modern urban environment. Skyscrapers will be difficult to build in such an environment. Due to climate activism the age of the American skyscraper is coming to an end.

A greater problem is building tall buildings in undeveloped countries. The purpose of skyscrapers is to centralized capital in the form of space in the center of a city. Undeveloped countries do not have capital concentrations and no need for tall buildings. Yet, to be seen as ‘Modern’ undeveloped countries use tall buildings as a status symbol that represents capitalism, Modernity, technology, and progress. Tall buildings are not built for a functional purpose, but rather as iconic monuments that represent the hopes and aspirations of the city and nation. As a result, these buildings are not sustainable, and create all the negative features of capitalism, while providing none of the benefits.

Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) and the Burj Khalifa

A prime example of building skyscrapers in undeveloped countries is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Built in 2010 the Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest skyscraper at 2,722 feet, or over half a mile, and 162 stories. It cost approximately 1.5 billion dollars U.S. It is connected to the world’s largest shopping mall the Dubai Mall consisting of over 3 million square feet. It is encircled by a newly designed city of urban sprawl surrounded by a desert. The prototype of the city seems to have been Los Angles, a city of vast urban sprawl designed around the automobile. Sustainable development in undeveloped countries should follow ‘sustainable’ practices, and not follow capitalist prototypes of ‘Modern’ industrial cities. We live in a post-industrial world and need new urban typographies.

The Burj Khalifa was designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) at one point the largest architecture firm in the United States. The firm has designed many other skyscrapers in the U.S. and they have transported this building typology to undeveloped countries seeking to grow their economy. The form Burj Khalifa is based on the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower) where the floor plates step back as the building increases in height. The Sears Tower is 1,450 feet 110-story building in Chicago built in 1973. Comparing their massing shows the Sears tower is inherently functional as an office building. The Burj Khalifa’s massing makes it long and slender, elegant as a monument, but inherently unfunctional.

The Burj Khalifa is built from reinforced concrete, steel, and aluminum. All materials that cause vast amounts of CO2 output into the atmosphere. Together the concrete and reinforcing the building produced almost half a billion pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. Combined with the aluminum, glass, and other steel it is conceivable that the building emitted over a billion pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere in its construction.

Although the world’s tallest building should have the most advanced infrastructure, it is not connected to the municipal water treatment system, rather sewerage is trucked out of the city. The 1.5-billion-dollar building does not have a sewerage system! Its wastewater is transported by trucks to a wastewater treatment facility outside the city! Not only is the Burj Khalifa’s wastewater not connected to city sewage, but all the large buildings in Dubai also lack wastewater infrastructure. The city’s skyscrapers give the impression of a modern industrialized city, but in fact use undeveloped primitive city infrastructure. It has been estimated that Dubai’s skyscrapers may produce 15 tons of wastewater and excrement a day. If a tall building does not have basic infrastructure like wastewater, it is not ‘sustainable’ no mater how much energy savings methods used.

Skyscrapers and tall buildings are not needed from a functional point of view in undeveloped countries and are vastly unsustainable. Architects and planners in developed nations need to stop reproducing the American skyscraper in undeveloped countries around the world, and instead focus on sustainable development strategies. Instead of monuments to capitalism and Modernity, perhaps viable and sustainable infrastructure should be built. It is unethical for architecture firms from the developed world to reproduce capitalist-Modern building typologies in undeveloped countries seeking to develop into Modern cities. Such typologies are unsustainable and should be abandoned.

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Architect writing about environmental design in an age of climate change.

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Jaime Roberts

Jaime Roberts

Architect writing about environmental design in an age of climate change.

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