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Tall Buildings

Tall Buildings

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Published by Bernhard Blauel

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Published by: Bernhard Blauel on Jul 31, 2011
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Passionate about tall buildings

Dinner talk at the Maverick Club, London on Wednesday, 1 April 1998 by Bernhard Blauel

Niagara Falls and the Eiffel Tower have one thing in common: they touch on a sense in the human perception, which is eternally curious about height. Man wanted to overcome the forces of gravity long before aeronautical transport became a way of life. In the Greek mythology Icarus could not suppress his desire to reach out to the sun until his flight came to an abrupt end when the heat melted his waxen wings. The Pharaohs aimed to elevate the spirits of their dead with buildings that reached heights not seen before. Anyone who climbed Cheopʼs Pyramid will have felt the exhilarating tingle when after a long climb a breathtaking view of 360 degrees unfolds past the last step. But only since the end of the 18th century after the discovery of manufacturing cast and wrought iron in Britainʼs Black Country has it been possible to build manmade structures with footprints considerably smaller than their height. The ratio of height to plot size could be further increased with the introduction of steel skeletoned structures using cold-rolled columns or the combination of mild steel with concrete. These revolutionary techniques coincided with Manhattanʼs ever-growing demand to intensify premium sites from the turn of the century onwards. Airspace became a marketable commodity and was traded to overcome restrictions of density policies. It resulted in the construction of some of the most confident buildings of our times. Curiously, when I moved to London in the mid seventies, attracted by the hot bed of architectural debate, I discovered to my surprise that the then new Centre Point building on Oxford Street was not just faced with vacancy that was to last a decade due to the recessionary market. Worse, the thirty five-storey tower was by populist consent branded the greedy developerʼs monument. To me it seemed to be the appropriate response to Londonʼs growing importance as a modern international centre. In my fantasy I started to identify suitable sites and began filling the gaps left in the skyline between New Zealand House at Haymarket, the Hilton on Park Lane, Sir Basil Spenceʼs thirty storey Household Cavalry Barracks on Hyde Park, Ronald Wardʼs Millbank Tower next to the Tate which produces elegant shimmering reflections through itʼs concave and convex elevations and then across to the Barbican in the East and Trellick Tower in the West. “No”, says the historian, “they rob us of the illusion to be in the countryside when looking across Hyde Park”. Precisely, I reply, why be in London if not for its urbaneness. “Distasteful”, says the sociologist, “they provoke the lowest instincts in human behaviour pointing to lifts which smell of piss”. Not much different to magic Soho, I reply. Some will forever love to bemoan our times, but steel, glass and height is what our future environment is made of. No matter how hard the killjoys try, we are off to live a life that reflects all our abilities. Only with practice will we master the art of turning new forms of our environment into successful buildings. Only when we begin to admit to the changing patterns of our urban lives will we be ready to adopt appropriate social behaviours to match. Skyscrapers are the envelopes of a new way of life. Their form is secondary to their function; they are appropriations of space and light, facilitators of social interaction. Virtual communication will dramatically slow down our requirements for space and yet the demand for real physical office environments is on the increase. Tall buildings are the logical development of an expanding urban fabric. World centres, which cannot provide infra structure and space requirements of the market will be overtaken by those who can. Next time your kids want a miniature Eiffel Tower in a snowstorm flask or a model set of the Empire State Building, tell them to go for the real article.

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