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My Conversation with Andrés Duany: An Ardent Critic of the Skyscraper Flies into a Rage about the Asian Skyscraper Boom

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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TWIN PEAK: Dubai's Burj Khalifa is nearly the same height as the destroyed Twin Towers stacked on top of each other. Image: IWAN BAAN

In reporting my story on the recent history and future of the skyscraper for the September issue of Scientific American, I thought it would be interesting to speak with the architect and urban planner Andrés Duany, an outspoken critic of tall buildings. Though Duany is not a celebrity, like “starchitects” Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid, he is one of the most influential figures in his profession, the de facto leader of the New Urbanist movement, which promotes town planning principals that privilege pedestrians and are environmentally sustainable. With his partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, he is responsible for Seaside, the picturesque Florida town made famous in the Jim Carrey film The Truman Show.

I spoke to Duany while he was caught in a Miami traffic jam, which may, at least in part, explain the sense of antagonism I felt from the very beginning of our conversation. Duany finds the current skyscraper boom to be an almost personal affront, and rejects outright the arguments others make in their favor. “There’s an argument for density. There’s an argument for diverse neighborhood structure that supports transit and that is self-sustaining. But there’s not an argument for tall buildings that need elevators,” he recounts.

Duany is not convinced by the sustainability claims made for even the most technologically advanced skyscrapers, and is dismissive of the idea that a tall building can generate a significant portion of its own power. “It will operate only the elevator buttons. Maybe the hallway lighting,” he said. (In fact, New York’s Bank of America Tower, the first skyscraper to achieve the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum rating, and a building highlighted in my feature in the September issue, generates the energy for much of its own air conditioning.)

For Duany, however, the advanced technologies that sophisticated new towers rely on are actually a point weakness. “It requires an extraordinary degree of civilization to run a high rise. Anything goes wrong, a valve goes wrong, and the whole thing is in meltdown. It’s very different from a house,” he says.

I put Duany’s arguments to Les Robinson, who is widely considered the world’s preeminent structural engineer of skyscrapers. Predictably, he disagrees. “The tall building has the advantage of higher level expertise in all fields,” he says. Though elevators may produce anxiety, for example, they are statistically a much safer means of travel through a building than stairs. Skyscrapers, as well, are more likely to have sprinkler systems to fight fires, which are the single greatest danger to buildings of all sizes. Even in the event of an earthquake, well-designed skyscrapers can be considerably safer than smaller buildings, because their period of vibration is so long. (This was borne out during the devastating Japanese earthquakes this past March; skyscrapers there performed remarkably well.)

Duany became particularly impassioned when our discussion turned to the explosion of skyscraper building in Asia, a trend driven at least in part by a massive migration from rural to urban areas. (According to the McKinsey Global Institute, some 350 million people will crowd into China’s cities by 2025.) This shift has prompted the wholesale destruction of historic areas and a great deal of shoddy tall-building construction.

“It’s a fantastic cruelty that’s being perpetrated on the people. It’s a fraud and a cruelty,” Duany says. “They’re destroying their neighborhoods for real-estate speculation. It absolutely breaks my heart.”

The situation can be attributed to various factors, including endemic corruption and authoritarian government that precludes open criticism. Duany, agitated from the beginning of our conversation, grew even more splenetic, and seemed to blame the victims for their own predicament. “You can make the Asians do anything,” Duany said. He then added, “There is no comparison between an Asian and an American situation. They will do anything they are told.”

Whether Duany has valid points about the tall building is debatable. That China has become ascendant in the field of skyscraper construction is not. Last year, 21 buildings over 200 meters in height were completed there, more than any other country in the world.

Mark Lamster About the Author: Mark Lamster is an architectural historian and critic, presently at work on a biography of the late architect Philip Johnson, to be published by Little, Brown. He is the author of numerous books, and writes a regular column for the website designobserver. Follow on Twitter @marklamster.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. Asian Problem Indeed | citylab blog 10:42 pm 08/23/2011

    [...] me most about this, it’s blatant racism, the complete lack of outrage among urbanists or that Scientific American chose to edit the racism out of Duany’s statements and thus presented his arguments in an [...]

    Link to this
  2. 2. My Conversation with Andrés Duany: An Ardent Critic of the Skyscraper Flies into a Rage about the Asian Skyscraper Boom « UrbanVista 8:27 am 08/25/2011

    [...] By Mark Lamster [...]

    Link to this
  3. 3. Phillyguy 9:05 am 08/25/2011

    The bitch probably lost out on a major project in Asia. This sore loser should try to peddling his hack work in Cuba then!
    Maybe he got a bad fortune cookie when he went to one of their apartments.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Venustas 8:47 pm 09/16/2011

    Dear Mark,

    You say, “I put Duany’s arguments to Les Robinson, who is widely considered the world’s preeminent structural engineer of skyscrapers. Predictably, he disagrees. ‘The tall building has the advantage of higher level expertise in all fields,’ he says.”

    I don’t see that that contradicts anything Duany says. It could go along with “It requires an extraordinary degree of civilization to run a high rise.” And Robinson, of course, is not a disinterested observer. He’s defending his professional turf.

    You also say, “Skyscrapers, as well, are more likely to have sprinkler systems to fight fires, which are the single greatest danger to buildings of all sizes.” The 150-year-old, 6-story building I’m sitting in is sprinkled, which the international building code requires for many forms of new and rehabbed low-rise construction. Note that I’m not saying towers are more dangerous, which really is not the gist of Duany’s argument.

    Again, you imply you’re disagreeing, but the disagreements you spell out don’t amount to much.

    “Duany is not convinced by the sustainability claims made for even the most technologically advanced skyscrapers, and is dismissive of the idea that a tall building can generate a significant portion of its own power,” you write. “‘It will operate only the elevator buttons. Maybe the hallway lighting,’ he said.”

    I’ve known you to use sarcasm too. And your response seems to be better for Duany’s side. “In fact, New York’s Bank of America Tower, the first skyscraper to achieve the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum rating, and a building highlighted in my feature in the September issue, generates the energy for much of its own air conditioning.”

    MUCH of it’s own AC? That’s the poster boy for LEED towers? What WILL they think of next?

    Two points: first, the B of A tower is not sustainable. Its glass skin required an enormous amount of energy to make, and it does not have the R value of a thicker, less expensive wall. It’s also a multi-layer invention that uses chemicals in the inner layers to overcome acting like glass (a bad thing), and these chemicals have a short shelf life. So in the not too distant future, this high embodied energy wall will have to be thrown away. The building nevertheless gets a platinum rating, because LEED is an additive point system that does not subtract points for things like energy-wasting curtain walls.

    Someone who’s been outspoken about all this is Ken Shuttleworth, a former partner at Norman Foster & Partners who was in charge of some of the important towers.

    Second, as a born and bred New Yorker, I like towers more than many, but here’s a pretty good discussion of some of their problems by Michael Mehaffy in the New Urban News: http://newurbannetwork.com/news-opinion/blogs/michael-mehaffy/14138/more-low-down-tall-buildings

    John

    Link to this
  5. 5. Asian Problem Indeed | citylab 7:25 pm 08/13/2012

    [...] me most about this, it’s blatant racism, the complete lack of outrage among urbanists or that Scientific American chose to edit the racism out of Duany’s statements and thus presented his arguments in an [...]

    Link to this

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