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

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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.

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

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