The Tall Building Geographically Reconsidered

Two paper sessions at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, 7 to 11 March 2006, Chicago, IL

Session conveners: Jane M. Jacobs and Ignaz Strebel, AHRC Highrise Project, Institute of Geography, The University of Edinburgh, Drummond Street, Edinburgh EH8 9XP (Scotland, UK).

High-rise photography 2005

High-rise photography 2005

High-rise photography 2005

Images: © The Highrise Project


The tall building has been subject to consideration (and reconsideration) by commentators from a range of academic and non-academic frames. This session showcases current geographical scholarship on the fortunes, past and present, of this specific built form, be it a commercial skyscraper or residential highrise. It is over a century since Louis Sullivan’s essay entitle ‘The Tall Office Building Architecturally Considered’ was published in Lippincott’s (1896). French urban geographer, Jean Gottmann, pursued similar questions when he asked in the pages of Geographical Review (1966), ‘why the skyscraper?’. This tradition of skyscraper scholarship is shadowed by the vast commentary – academic, political and populist – generated by the poor cousin of the skyscraper, the residential highrise or tower block. This session advances this tradition of scholarship in critical new directions, at a moment when there is not only a ‘real world’ imperative – tall and supertall buildings are proliferating in a range of settings as never before – but also the theoretical inspiration offered by the convergence between geography and the socio-technical concerns of science and technology studies

Session one: The Tall Building Geographically Reconsidered I

Spaces of Empire? American Commercial Imperialism and International Tall Building Construction at the Turn of the 20thCentury by Mona Domosh, Dartmouth College, Hanover

That the most significant attack on the United States in recent history occurred in the center of the nation’s largest city, at the site of its most symbolic buildings, is not surprising. Toppling an empire has historically meant capturing its heart, the axis mundi. What might come as more of a surprise is the duration of that empire. By most accounts, New York has been the center of an international trading and financial world since the last quarter of the 19thcentury.  And although this empire differed in some fundamental ways from the United States’ contemporary status as the dominant world power, it too was forcefully expressed in the city’s iconography. For example, the tallest building in New York in 1908 was the 41 storey Singer Building. The building housed the corporate headquarters for Singer Sewing Machine Company, a company that by 1880 was already selling more than half of its products overseas, and that engaged in building similarly spectacular buildings throughout its “empire.” In this paper, I explore the relationships – economic, architectural, discursive – between the tall buildings constructed for international companies in New York City, the “heart of empire,” and those built on the “frontier of empire” at the turn of the 20thcentury.

How Tall Buildings Replicate: The Singapore Highrise and Transnational Architectural Knowledge Flows by Paul Anderson, University of Edinburgh

This paper contributes to recent geographical rethinking on architecture and tall buildings by investigating how tall buildings replicate across time and space. It takes the residential highrise, a ubiquitous global form, and examines how this built form becomes replicated and sustained in multiple locales. Specifically, I examine a transnational architectural flow associated with the rise of the residential highrise in Singapore, and contributes to my wider research on the transnational circulation of modernist architectural knowledges and housing philosophies that flowed between Europe, Singapore and Australia, 1950 – 1975. Australian universities educated and trained a vast majority of the Singapore Housing and Development Board (HDB) architects, and acted as clearing houses for modernist and architectural knowledges and mass housing philosophies from Europe. The aim of this paper is to take this transnational flow of architectural knowledge and examine how the highrise, and modernist architectural knowledges were received, adopted and then adapted in Singapore. From this examination, I then argue that it helps us reconfigure how architecture, as a fixed, stable entity routed in place, has been traditionally approached within geography. It opens up the question of understanding built forms as a set of alliances that help sustain and make architecture mobile.

Taming the Tower: Skyscrapers, Globalization, and Sense of Place by Larry R. Ford, San Diego State University

When skyscrapers first began to rise in Chicago and New York, they quickly dominated the images of those cities and skylines soon became synonymous with major cities throughout the United States. By the time skyscrapers appeared in other parts of the world, they were often viewed as unwanted and controversial American exports and were banned from most city centers.  By the 1930’s, landmark towers graced the skylines of only a few cities beyond North America and they rarely played an important role in their sense of place. During the 1950’s, several cities, such as Moscow, Madrid and Sao Paulo, attempted to incorporate massive towers into their identities, but most major world cities resisted. The last decades of the twentieth century, however, brought not only a world-wide boom in skyscraper construction but concentrated efforts to create monuments that are predominately local rather than international or American.  Today, architects, designers, engineers, and planners from all over the world come together in particular places to construct very tall buildings that seek to be symbols of local identity as much as modern, functional structures.  New web sites now enable us to trace these developments and to ponder the meanings and complexities of these ambitious authored landscapes. Key Words: Skyscrapers, Globalization, American Exports, Local Monuments.

The Nerve Centre: the Airport Control Tower as an Architecture of Transmission by Peter Adey, University of Wales, Aberystwyth

In this paper, I consider the airport control tower. Resembling the central tower in Bentham’s panopticon, the building must be of considerable height in order to survey over the land and sky space. It must receive information from nearby and far away through various sources. It must also transmit and project, sending out information, and communications to other sectors of the airport, to the aircraft on the airfield or to those stacked in the sky above. Taking the example of the Liverpool Airport control tower, constructed in Speke, Liverpool in 1937, the paper examines the 90ft building as a confluence of mobilities – a building that receives and transmits light, sound, information and more. Acting as ‘centre of calculation’, I use the discursive construction of the building as a ‘nerve centre’ to explore how the control officers body is re-metaphorised into the ‘body electric’ (Thrift 1996), its presence extended outwards through the airport machine and beyond.

Situating the Bioclimatic Skyscraper by Jane M. Jacobs and Stephen Cairns, University of Edinburgh

This paper examines the ‘bioclimatic skyscraper’ as championed by Malaysian architect Ken Yeang. Within South East Asian architectural discourses, the bioclimatic skyscraper has been claimed as an example of an alternative modernism. Although the emergence of a bioclimatic skyscraper explicitly responded to tropical conditions, the ecological principles at the heart of this regional variation of the tall building have started to be exported into other contexts, including Europe – the best known being Yeang’s proposal for the Elephant and Castle towers project, London. The bioclimatic skyscraper returns to the West from Asia emboldened by its claims to ‘universal’,  ‘green’ architectural values, as well as more acceptable (because environmentally inflected) claims about high density ‘vertical urbanism’. As such, design vocabularies associated with contemporary Asia are now helping to reinvigorate debates in the West about the role of tall buildings in urban development. This paper seeks to geographically situate the transnational story that underpins the ‘bioclimatic skyscraper’.  It examines the complex flows of ideas that pre-date the current transnational geography of the form, and specifically the ecological and formal resources with which this tall building innovation was constructed. It does so by looking explicitly at the avant-garde architecture of Archigram and Peter Cook whose ideas, through the context of London’s Architectural Association, influenced Yeang’s own thinking about tropicality and the tall building. In so doing, this paper suggests that a specific conception of the English countryside may well inhere in this seemingly Asian innovation.

Session two: The Tall Building Geographically Reconsidered II

Reinventing the Iconic Building: the Political Economy of Reimag(in)ing the City by Maria Kaika, University of Oxford

From the medieval church and Town Hall, to the inter-war skyscraper, iconic buildings have always been part of the sky-scape of western metropolises. However, today?s iconic buildings perform a different function, and vest a different form.    Using the iconic building projects financed recently by the City Corporation of London as an entry point, the paper examines the new political, cultural and economic role that contemporary iconic buildings perform. More specifically, the paper: a) links changes in the economy, politics and structure of the City Corporation of London to strategic decisions for changes in the building codes, plot ratios, and land use policies, b) links the changing iconography of iconic buildings  to the new economic/poltical/cultural role that they are designed to perform, and c) unveils the role that the recently commissioned iconic buildings are called upon to play in constructing a new public image for the City Corporation of London.

High-Rise Living in London: Towards an Urban Renaissance? by Richard Baxter, King’s College London

The memoranda submitted to the Tall Buildings hearings of the Urban Affairs Sub-Committee of the House of Commons (2002) indicate the ambiguity and policy confusion with respect to the potential contribution of the residential high-rise to urban living in the UK. Proponents of high-rises acknowledge the mistakes of the 1950s and 60s but attribute them to singular or dual causes such as poor design and/or management. However, investigating forty-four high-rises in Inner London, this paper provides quantitative and qualitative evidence that the ‘outcome’ of high-rises is the product of multiplefactors. Often these interact in unique, complex and sophisticated ways. The paper draws attention to the fact that high-rises are highly fluid, rather than static environments – a building’s spatiality is produced and reproduced on a daily basis. The high-rise always contains the potential for alternative social experiences. We illustrate these arguments by outlining the diverse histories and varying fortunes of some of these high-rise buildings. Our overall aim is to understand more about what constitutes and helps create a successful high-rise environment.

Future Skies of London: New Landscapes of Power? by Donald McNeill, King’s College London

This paper analyses London’s recent boom in skyscraper office construction, and in doing so seeks to consider the driving forces of architectural form within a context of the political geography of London. The paper revisits debates that emerged in urban and political geography during the 1990s, which could be loosely referred to as the ‘landscapes of power’ literature. Three empirical themes are considered. First, the planning policy of the current mayor of London, Ken Livingstone is considered, and it is argued that Livingstone is using tall buildings to pursue an agenda of ‘light’ sustainability, endorsing high density development close to public transport nodes. Second, the paper traces the existence of an influential architectural lobby in a city where architecture had for many years been dominated by a conservationist ethos. Third, the paper considers the skyscraper within the context of London’s property development sector. Taken together, it is argued that these themes point to the emergence of a new phase in the development of the London cityscape, marking a transition from the political hostility to the ‘Thatcherite’ developments at Canary Wharf, to a broad political consensus over new central city skyscrapers.

The Socio-technical Dramatisation of a Highrise: the Making and Unmaking of Red Road, Glasgow by Ignaz Strebel, University of Edinburgh

In this paper I argue that the ‘social’ question of highrise housing (be it framed in terms of quality of life, perceptions, levels of satisfaction, experiences of inclusion and exclusion) is always at the same time a technical matter. In this sense technology does not stand outside of the question of ‘highrise living’ (as a ’cause’ or ‘solution’) it is entirely entangled with it. The paper revisits a once celebrated site of ‘highrise living’: the Red Road highrise estate in Glasgow, UK. In 1966, when the first of its blocks was completed, the 31-storey building could claim status as the tallest residential block in Europe. Today Red Road is one of the most undesirable social housing options in Glasgow. Red Road will be discussed as an example of modernist highrise living in order to explore specific socio-technical ‘dramatisations’ that have set this building on its current course: from its ambitious origins, to the decision (taken in April 2005) to demolish the buildings, and to the tenants’ campaign to resist demolition. The tenants’ Save Our Homes Campaign is a scene of socio-technical controversy and is part of an on-going series of building events by which highrise living is made and unmade. During the campaign new understandings of highrise living were accomplished; alternate explanations for old socio-technical interrelations delivered; and new relations between the socio-technical agents that cohabit in Red Road performed. The analysis of the controversy uncovers the vacillating drama of how tall buildings ‘hold together’ or ‘fall apart’. 

Conventional Expectations of an Atypical Housing Form: Developers’ Contradictory Rationales for High-rise Buildings in Melbourne, by Ruth Fincher, University of Melbourne

The sudden appearance in inner Melbourne (Australia) in the last decade of high-rise residential buildings for middle and upper-income households has been contrasted with previous periods when tall residential buildings were for public housing tenants. This paper draws on lengthy qualitative interviews with the developers and planners associated with these new high-rise buildings.  Its analysis of their narratives reveals that claims for this form of housing as particularly innovative, in the contemporary Melbourne context, are in fact hiding expectations about the housing and its uses that are utterly conventional. Even as new apartment dwellers are envisaged as adventurous, and members of a new and distinctive urban demographic, it is also part of the developers’ and planners’ imaginings that: (1) many of these high-rise residents will follow life courses and housing choices associated with the stereotypical nuclear family and will not live in high-rise apartments when their families include children; (2) there will be limited interaction between the housing and the street, or between residential and non-residential land uses in the area; and (3) there will be little need for social or recreational services to support the households in the high-rise buildings. Though the medium-density housing which has populated the city’s neighbourhoods over the same period is less distinctive in its form and differentiation from existing streetscapes, the narratives of developers about its social and environmental contribution to the city are more innovative than those presented in discussions of the residential high-rise.