A Spy in the Haas of Kool

On Nov. 7, 2013, Rem Koolhaas, founding partner, Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), sat for an interview that was published in CTBUH Journal, 2014, Issue 1. This is the full-length version of that interview. 

Koolhaas was joined by design partner David Gianotten , who is intimately involved in the firm’s Asian projects.

The image above is a sketch Koolhaas drew to illustrate the design principles behind the McCormick Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Daniel Safarik:      With your recent completion of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange – it’s obviously a very different building from CCTV, in a different city. In the course of the decade or so since CCTV was proposed and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange was completed, what has changed about working in China?

Rem Koolhaas:    I think a lot has changed, but there is another issue, which is maybe even more important, i.e., where a building or project is. In other words, the culture in Beijing is very different from Shenzhen. Shenzhen is a lot more comparable to Hong Kong or general Asian conditions. Also, the expectations of a building and discourse about a building is less unique in Shenzhen than it is in Beijing, and that has a number of advantages.

The technique is more distributed and common in Shenzhen. You cannot say absolutely that the quality is better in Shenzhen than in Beijing, but good quality is more common in Shenzhen, and more pleasant.

David Gianotten:              One of the main things you also encounter is the difference in how the procedures work and the support the planning bureaus get. The planning bureaus can just be testing and approval bodies, but they can also really try to help a client and make it more professional. Many clients in China have never built before and will never build again. Both the CCTV and the SSE are good examples of teams compiled of the client who are not used to building. The support of the planning bureau is very different for each city. It is much more formal in Beijing, and much more design-oriented and hands-on in Shenzhen.

So, during the process, the client goes through a learning curve. So, how that learning curve is to be supported, how that is to be done by you, are the two main factors in the success of the project. In Shenzhen, that was really a two-sided effort. OMA and the planning bureau really worked together and supported the client in its ambitions.

In Beijing, the planning bureau supported the effort, but more from a technical perspective. From the client’s perspective, it was at a greater distance. That made a very big difference in the process with the client, and also with the contractors. In the case of Shenzhen, the client was looking for different things, was much more educated. They were really going for quality and had the financial means, and time built into the schedule. In the CCTV building it was a little bit more traditional, in that the client was mostly invested in the schedule and the financial aspects, leaving the architect to advocate for design quality. That is a very interesting difference, which also meant the speed of the two buildings was different.

RK:           Which of course, in Shenzhen, they have created a city of about 20 million now, in about 20 years. In Beijing, it is an ancient city that is modernizing now. So the perspective is also different. But what is interesting is that both had the same contractor.

DG:          The contractor is one big company, but they have a southern branch and a northern branch, so it wasn’t the same people working on the two buildings, but what was very clear was that they had done many more international projects in between CCTV and SSE. Doing SSE was more routine for them than when they were doing CCTV.

RK:           And then you can really see that in the past seven years, the level of architectural design, and the skill of contractors, and the sophistication of clients has leapt considerably.

DS:           So, the quality is beginning to catch up with the speed?

RK:           Yes, I would say so.

DG:          You really see it when there is this good collaboration between government client and architect and contractor, that the quality can be achieved, and it is similar to many places we know in Europe.

DS:           I have some questions around the word “context,” with which you have dealt harshly in the past. Looking at three of your tall buildings in three places – Beijing, Shenzhen and the Rothschild in London, these are all quite different. Do you think there is a threshold of “bigness” beyond which buildings make their own context, and is that universal, or can or should they draw from their surroundings?

RK:           It is really kind of childish to say so, but I think the quote “f—- context” has really been taken out of context. In every situation you have to judge the context. Sometimes there is a context that actually deserves recognition and acknowledgement. Sometimes you have no choice. In the case of Rothschild, we had no choice, because it is an incredibly medieval, delicate part of the city. Therefore you would not want to offend it or create a contrast, necessarily. So you develop ways that generate sort of analogies, and you expose elements of the context that have never been visible before.

I think in the case of CCTV, you could say it is a very contextual building, but the context is not yet visible. It is a building that will be surrounded by 300 taller buildings, so therefore, we realized from the beginning it was a losing proposition to try to be taller. Therefore, we decided to be different, which is a very contextual approach, I would say.

In Shenzhen it is also quite contextual, in the sense that the lifted podium actually works quite well in capturing the environment and making it play within an urban composition, and within, a kind of public space. So, I think it is always possible to work with the context, and I think we are getting quite refined and good at it, but in Europe, “context” is often used as a pretext for an incredibly conservative situation, to eliminate a whole repertoire of possibility.

DG:          Also, what is really important is not trying to invent and or respond to all elements of the context, but to use elements of the context for the good and benefit of the building and its surroundings.
At the same time, one puts a clear contrast between the building and its context. You create a situation in which the building is recognized and does not disappear. So it is a delicate thing.  It all depends on how you describe “context.” Many people define “contextual” as “similar to its surroundings.” Then the role of the architect becomes less important, because every owner or client wants to be different and stand out.

At the same time, you of course have a responsibility to the neighbors and the public that use the space. It’s a subtle balance between trying to find a context you can use for the benefit of your building, and at the same time, find a way to detach the building from the context so that it is unique.

RK:           We are not contextualists in the sense of feeling obliged to be similar, but we are contextualists in the sense that every one of our buildings is a comment on its context. Sometimes a comment is critical; sometimes it is supportive in enlisting that context into a greater whole.

DS:           When it comes to commentary – CCTV is a state-run organization, and China is not a democracy. Some have interpreted the twisting form of CCTV as a symbol of conflict of how China represents itself internally and externally – is there anything to that?

RK:           No, at least not consciously. I don’t think there is anything to it, on the other hand, for me in retrospect the greatest virtue of the building is that it does offer a whole series of multiple identities, in a culture that actually insists on stability. People think of it as a homogeneous place but it is far from it.

DG:          Even within Beijing, identities are very different.

RK:           The building has so many identities.

DG:          If you see how the CCTV building responds to the process of TV-making, and at the same time tries to find almost a public place that is related to state television, it creates a combination of aspects that were never there before under previous leaders. What you see now is that everything becomes more public and visible. The process gets revealed, and I think the building contributes in its architecture to that development. It’s not that we want to take that development on the shoulders of the building, but it definitely helps how people perceive CCTV. It’s in a much more dynamic way than it was before, and it’s more recognizable, because it’s much more “there.”

DS:           It’s certainly a complicated building that reflects that complexity. My impression was that it was all done for one client.

RK:           Yes, but that client is already kind of changing, and has been changing over the past ten years. There is now a quite considerable presence of other companies inside the company. Making of media is fragmenting, so I think you can see that in the building too.

DG:          There are 60 or 70 different parts of the building that have really different identities, groups of people dealing with very different subject matter, and you really recognize that. Of course it is the CCTV building, but right next to it is a Mandarin Oriental Hotel, broadcast studios, and plug-in locations for outside TV vans and vehicles. It gives a very different environment an identity. I think you can say CCTV is one institution, but it has 76 different stations within it.

DS:           My understanding is that the building is currently only about 20 percent occupied?

DG:          No, no, it’s much more. At this moment in time it’s about 60 percent.

RK:           It’s also absorbing freelancers and other contractors.

DG:          But everything there is related to media. Also, with the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, only about 40 percent of the building is occupied by the stock exchange itself. They rent the space to companies that are related to that business.

DS:           Do you worry or fret about the ability of instant iconic skyscrapers to homogenize cities, in the sense of creating a piece of sculptural iconography that could be dropped anywhere?

RK:           I think CCTV could not happen anywhere else. I think that is one of the most interesting things to see today, is that it is not completely orthogonal, it really has an ability to associate it to everything else. It’s not a sort of singular, isolated statement, but on the contrary, it’s a kind of radiating octopus that almost has tentacles.

DG:          In the vertical dimension, the race for height is very often related to a context that is completely irrelevant to the rest of the city. You could envision these needles anywhere. That is also one of the criticisms OMA has about the race for height. It has nothing to do with the rest of the city. It’s only related to your little corner of the world that needs 2,000 square meter floorplates at height, and the rest of the city doesn’t matter. What CCTV and many of the OMA projects do is trying to keep the connection with the city, and build a real piece of the city, not something that totally liberates itself from the city.

So if you talk about the highest building, it is often something that detaches itself from the city and could be anywhere, although I would be very careful about saying that in each continent. The race for height is, in every different continent, a very different race, and based in very different background ideas of clients.

RK:           The more experience I have, the harder I find it to generalize. The Burj, which should be the wrong kind of building that is only interested in height, it kind of has established its own context in a really wonderful way. If you are there, it is not only amazingly strong as an individual building, but also for the kind of effect it has had on the city of Dubai as a whole and on its immediate environment. It’s created a center. Therefore, I wouldn’t want to be seen as a kind of “anti-height” type, because in certain conditions it is a really wonderful device. It’s ambitious, and that makes the difference.

DG:          The problem begins when many buildings that strive to be high lack any other ambitions. For the Burj, that was totally not the case.

DS:           I have a question about New York. You wrote Delirious New York in 1978. In the New York of today, we are seeing many skinny skyscrapers that place billionaires more than 1,000 feet above the ground. Do you think the city has entered a period of delirium that is different from the one you diagnosed in the middle ‘70s? How does the city look different in the early decades of the 21st Century as opposed to the terminal decades of the 20th?

RK:           I wish you didn’t ask. But basically, I wrote two things about New York. One was Delirious New York, and the other was a piece for Wired called “Delirious No More,” to kind of talk about the effort to launder the city, to clean up and kind of remove some of its urban unpredictability. That was obviously, for me, not a great period. I think it is too early to tell now, but these billionaire needles have the possibility to collectively lift the level of imagination, or they are really the last and most extreme effort to scrape every little bit of advantage from the existing situation.

DG:          I’d like to say something about it from the context from which we work in Hong Kong. If you would simply compare New York and Hong Kong. The question is asked whether the billionaire needle in New York is trying to go too far. If you look what the circumstances are in Hong Kong, the thin and tall towers have been there since the ‘70s. The center of Hong Kong really began developing in the late ‘70s when the MTR came into the city. It became a typology of its own that supports a very big part of the city. I am not sure if the things that are happening in New York that will not have a surprising outcome. Perhaps in 20 years it will creating a totally different environment at different levels of the city. Maybe New York is capable of accepting the typology and not making it only exclusive, and the buildings can deliver something that makes the plane more three-dimensional, and makes it therefore, much more interesting. From the perspective of Hong Kong, that’s how we see it.

RK:           I totally agree, and like I said before, it’s too early to tell. A lot of the high-rise needles in Hoong Kong are public housing. The chance that you would get a new kind of Peter Stuyvesant Village going now is, I would estimate, about zero percent. But eventually it could happen.

DG:          Even when bridges exist between buildings at 8 or 13 stories, let alone 50 or 90, that brings along a vibrancy that you almost cannot imagine.

DS:           In an entrance interview, I think the statement that got me into architecture school was citing your prior career as a journalist. That is also my background. What effect has your experience as a journalist and filmmaker had on your architecture and your way of seeing?

RK:           I think that journalism has become very important in that simply, in that, journalism is nothing but the professionalization of curiosity. And so that has basically driven a lot of the research and also the design. Cinematically, anyone who is involved in cinema thinks about movement, I think that is also a feature of architecture.

DG:          The way you look at and start a project is very much based on similar principles. Instead of looking for a shape, per se, instead you are trying to figure out something. Then you build a composition based on what you found – often in a different way than the immediate expectation would be.

RK:           Do you know the story of the MTCC building here? There are all these kind of Mies buildings on the west side, then there is the elevated, then there are all kinds of dorms. The campus was in danger of being depopulated, because Miesian architecture is not very popular or easy to understand. They needed a student center to sort of proclaim their modernity. Of course, it was a competition, and it was meant to be close to Crown Hall.

But we decided to look at circulations that were established, and put the building in a place where all the circulations on campus intersected. That is what you are saying. It is not so much a plot or a script, as it is a building. We were violating the grid but also reasserting it.

It Giveth and It Taketh Away

In the world of glossy architecture books, words seldom provide more clarity than pictures, but there are a few takeaways from perusing the text of Devon: The Story of a Civic Landmark, the chronicle of the design and execution of the Devon Energy Center in Oklahoma City. One clear conclusion that we’re to take away is that the building is a “gift to the city,” as Devon CEO Larry Nichols characterizes it, an immodest if not untrue phrase that is repeated several times in the limited text. Another is that is a product of both “a singular vision” (Nichols’) and a “collaborative effort” (of architect Packard Chilton, client, and other consultants).

The 257-meter faceted glass tower, completed in 2012, stands as a symbol of both “The American rugged individual” and as a “civic landmark” that works at human scale on the ground while offering “egalitarian views” to its occupants, which, in their expansiveness, have actually reduced employee fatigue. Devon Energy Center has “changed the culture of Devon Energy” and filled OK Citians with pride, Crosbie writes. That’s a lot to put on one building, but considering what has been built in Oklahoma City to date, a building of this scale, set smack in the center of a wide, flat boom-and-bust town without much urban grain in the first place, does bear that responsibility—and it’s refreshing to see that it was valued, attempted, and largely successful.

Though much is made of the generous, glassy ground-level experience, which features a café, auditorium, public rotunda as mixing chamber, and its relationship with the greenhouses of the Myriad Botanical Garden across the street, a previous attempt to inject some worldly culture into this Petropolis is distinctly omitted from the design narrative.

It is not until page 171 - literally on the margins of the book - that we catch a glimpse of The Stage Center, the brutalist John Johansen-designed theatrical complex that won an AIA Design Award in 1972, looking like a discarded pile of Tinker Toys, awaiting its demolition to make way for OGE Tower, another energy company headquarters, right across the street. No reference is made to it whatsoever.

The fact that Oklahoma City is now re-discovering its urbanity through the gift of the Devon Energy Center, at the same time it allows what might be its singular avant-garde structure to be annihilated, places an even greater responsibility on the corporate office tower replacing it to be even more publicly-minded. Here’s hoping no one in OKC is holding their breath for the next “gift.”

I Can HafenCity?

Amidst all the talk of polar vortices and fiscal cliffs that threaten to plunge Chicago into the deep freeze, a small anniversary is likely to be overlooked in 2014. This year is the 20th anniversary of Chicago’s sister-city relationship with Hamburg, Germany. Aside from a high proportion of Northern Europeans, cold weather and a passion for encased meats, the two cities might seem to be an odd pairing. But further investigation reveals more similarities. Chicago is more than twice the size of the Hanseatic League seat, but both are top tourism and regional industrial centers in their respective nations. And like Chicago, Hamburg was leveled by fire – though Chicago’s was in 1871 and the German city’s conflagration was in 1943, at Allied hands. This makes Hamburg’s resilience all the more remarkable.

Today, civic leaders see the two places as being allied by the challenges they face as much as their superficially similar roles as regional commercial centers. The Urban Land Institute (ULI), the US real estate industry’s largest trade group, gathered in Chicago in late 2013 and invited several dignitaries from Hamburg and Chicago to muse on what the cities could learn from each other.

The focus was heavily on Chicago developer McCaffery Interests’ efforts to create Lakeside, a neighborhood of up to 13,575 residential units for up to 150,000 people from scratch on the abandoned 243-hectare site of a US Steel plant in South Chicago. The master plan was conceived by Skidmore Owings & Merrill and Sasaki Associates.

 

This was compared to Hamburg’s HafenCity, a 157-hectare former industrial port on the banks of the Elbe River that is about two-thirds of the way through its transformation into a neighborhood of 6,000 homes for up to 12,000 residents, which will increase the size of central Hamburg by 40 percent.

 

HafenCity is Europe’s largest redevelopment project, and its backers are sparing no expense on architecture – Herzog & de Meuron, David Chipperfield, Richard Meier and Behnisch are among the 200 architects that have projects here. All of the buildings are held to a custom-designed green building certification level. Even if we can deem HafenCity a success from a design perspective, it is still an enormously risky venture to try to create a vibrant neighborhood from scratch in just 30 years. Early reports from visiting urbanists are that the place has a manicured, curated, but ultimately sterile and ghostly feel – it simply hasn’t “grown in” yet. And the iconic Elbphilharmonie, an opera house designed by Herzog & de Meuron that perches atop a former warehouse, is well over its $800 million budget, detractors like to point out.

In Hamburg, the state government has invested about $3.25 billion of the project’s overall $14 billion cost. This is also a city whose population has grown by more than 100,000 between 2000 and 2012, and now suffers from an acute affordable-housing shortage, so the demand exists. However, it appears much of the current supply is the same factory-showroom international bourgeois product that graces much of the rest of the Western world’s re-emerging urban centers.

About 35,000 of HafenCity’s 45,000 new jobs will be “desk jobs,” according to the development’s official web site. Currently, about 2,000 people live and 9,000 people work in HafenCity, which is set to complete in 2025.

 

Plans for Lakeside are not nearly as far along, of course – the $4 billion, 40-year redevelopment plan was not approved until September 2010 – but a trip to its sales center reveals that retail is currently contemplated as being one of the driving components of at least the early phases of the development. A critical mass of grocery stores and other neighborhood-serving retail will doubtless be an important factor in the development’s ultimate success.

 

Preliminary massing models of Lakeside’s northern quadrant, the first to be developed, show a fair number of big-box stores surrounded by parking. Nasutsa Mabwa, project manager for developer McCaffery Interests, said retailers have been visiting frequently, especially since Lake Shore Drive was punched through, but cautions against taking the model literally.

“You have to put something down, so you can tell your story and people can get excited,” Mabwa said. “You can pitch and be enthusiastic. That’s what models are for. Nothing is fixed in stone. When the average person sees the model they think it is going to be fixed in stone and they don’t understand there is fluidity.”

Mabwa brushes off comparisons to HafenCity, saying, “HafenCity is a different context, different government.”

 

That is an understatement. Lakeside is located in the far southeast corner of the city, about two miles from Indiana and 10 from the downtown Loop. If HafenCity was like a “black hole” in the center of Hamburg, which is now filling up, South Chicago is a forlorn archipelago that barely figures in the mental map of lifelong Chicagoland residents. US Steel once employed 20,000 people here, and more than 50,000 steel-industry jobs were in the immediate area. The plant closed permanently in 1992, and the population of the neighborhood declined from 46,422 in 1980 to 31,198 in 2010.

The site itself is a windswept outcropping in Lake Michigan populated by little more than seagulls and a small, devoted group of fishermen.

Very little evidence remains of the original plant buildings, save for the giant crumbling megaliths of the ore slip, where ships loaded with iron ore deposited their cargo to be consumed by the furnaces.

The only remaining building is the former credit union, which serves as the development’s sales office.

 

Still, though eerily empty at midday, the working-class and neighborhood is not as bombed-out in appearance as several of its immediate neighbors, and retains a distinct character of mom-and-pop stores, narrow commercial streets, community gardens, and the kind of weathered persistence you see in photographs of the Deep South.

The main barrier to growth is not so much a post-industrial legacy and vestigial poverty – that certainly has not stopped other neighborhoods from gentrifying – but access. Though the arrival of the Lake Shore Drive extension was clearly welcomed as a boon by Lakeside’s owners, the development’s overall disassociation from the city’s public-transit network would seem to be the biggest and highest-priority limiting factor in need of amelioration.

The South Chicago branch of the former Illinois Central railroad, now operated as Metra Electric, picks its way slowly through the neighborhood about 5 to 10 blocks west of the site. It provides a 38-minute ride to Millennium Station in the Loop. Maps of Lakeside aspirationally show a light-rail line down the center of Lake Shore Drive.

 “We have this wonderful Metra service here, not in the site, but we could pull in a light rail eventually,” Mabwa said. “We need some kind of circulator – if you changed the carstock on the Metra you could just pull the line through. That’s a federal funding initiative, but we could get there eventually. I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow, but, long-range, it needs to be here. In the meantime you could do some kind of jitney, shuttle bus or circulator.”

In the short term, enhancements to express bus service would be a cheap way to connect Lakeside to other employment and residential centers. Price points have not yet been set for the market-rate portions of the development, but this lack of public-transit connectivity will have to be factored into the price if Lakeside hopes to attract “knowledge workers” who will commute to the Loop.

The other gambit is to make Lakeside itself an employment center, but it’s not clear how far along this initiative is. Lakeside is “in talks” with Argonne National Laboratory, GE, and other technology entities, Mabwa says. The main activity most frequently bandied about is a “battery storage facility” for “clean energy,” which does not sound like a substantial job-generator – certainly not a replacement for US Steel. An earlier bid to place a SOLO cup factory on the US Steel site failed, but the city benefited from an extension of 87th Street to the lakefront and a new park, currently called “Park 523” (corporate naming rights, anyone)?

 

To round things out, Lakeside has a spot picked out for the Obama Presidential Library, on an admittedly awesome lakefront location at the edge of Rainbow Park, with commanding views to downtown. If this site is chosen, it’s possible some of the other initiatives may also accelerate, if Rahm Emmanuel can hold onto the reins long enough to see them through.

What useful comparisons can be drawn between these sisters?

Even if HafenCity is over-budget and the result is currently sterile in character, its budget nevertheless works out to $89 million per hectare, with about 24 percent funding coming from the government. Lakeside’s proposed budget is $16.5 million per hectare. The city had offered to kick in $98 million in infrastructure costs for the first, $397 million phase, but only if the developers could prove they had lease commitments for 60 percent of the planned retail space. This was in 2010, before the city’s pension crisis came to light. No news has yet emerged about retail lease agreements.

HafenCity is served by Hamburg’s U-Bahn subway, ferries, and two bus lines, and is only two stations away from the Hauptbanhof, the city’s main rail station. Lakeside is nearly 40 minutes by train from downtown Chicago, 49 minutes by bus, and 22 minutes by car.

Hamburg is both a city and a state in Germany that acts as a single administrative region. It has mandated that each project undergo an architectural competition before it is permitted, a process that takes almost two years. More than 20 different developers worked on the project and went through the process.

The Chicago metropolitan area consists of 13 counties in three states, and its 9 million people are contained in more than 200 individual cities. In addition, Chicago’s ward political system relies on “aldermanic privilege,” which means spending authority is highly localized. The only two developers currently signed on are the original ones - McCaffery and US Steel.

 

The Lake Shore Drive extension so vital to Lakeside’s success was built by the Illinois Department of Transportation in October 2013. It was originally planned in 2004 before Lakeside was announced, and the start of construction was three years behind schedule, accelerated only by Emmanuel’s election to mayor in 2011. Illinois has the worst credit rating of all 50 US States. The state owes $1.5 billion per year over the next decade to its underfunded pension system, and Chicago’s pension system will be insolvent by 2022 if current conditions persist.

The first phase of Lakeside is within 12 to 16 months of breaking ground, Mabwa said in November. The entire project is expected to take 40 years to build out, and, like the President whose library backers would very much like to have in the neighborhood, Lakeside officials seem to be taking the “long view.”

Some changes have happened already. The highly landscaped Lake Shore Drive now curves past a Richard Hunt sculpture where a bus-staging yard used to be. And the liquor store on the corner of 79th Street and South Shore Drive has been closed.

“No more bad guys hanging out,” Mabwa said.

Chicago has finally built its yellow-brick road across the former ore wastes. Now it just has to wait for the good guys to show up.

New York’s New Delirium

Since the turn of the decade, the pace of new construction in New York City can be split into two large categories: large planned developments and super-slim luxury residential infill. In both cases, developers and designers are pushing the limits of zoning, underground infrastructure and skyward structural engineering.

On the mass-development scale, at least five once-in-a-lifetime multi-acre projects are underway in the city.

World Trade Center

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One of the most-watched construction projects of the past 10 years, World Trade Center is finally taking recognizable shape as a group of buildings that do as much for enclosing public space as they do for defining the skyline – perhaps more so than did their ill-fated predecessors. With SOM’s Tower 1 poised to open in early 2014 and Fumihiko Maki’s Tower 4 celebrating its opening, along with a critical pedestrian tunnel between Brookfield Place (formerly World Financial Center) and the PATH subway station, the Trade Center site is becoming recognizable as a destination, rather than as a hole in the ground to be circumnavigated.

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At the center of it all, the somber fountains of the 9/11 Memorial, representing the foundations of the original Twin Towers, drop water into a seemingly endless void. Although it’s impossible to avoid the gravity of the site’s history, the overall feeling is of excitement and rejuvenation, and the landscaped park surrounding the fountains is a significant improvement over the original hardscape.

The intentionally visible resiliency of the site is on full display, though it is not as oppressive as some had feared. The cross-bracing still visible in the steel exoskeleton of the One World Trade Center’s base is massive, but it will be softened a by LED-filled glass enclosure.

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In Tower 2 and 3, diesel generators and ventilation equipment for the subterranean networks below form integral parts of the bases of the as-yet unfinished towers.

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In other cases, the resiliency is subtler – the floor slabs of Tower 4 are as thick with concrete as a foundation slab would normally be; in the elevator core, they are nearly two feet (610 mm) thick. Such substantial design features contributed to the $1 billion construction cost of a building that is meant to almost disappear into the sky when viewed from outside.

Hudson Yards

Comprising 14 acres (5.7 hectares) of open space and 13.4 million square feet (1.2 million square meters) of office, retail and residential towers, Hudson Yards is an almost unimaginably large 29-acre (11.7 hectare) development on space-starved Manhattan.

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Though the area has long been a wasteland of industrial uses, the northward advance of the High Line elevated park and the southward advance of the Number 7 subway line from Times Square promise to incorporate the development into some of New York’s most vital neighborhoods. The marketing push behind the project is appropriately substantial – Related Companies, which is co-developing the site with Oxford Properties, is keeping Jay Cross, president of the Hudson Yards project, extremely busy. In just one week in October, Cross made three public appearances in support of the project.

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Built above the Long Island Rail Road’s staging yards west of Penn Station, Hudson Yards will eventually include at least four towers of between 40 and 80 stories and a moving canopy called the “Culture Shed” by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rockwell Group – and that’s just on the eastern half of the property.

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To partially fill and complement the two commercial towers by Kohn Pedersen Fox bookending a large retail podium, standing across a new public square from residential towers by tall-building ace David Childs of SOM and novices DS+R/Rockwell, Hudson Yards broke ground in December 2012, but has already announced several significant “gets” in 2013.  These include anchor commercial tenants L’Oreal, Coach and SAP, as well as an anchor public artist, Thomas Heatherwick, whose urchin-shaped UK Pavilion was the talk of the 2010 Shanghai Expo. Early in 2014, Time Warner Inc. announced it would move from its Columbus Circle complex, which would be bought back for $1.3 billion by Related and leased to Time Warner until it can move to the KPF tower at Hudson Yards, taking 5,000 employees there by 2018.

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Connectivity to the urban grid, carefully calibrated phasing, and a highly curated mix of uses are all critical aspects of the future success of the $15 billion project, said Cross. Related and Oxford are clearly mindful of the slow starts behind initially transit-poor Canary Wharf and other megaprojects of prior decades – particularly since the site was acquired from Canary Wharf’s bankrupt developer, Olympia & York.

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“We think it is critical that for all the tenants who are coming, that there will be critical mass, and it won’t just be a big construction site,” Cross said. “That’s the beauty of mixed-use; it allows us to deliver two residential towers without oversaturating the residential market. We then get critical mass in the commercial towers, and then with those four towers, the retail now has an audience with which to populate the stores. These factors all feed on each other, and I think that a mixed-use master plan is a critical component – it also makes life extraordinarily complicated. We try not to mix uses in a single building, because it gets even more complicated. So far we have managed to keep buildings single-use without multiple entrance conditions.”

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All of these factors are complicated further by the fact that no single building lies entirely on terra firma; each dances on complex transfer beams and pylons between the tracks below. The buildings’ supporting platform alone is expected to cost between $700 and $800 million.

A slightly different solution to a similar problem lies just to the east of Hudson Yards, where a (relatively) smaller project is simultaneously underway.

Manhattan West

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Rail passengers are taking their last looks at the brief flash of light they are used to receiving just after emerging from the Hudson River tunnel, and just before they dive into the bowels of Penn Station. Soon this 12-track channel will also be plunged into darkness, but it will be in exchange for Manhattan West’s 1.5-acre (0.6-hectare) landscaped public plaza, set between two 60-story towers by SOM.

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Unlike Hudson Yards, the tower foundations at Manhattan West are on terra firma. But in order to support the plaza between them, a highly innovative, post-tensioned, precast segmental bridge technology had to be devised to span the active rail lines below, without interrupting train movements. The platform alone is a $290 million investment, said Philip Wharton, Senior Vice President of Development for Brookfield Office Properties, the owners of Manhattan West.

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The plaza represents a continuation of 32nd St. as a pedestrian walkway that stays level while the streets on either side drop to the west. If Brookfield can reach an agreement with Hudson Yards to their west, this corridor could theoretically provide an uninterrupted pedestrian pathway from Penn Station, through the future Moynihan intercity rail station, and through both mega-developments, all the way to the Hudson River and High Line.

A portion of the pedestrian corridor could pass directly through an existing building positioned over the rail yards, 450 W. 33rd St., a heavy-set concrete ziggurat that once housed both the New York Daily News printing presses and stored furniture for retailer E.J. Korvette. While the building can structurally support, and is zoned for a skyscraper, the current plan calls for re-cladding the structure and leasing to tenants in need of large floorplates, Wharton said. Including the two SOM towers, the project will comprise 6.2 million square feet (576,000 square meters) of office, residential and retail space.

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Although Hudson Yards dwarfs Manhattan West in size, Wharton says the project’s ideal positioning between the High Line, which receives 3.5 million people per year, and Penn Station, which receives 600,000 travelers each day, will be beneficial for both developments.

“Retail and residential feed off each other,” Wharton said. “Retail wants to be near retail, and near residential. The Fairway grocery store in the [Hudson Yards] Coach building will be great for us. Office is more competitive. But for two out of the three uses, we are very happy about the complementary nature.”

The idea that the Javits Convention Center, High Line, Chelsea art-gallery district, Penn and Moynihan stations will be fused together at the double ship-knot of Hudson Yards and Manhattan West is staggering to comprehend, even in a city used to superlatives.

“It’s going to be amazing,” Wharton said. “Once this all is built out, it will be a whole other city here. There will be 25 million square feet of office space, 15,000 apartments, and maybe 150,000 to 200,000 people coming to work here each day.”

Transit and pedestrian connectivity are advertised as the lynchpin of success for each of these tall-building projects.

The Superslims

While connectivity lends cachet to large-scale developments such as World Trade Center, Hudson Yards and Manhattan West, the tall and thin residential towers of upper Midtown are predicated on a delicate balance between proximity and exclusivity. If it could be summarized, the theme behind developments such as 432 Park, the Baccarat Tower and 107 West 57th Street would seem to be – “right in the middle of it… yet above it all.”

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At 107 West 57th, the extreme slenderness ratio of 1:23 on the 1,350-foot-tall, 60-foot wide tower may prove to be a record-breaker. But the point is not to set a record, even though the building will take advantage of 15,000 PSI concrete, once a rare commodity, and a pendulum damper to achieve this feat, according to Michael Stern, managing partner of JDS Development.

“It’s all about the views,” Stern said, articulating the well-considered if tight mechanics of building on a through lot that narrows to 43 feet on the south side in order to provide apartments views up and down the island. Forty-four boutique apartments will be served by two passenger and one service elevator all the way to the top – and will be sure to command the same upper-eight-figure prices of its nearby neighbors.

Nevertheless, the building doesn’t want for architectural panache – Stern hired SHoP Architects to create what he calls a “modern version of a classic New York skyscraper, with feathered setbacks.” JDS wanted to do something different than the glassy towers that have risen of late – something “more Woolworth’s than Dubai – somehow we’d gotten away from the romance, and we want to get back to that,” Stern said.

Although he hired SHoP on the strength of their “nerve” for cladding the contentious Barclays Center in COR-TEN steel, he insists he is not a big risk-taker.

“New York City multifamily housing is the most stable asset class in the world,” he said, citing his lengthy experience with mid-rise towers. “No one pays attention until you do a tall one.”

Projects such as the 1,397-foot (425.7-meter) 432 Park and the Baccarat certainly want people to pay attention, though attention seems to be lavished mostly on interiors. The Baccarat sales office is paneled in burled walnut, rare forms of granite and other stone, and of course, crystal fixtures and glassware.

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A visit to CIM Group and Macklowe’s 432 Park’s marketing suite in the GM Building is a highly-orchestrated ballet, in which one moves past carefully chosen modern art pieces and photographs of interwar New York cityscapes and cultural icons of the period. Standing inside a full-scale mockup 10-by-10-foot window frame that characterizes the building’s look—and is meant to evoke the coffered ceiling of the Pantheon—affords an accurate approximation of the view from the tower rising just to the south.

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Numerous other “moments” greet the visitor as he makes his way around the suite, including a bathroom with a 1,200-pound marble sink. Each of the 104 units will have one, and they are brought up in one piece. This makes sense when one considers that the combined value of the apartments is more than $2.7 billion.

The experience culminates in a four-minute marketing film that can only be seen in the marketing suite. The film was made by DBOX, an Emmy-award-winning firm that also designed the marketing suite space. Tightrope walker Philippe Petit is the film’s mascot and silent narrator, and the film is stuffed from end-to-end with “classic” references – repeating many from the suite itself – from the Barcelona Pavilion, to the Empire State Building’s brief role as a dirigible dock, to the soundtrack of Mama Cass’ “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”

Lest the dream end too soon, prospective buyers are sent away with decidedly concrete reminders – a hardcover book of black-and-white photographs of the project under construction, and a 250-page fashion magazine.

The New York tall-building market has apparently bifurcated into two distinct trends – one in which the public realm has reasserted itself with new vigor, and another in which exclusivity rises to godlier heights than ever before. Time will tell whether the two morphologies remain separate, or grow together to become an as-yet unseen hybrid in Gotham.

Hacked Out of the Equation

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The epigram at the beginning of Anthony Townsend’s Smart Cities is from Shakespeare: “What is the city but the people?” With this as our introduction, against a background of such a hackneyed subject and of mountains of technological hagiography in the popular press, we might think, “we’re off to a good start.”

The rest of the book seems to be asking, “what of the city besides the people?” Though it is not the fulsome embrace of “ain’t it cool” technology that it could have been, some seemingly important people have been overlooked.

The book inhabits, as many people do, an uncomfortable space between acceptance of technology as a salve for all of our urban problems (“Look in your pocket. You already own a smart-city construction kit…”) and fear of technology as a tool of Orwellian surveillance and inequality acceleration: “In our final unthinkable future, only the wealthy thrive, retreating to smart enclaves sustained by captured resources managed solely for their own benefit, or traded at onerous rates with the poor.” Townsend is savvy enough to acknowledge that this “future” already exists in many countries, and the challenge that lies before us is whether technology will tear down or build up more walls.

The answer, as Townsend readily acknowledges, is somewhere in between, and we don’t have it yet. This will come either a disappointment for those who truly believe in the power of “the hack,” or as a relief for those who question blind acceptance of the notion that “automation equals liberation.” Exploring as it does the plaudits and failures of Big Technology in modeling and divising solutions for the city, thoughtfully comparing the smart-city craze to disastrous past embraces of RAND models, automobile-oriented development and urban renewal, Smart Cities presents a mostly balanced account of the complex issues before us.

Townsend spends some, but perhaps not enough time, distinguishing between the range of possible outcomes for “us,” when “we” are knowledge workers who are curious about what kind of tree we’re walking by, or want to see what’s in our refrigerators on our smartphone apps, as opposed to figuring out where “our” next meal or short-term manual-labor job is going to come from.

Just as every “dumb” city is today, “every smart city will be buggy, brittle and bugged in its own peculiar ways,” Townsend writes. “Thinking about the unthinkable needs to be a bigger part of our discussions about the future of the city, the role technology should play, and how we manage the risks and come along with it.”

Aware of the unsatisfying nature of this conclusion, in the last chapter Townsend proposes a framework in the form of “A New Civics for a Smart Century.” Among the principles are “Opting In to Smart,” which finds yet one more way to deploy Christopher Alexander’s common-sense A Pattern Language as a shield against wholesale acceptance of mass-engineered urbanism. “Roll Your Own Network” and “Build a Web, Not an Operating System” are calls to cities to take ownership of their critical infrastructure and select services from technology vendors, lest the choices be made for them. Here, there is no way to resist citing Chicago’s outsourcing of its parking meters to a private company that will reap profits for 75 years, while the city spent its payment in less than five – as an example of “un-smart.”

Overall, the message is, “proceed with caution, and don’t let the ‘experts’ dictate your future to you.” This seems sensible for citizens of hundreds of cities that have been scarred by some version of “we know best” in the last century.

But there is one corps of expertise that seems to have been left out of the discussion about the next century: architects. The word “architecture” or “architect” does not appear in the index at all, though there are cursory references throughout the book to the visions of Archigram, and many nods to Jane Jacobs, Ebenezer Howard and Robert Moses. A Pattern Language has been widely adapted by the software community because of its advocacy of design-by-consensus approach and identification of repeatable, scalable patterns, but it should be remembered that Alexander is an architect and his tome was directed at architects and urban planners.  When A Pattern Language was released in 1977, there were no smart apps, smartphones, and no public Internet. Architects were arm-in-arm with developers and civic leaders who were busily filling downtowns with bland concrete plinths and glassy towers in the name of progress. Alexander’s message was to architects because they were part of the power structure that was doing so much damage to cities at the time.

The frequent citation of Pattern Language in this contemporary volume emphasizes the degree to which—the rise of “starchitects” over the past few decades notwithstanding—architects have been increasingly marginalized in the discussion of what the future on this planet will look like. Some of this could be attributed to Townsend’s background–he is an advisor at the Silicon-Valley-based Institute for the Future—but the greater fault lies with the architecture profession itself.

Architects receive an abundance of technical and theoretical education, and their daily experience designing environments for people is increasingly intermingled with technology. Buildings have necessarily become more technologically complex. So where are the architects in this discussion? Books such as Smart Cities serve as a warning sign that “civic hackers, mayors, entrepreneurs and technology barons” — the only parties mentioned on the book’s flap copy — are considered to be more important and vital forces in shaping our future than architects. If the architecture and design profession finds itself incapable of raising its voice, contributing to the discussion, and collaborating with the anointed leaders of the next revolution in urbanism, we will get the cities we deserve.