Saturday, August 30, 2008

Farewell to verticality (Sky City and the world of tomorrow)

When Fritz Lang envisioned Metropolis, he colored it with the dreams of the architects of the early 20th century avantgarde: verticality. The towers of Metropolis merge with the sky, flying machines float among them, suspended bridged over abysses of steel, cement and glass. The metaphor of the tower of Babel, which is evoked in the movie by the female agitator android who guides the oppressed masses of workers to rebellion. The image of the "city in the sky" is painted against the background of the Socialist class struggle with capitalists flying above the clouds in their cocoon of privilege and wealth and workers confined to a parallel existence in a dilapidated underground city of oppression and exploitation in which the privilege above the ground has firmly established its roots.

Visions of vertical cities and socialist aspirations to building the world of tomorrow go hand in hand in the early 20th century avant-garde, finding their best manifestation in Tatlin's monument to the Third International, a spiraling whirl of vertical aspirations, lifting humanity up towards the skies and into the future, hinting both to the ancient Babilonian towers challenging the tyranny of god on mankind, and at the same time fully grounded in the language of cement and steel that fueled the modernist dream of the 20th century.

The model of vertical growth shaped the cities we came to think as emblematic of 20th century history: New York, Chicago; as well as the utopian cities of modernism: Brazilia, Chandigarh, with their skylines drawn by the elite of modernist architecture: Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier. In recent years, verticality reached its peak in the East Asian skyscraper race: Tokyo, Shanghai, Tai Pei, Hong Kong, the Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur. All rivaling for increasing economic influence, increasingly fast development, and a concomitant and symbolic invasion of the skies by the cityscapes. The East Asian cities of today much resemble the early visions of fantastic future cities, no longer growing into the sky in the name of humanity's ascent to an ideal new world of socialism and peace, but in the name of capitalism, corporation, and fierce competition, even in so called "Communist" China.

A later but no less impressive comer into this race for the skies is the Gulf state of Dubai, with its impressive highrise architecture and visionary dreams of ever more astonishing vertical structures. Verticality seems to have indeed been the successful and dominant form of city growth in most parts of the world. Needless to say, the tragedy of verticality will remain forever imprinted in the collective consciousness of the modern mind, after the collapse of the Manhattan Twin Towers in the terrorist attack of 2001.

Tragedy did not halt the dreams of more vertical cities, more impressive and technically challenging as scientific and technological progress advances. Perhaps the most spectacular of all verticality dreams currently within reach of existing technology is "Sky City", a Japanese building/city project of Takenaka Corporation, which would, if constructed, host 36000 people in a single building, one kilometer tall and half a kilometer wide at the base. Is Sky City an accurate image of the world of tomorrow?

It may well be, but on the other hand, just as the small mammals growing under the shade of the dominant dinosaurs, another model of city growth took hold of the other shore of the Pacific Ocean: the sprawl. The sprawl is as horizontal as the skyscraper is vertical: it does not aim at the skies, it covers the earth in a thin layer of small houses and low lying constructions, it spreads without much planning and much visible structure. When the famous movie "Blade Runner" portrayed a vertical Los Angeles by 2048, looking more like the Shanghai sky line, it badly missed by some centuries, if ever. Will verticality eventually replace the sprawl? The sprawl seems by definition impossible to plan, to direct and remodel. Can verticality adapt to such an environment? The high rises of downtown LA seems so isolated, surrounded by tens of miles of low growth urban sprawl in all directions.

The future of cityscapes and architecture is in large part a mirror of the future of the societies that generate them. Fast growing East Asia versus declining American superpower? Perhaps, or perhaps simply different forms of societies, of mobility within national and migratory international boundaries, come to shape the look of cities on the two different sides of the largest ocean. I am personally greatly fond of verticality: maybe exactly because I associate it with those early 20th century dreams of radiant socialist future for all mankind. Maybe just because I enjoyed it greatly to live on top of a highrise builing when I could, sitting out on the balcony in the night and hearing the music of the city that never sleeps, its lights reflected in the river beneath. But this was on the other side of the continent, back in old Boston on the East Coast where verticality has a greater role in the visions of cities then it has around here. I reluctantly abandoned the idea of living high up into the sky, for lack of anything standing taller than three or four floors around here. I got my loft anyway, and a pleasant and nicely industrial looking one at that, but I keep looking out for signs that maybe verticality will indeed one day take hold in the sprawl and we'll the the "Blade Runner" type LA, or perhaps another Sky City, becoming a reality.