PRINT December 1990


THE LATEST, PERHAPS THE LAST of them, are still being erected grindingly in our cities. Despite their historical pedigree and kinship with old towers of every sort, particularly the grandfather of them all, the imagined Tower of Babel, we look upon the skyscrapers as our own: as the preeminent form Americans have contributed to building. Even decades ago, a place could hardly rate itself a city without them, and their symbolic cargo. Whether European or rural American, first-time visitors to the early skyscraper clusters in Chicago and New York were struck by an urban verticality that seemed to launch a sheer confidence in the material future.

These upthrust structures, however, were funded in cycles that repeatedly suggest a certain social pattern in America: conceived in moments of buoyant speculation, the skyscrapers were often actually realized in periods of economic weakness or even depression. Incarnated by their literal height, their myth is associated with indefinite mercantile expansiveness, regardless of the privations of their time. Skyscrapers, then, are our most spectacular embodiment of a fantasy whose ostentation is recurrently stranded in monetary drought. They grip the collective mind, not simply because they stack offices and their staffs in the sky, but because the temporarily fallen culture can look at them and remind itself of its grander energy and enthusiasm in the immediate past. It is all the more ironic that such monuments were often—and are still—coded with references to a quite remote history, of an even more distant grandeur, as if the mistier the memory, the more immense the future.

For each new generation, skyscrapers reveal to the citizenry a message about the general political culture. In the aggregate, this message hinges on their own symbolic and narrative consequence. As they demonstrate it with a more theatrical, abrupt, destabilizing, and overbearing presence than any other urban building type, they confront us with the most visible remnants of our successive political cultures. All that while, the designers of skyscrapers have had to disguise something unannounced but stridently obvious—a radical strangeness in the form itself. As the erstwhile tide of our imperial confidence recedes (for all that its bluster is retained), that strangeness should become more evident.

Skyscrapers have been the targets of very detailed critiques along structural, economic, and social lines, together forming a strong indictment.1 But since that argument doesn’t take into account the very positive hold the objects have had upon our consciousness, and since it makes a familiar kind of point, it needn’t be elaborated here. Rather, the buildings’ appeal needs to be recalled by a look at our past perceptual experience of them. And the skyscraper’s actual strangeness has to be reckoned with as one walks and takes in characteristic examples of it today.

A century ago, photographers began to notice the tempo of metropolitan change as marked by the advent of rapid construction. Aside from doing reportorial work, they tended to etherealize such products of technology and engineering as the Flatiron Building. When white smoke and steam were emitted from multiple vents and chimneys, the serrated, ghostly—and therefore distanced—skyline seemed almost to breathe. Later, a hard-edged style was imposed to handle the geometry. Nature, phenomena, were forgotten. One has only schemes, lines, uniform tones, materials. Typified by the skyscrapers, the city now came to be signified by the vertical correspondences of structures, their proximity, density of contact, the traction of their surfaces, and the incessant meetings of angles.

From its evidently aerial vantage, one would not always know that the camera’s elevation in photographs of New York was supported from the ground, a fact that made it superexpensive and amazing. Speculation, aided by technology, had generated numerous tapered risings whose points allowed for such a levitated view, implied as in competition with all others. The eye was placed at an utterly superior and disproportionate distance from our antlike fellow citizens. At the same time as it offered a spectacle achieved by a social cooperation of the greatest magnitude, the frame privileged the viewer as a singular and omniscient being. In contrast, the more intimate cantilevered approach of European Modernist photography, say the Bauhaus’, spoke mainly of dynamic order and efficiency, detached from any social conditions. It was a way of seeing not so much things as forces—vectors, shapes, shadows—locked into fresh or surprising patterns. When photographers depicted our skyscrapers, however, they conceived the horizon as in the process of an endless becoming. Instead of a sense of order, the picture distilled feeling for a kind of transcendent mission, making out as if the century were realized in the height, thrust, and proliferation of our tall buildings, brought forth by a laissez-faire capitalism that did not hesitate to adorn itself in the fustian trappings of antiquity. Manhattan became the image of the New Jerusalem, or an update of Erastus Salisbury Field’s imperial republic. There inevitably followed ideas about the skyscrapers, buildings that already obviously centered business, as centric in other, more figurative ways: phallocentric, anthropocentric, ethnocentric. Let me not be coy about the thrill they inspired. During the general ascension, the tallest would be surpassed, and therefore dominated, by still taller ones, at levels that photographs could successively record.

This pictorial rhetoric ended in serious photography by no later than the 1960s, leaving the genre in the cliché practice of realtors, architects’ offices, and tourist books. The city was no longer to be defined by these onetime protagonists of the urban scene; it was all they could now do to form part of the backdrop of a human drama that was increasingly perceived through the windows and on the city streets. The public view of the metropolis as a collection of hopeful towers began to have an Oz-like remoteness to anyone who actually lived in the big city. And with the fading of that view, a belief system silently crumbled away. But those towers did not cease to exist, none of them relinquished its heroic posture, and many more were to be built. When we walk around, how do we feel about being mobbed by them?

As a pedestrian, one has no way of seeing those buildings whole, no means of taking them in entirely. From across the Hudson or East rivers, yes, or in downtowns as yet less densely built than New York—Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis—their profiles tell against the sky. But these exceptions confirm that the skyscrapers have an impossible gestalt. The distance necessary to grasp their actual shape is too removed to apprehend their physiognomy. Meanwhile, their expressive detailing can be perceived only in such close quarters as to lose all sense of the buildings’ upper reaches. Because of their exceptional height, skyscrapers often generate this cognitive dilemma, enhanced by the inevitable throng of their own kind. The absolute discrepancy between the size of the object and of the perceiver injects an irrational tone—and frustration—in the experience of the building. It’s almost as if an obdurate spatial work had involuntarily been transformed into a temporal mode, where it unfolded and lost itself in a performance that was nevertheless frozen. Since the gigantism of the built structure has nothing to do with our actual viewpoint, no model can prepare us for it. A main project of skyscraper design, therefore, is to keep the eye interested by the resolution of parts in a form whose aspects are inherently unencompassable. It is, surely, a project that works against formidable odds.

To be sure, International Style derivatives kept this problem at bay by emphasizing the homogeneity of parts. Such buildings—those awesome nullities on New York’s Sixth Avenue, for instance—gained legibility at the expense of architectural character. It makes essentially no difference from which point of the compass the work is viewed. One has to admit that this solves the dilemma of skyscraper design by the simple expedient of ignoring it. The eye has no reason whatsoever to occupy itself with the glassy surfaces of those gridded facades, nor the body to empathize with their play-block volumes.

As for the post-International skyscraper practice today, it can hardly be said to suffer from a lack of variegation, but it is variegation in crisis. The crew-cut, deindividuated monoliths of yore have been mostly discontinued. Now, the eventful surfaces and volumes of the typical high building single out, not only the edifice, but themselves, at the expense of the building’s logic. From one corner to the next, from one height to another—or metaphoric stage: pedestal, through shaft, to capital—the single frame tends to exhibit a different profile. (Of course a columnar reference is classic, being a stylistic allusion and also a staple in architectural literature.) A sense of a column’s tripartite order may be roughly preserved in the new skyscraper’s proportions, but not in the visual consonance of its sectors. They seem to be imported from incompatible worlds, which the structure itself does not acknowledge.

This practice was implicitly exposed by a strange drawing published in 1980 among those sent for an imaginary new competition for the Chicago Tribune Tower, strange because it depicted a skyscraper only 11 stories high. Its ironically named author, Susana Torre, stated that “the corporations would do well to keep a low profile,” and she illustrated her theme with a nondescript, therefore unfamiliar design that proved to be merely the base of the giant, notorious, rather tumescent column drawn by Adolf Loos as his entry for the original 1922 competition.2 Torre had unmanned his idea by airbrush. More interestingly, though, she showed that Loos’ base was entirely forgettable when compared with his Doric column. In the skyscraper a visually dominant passage, the base of the tower, for example, can be executed in a style meant to be overlooked when compared with the faraway crown. Once having seen Loos’ colossal column, one forgets the base upon which it rests. By the same psychological token, once having seen the fanciful temples, turrets, pitched roofs, and domes that top many contemporary tall buildings, one forgets their humdrum shafts. Symbolic headdress works as an efficient and permissible distinction within a constrained architectural vocabulary. It may even have value as a logo. But within the formal ensemble, it often behaves as a non sequitur, and as a part that misleads about the character of the whole.

A famous and also a didactic expression of this syndrome is found in Johnson’s and Burgee’s New York AT&T Building, 1979–84. Its immense “Chippendale” broken pediment, lofted up into the sky, opposes itself ideologically to the horizontal roofs of Modernism, all the more as it seems a gratuitous caprice—a detail from furniture, a highboy (in itself a reduction of a heroic form) blown up to outsized scale. But while intended as jocose, the effect is not humorous. This building’s real character is announced in the Herculean stone arches of its lobby entrance, which belittle and intimidate visitors. It is as if Albert Speer were bearing down upon you by way of Cheops, and no frippery on top can alleviate the authoritarianism of the design. In fact the frippery, in its studied inconsequence, reflects an even more crushing attitude. This firm consistently overscales historical references; it has a talent, really, for trivializing them in a massive, heavy-handed way. Such a program can be seen at work in the cathedral interior of the NCNB Center in Houston, 1981–84, and in a lobby imitation of Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel in Chicago (190 S. LaSalle Street, 1985–87). The gilded and red-oxide patterning of the latter is certainly worthy of Forest Lawn, if one can imagine a cloying effect replaced by lurid cynicism.

On the other hand, a merely respectful adaptation of past styles has no greater merit in relating parts to skyscraper whole. People might well complain of the alienating and hollow grandeur of the Johnson firm’s work, but the architects could easily reply that an intimate skyscraper is a contradiction in terms. Ultimately, when a reasoned scale is replaced by disproportionate size, morphology plays a more decisive role than style. That is, it becomes the most salient aspect of style. Many of the Johnson, Burgee buildings (the office is now called John Burgee Architects) are monoliths. They carry their shapes from a great distance, are highly individuated, and are weirdly arresting. One has only to think of the PPG building in Pittsburgh, 1981–84, a glass tower (headquarters for a plate-glass company) with pinnacles that resemble Pugin’s London Houses of Parliament, and of the oval, stepped-back highrise at Third and 53rd in Manhattan, 1984–85, whose burnt sienna, beige, and silver bands seem to orbit its volume at dizzying speed. These and other works from the same office deliberately make redundant the natural tropism of skyscrapers to repeated forms. An absurdist attitude is introduced in the PPG tower, whose Gothic fenestrations are fabricated in glass. Whether the wrong material, or the wrong scale: either way the associations are knowingly grated with the constructed presence and strike a dissonant note. The fantasy element counters the rational system only by coarsening it. There’s an effective awfulness about Johnson’s work. His sensibility seems to operate somewhere between Cedric Gibbons, who designed sets from some of the more gilded Hollywood costume films of the ’40s, and the 18th-century French visionary Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, of whose architecture Robert Harbison has remarked that it is “almost an art of rule liberated from reason.”3

AT&T is always represented as the monument that introduced the public to Postmodernism in skyscraper design. In order to accept that idea, however, we should have to overlook such interesting prototypes as Rogers and Peressutti’s Torre Velasca, of 1958, in Milan, and downplay a real innovation of Johnson’s building: its self-conscious level of kitsch. Here, kitsch means the way an elitist ironizes a lowbrow vision of high culture. The literal revivalism of such early-century skyscrapers as Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building in New York or Raymond Hood’s Tribune Tower in Chicago had clarioned the egos of individual entrepreneurs. But later glass curtain-walled boxes announced a corporate power that preferred a circumspect, faceless image. Still, despite the crowd of International Style buildings constructed in America, architectural Modernism was never comfortably received here; it was not easily accommodated to client self-importance, nor did it accord with a native, completely uneconomic taste for showmanship. And during the ostentation of the Reagan years, as Americans big business was persuaded that it could be headquartered with the old extravagance, kitsch insinuated itself into the good graces of a skyscraper clientele uncertain of its relationship to high culture. This is the shift marked by the AT&T Building. Yet a memory of Modernist architecture’s prestige in conveying dignity upon the intellectual construction of forms lingered on in skyscraper practice, tempering the historicism of the ’80s. In the resulting synthesis, which ransacked the whole history of Western architecture, the past was no longer quoted but sketched in, schematized, or parodied. Not for one moment should we think of this as a cost-conscious tendency that merely cheapened the doodads of its traditional models. On the contrary, expenditure was pointedly registered in the increased size of the new work, and in the lavishness of its materials. Thus was the stage set for a very late, sensationally unconvincing imperial style.

It is as if upward transmission in mass, and temporal distance from the ferocity of conquest, had left the statement ideologically musclebound in a kind of pathetic megalomania. As early as the 1960s, writers already foresaw New York as a late Roman culture, without the benefit of our current tall building to bear them out. True to its lineage, the work deploys but is uninvested in the once authoritative forms in its repertoire.

Perhaps, then, we should associate skyscraper eclecticism with the wholesale style larcenies of the appropriators in the art galleries of the ’80s, a synchronous development. In both practices, history is breathlessly absorbed, used up in a fast-forward mode. But our artists perceive an exhaustion of cultural meaning in the way art has been co-opted by the commercial American media, and they express that perception comically, or grotesquely, and usually with a dissident edge. Skyscraper designers, on the contrary, adhere to their allusions unreflexively, not considering the co-opting of their own history into the media because what they do is actually part of the media. Instead of audiences primed to appreciate fine degrees of resentment, they are answerable to conservative clients or developers with whom they must collaborate, as well as to pressures imposed by budget, building codes, zoning laws, union practice, community or landmark-commission hearings, interest rates, etc. Negotiated through such obstacles, the role of historical styling in skyscrapers is. . .spectacle, a means to call attention away from the predictability of the monolith in its variant forms—wedge, slab, cylinder, and soon. A time-honored motive in building, the spectacular acts as a narcissistic element that does not so much engage us as invite us to behold a theatrical outcome.

For an idea of how spectacular impulses are elastically expressed within rigid display, the most representative guide is in the work of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, New York, maybe the most popular designers of the last decade. They know how to band their buildings in high-contrast horizontal strips, and they have realized a dramatic concave frontage at a New York intersection.4 They can make a curtained wall drum disappear into a masonry tower. The monotony of the grid holds no terrors for them because they can fluently change its scale and texture on the different faces of a structure. Within the circumstances of a site, an axial ambiguity is often set up. There is no end to the virtuosity of the temples, basilicas, campaniles, rotundas, and lanterns with which they crown their sometimes flared or stepped spires. Atria and small plazas provide nominal amenities. And as their written programs show, the architects want constantly to reflect the spatial and iconographic environment into which their nominally responsive works are inserted.

But the mnemonic elements are isolated in their placement, and often fail to signify, having the feel of expensive mock-ups rather than wholehearted imitations. Viewers begin to perceive these architects’ very elaborate synthesis as a process that substitutes images for other images, rather than one that amalgamates ideas into new statements. The building cannot, in fact, be an honest broker of local styles when its goal is to displace attention—the opposite of fitting in. For all their apparent aplomb, the KPF designers tend to look over their shoulders, as if unsure of their stylistic rights.

One might say they demonstrate a liberal anxiety within a reactionary scene. William Pedersen writes, creditably, “To trace the evolution of our work is to trace . . . strategies aimed at bringing the primitive characters of this building type . . . insular, autonomous, and discrete, into a more social state of existence so that it can once again assist in shaping the public realm within our cities.”5 But the intent to reproduce the confusion of nearby architectural signals leads to a hyperactive designing—louvers or grates collaged with “punched” windows—that overloads the shaft with textures. The ambivalence of this work comes not so much from the designers’ own taste for surprise, or sensitivity to an esthetic bind, as from their desire to make symbolic amends to the community. That kind of well-meaning but external approach neutralizes the ornamental features of their buildings, which oscillate from vaguely Roman to Vienna Secession, brittle always, and suggestive of nothing more than generic wealth. Real decorative activity, in fact, falls away, leaving only a spiritless richesse.

The skyscraper’s lobby makes the most ostentatious point about such wealth, little realizing that the effect of a money vault too often turns into the perception of a burial vault. The granites and veined marbles, the chromes and polishes, the elaborate inlays, enhance a funereal mood. Whether open, as in Roche and Dinkeloo’s Leo Burnett Building in Chicago, 1985–89, or cramped, as in Murphy/Jahn’s International Plaza in New York, 1987–89, with its blue light descending from the oculus of a small dome, this typically inert space usually defeats the lobby’s hospitable role.6 The general disappointment of the skyscraper’s only obligatory public room stems in part from the atrophy of faith in any historical ornament that could vitalize it. An earlier skyscraper style, Art Deco, had just as many forebears, some quite exotic. But Art Deco architecture also celebrated the present, not as an era of timeless abstraction or retrospective consciousness, but as a moment condensed in the harmony of nature and culture. One has only to think of the Chrysler Building, apparently emergent from its own chrysalis, or of the rippling cream-marble scrolls that define the mezzanine space in the lobby of the Chicago Board of Trade. Compared to their crisp, demotic spectacle, the associations of today’s historical eclecticism ward us off with an institutionalism that is socially divisive and architecturally cold. Indeed, we now see in skyscrapers an institutionalism that could not have failed to find shelter but is symbolically homeless. There is no rationale of space to be discovered in it, and no continuity with a heritage, only the semblance of one. As we assess our own culture, reflected here, we must give up our confidence that such things can be easily repossessed.

A fundamental deficit is lodged in the phenomenology of the building type itself. The Otis elevator took the liturgical or military towers of old into a new commercial stratosphere that was all our own. Unforeseen at the beginning of this development, the costs have proven to be decidedly punitive. I am not referring only to the way skyscrapers theatricalize their very real drain upon energy, which is ever harder to afford. (Such wastage is apparently indispensable to the American way of life.) In its early time, as represented by Louis Sullivan’s theory and practice, the skyscraper form was equated with a principle of natural growth, and therefore with certain ideas of an accord between a natural order and a pragmatic materialism. We see today a thoughtless distortion of that metaphor, beyond our ability to pay for it, or even our powers of reckoning. On the contrary, what is now plainly revealed is the fundamental strangeness, the pure irrationality, of the form itself.

For instance, we can’t say that a skyscraper is an elongated version of a familiar morph, as is its otherwise very appropriate companion, the stretch limo. The building is predetermined as a naturally extendable stack of floor plates whose spaces need not be articulated by the outer shell in terms of function. Though the office architects and engineers are vitally involved, the designer of the shell, like the director of a movie, is given the significant credit. The esthetics of skyscrapers, in fact, are confined to shape, profile, and external style, as if all these features came together in realizing only an impenetrable solid. Try as they may to relate the lobby to the building as, for example, an overture opens an opera, the architects cannot disguise the fact of that space as only an alienated gesture profoundly cut off from the true business of the place. (Though characteristic of several 20th-century building types, this deficit is particularly amplified here.)

Any organic impetus is defeated by the principle of additive construction. These structures cannot realize their narrative potential: they stand before us as failed narratives, intricate, efficient beyond the reach of any previous culture, and tongue-tied. As the Dutch architect and critic Rem Koolhaas so brilliantly puts it, “This category of monument presents a radical, morally traumatic break with the conventions of symbolism: its physical manifestation does not represent an abstract ideal . . . a readable articulation of social hierarchy, a memorial; it merely is itself and through sheer volume cannot avoid being a symbol—an empty one, available for meaning as a billboard is for advertisement. It is a solipsism, celebrating only the fact of its disproportionate existence, the shamelessness of its own process of creation.”7

Skyscrapers came of age initially during the era of Manifest Destiny, and their latest cycle here concludes as the empire deteriorates, in a moment of economic downturn and financial swindle. They belong to a class of human artifacts so huge—and therefore climactic—that besides themselves it includes only certain dams and bridges, rocket gantries, and archaic aircraft carriers. Like the latter two, skyscrapers afforded an uplifting myth that is now more than tarnished. They no longer anticipate any symbolic future or rebirth. Their role as spectacle is bound up, rather, with an image of frustrated power.

All along, and never more obviously than now, these megastructures have operated as a protest against the evident fact that our society and our system—too often equated as the same—have material limits. As a result, one does not know whether to regard these relentlessly uppercase buildings more as fatuous productions or pathetic monuments. The vanity of them, at any rate, is in our bloodstream, and we would be known by it. How imperceptive, then, to rest a case against them on such technical flaws as a typical confusion between size and scale, when their whole existence stems from that confusion, through which they dramatize their pride. But pride has turned into avarice, and represents a significant defeat of our notions of community and democracy. This outcome, of course, is publicly inadmissible. The same applies to a desperation that seeks to disguise the reality of a building that would soar, but can only go upward. As viewers, we are constrained to wander among these amazing, unconsoling presences, trite but incommensurable, born of the most empirical motives that have achieved the most irrational effects, artifacts that yawn above us but have no reach. In the end, we must regard them as one more conspicuous index of how the American century has defined itself.

Max Kozloff contributes frequently to Artforum.



1. See, for instance, Peter Blake, Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn’t Worked, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977, pp. 67–83; Dolores Hayden, “Skyscraper Seduction—Skyscraper Rape,” Heresies 1 no. 2, May 1977, pp. 108–115; Ross Miller, “Putting on the Glitz,” Dissent 37 no. 1, Winter 1990, pp. 27–35; and Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen, The Skyward Trend of Thought: The Metaphysics of the American Skyscraper, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988.

2. See Stanley Tigerman, Tribune Tower Competition, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1981, p. 146.

3. Robert Harbison, Eccentric Spaces, Boston: Godine, 1988, p. 51.

4. 135 East 57th Street, at Lexington Avenue.

5. William Pedersen, quoted in Sonia Cháo and Trevor D. Abramson, eds., Kohn Pedersen Fox, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1987, p. 302.

6. A rare exception is the energy of the round, shop-lined gallery of David Childs’ (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) Worldwide Plaza, New York, 1985–89, which achieves a truly Mannerist pull. Even more anomalous, the wonderfully airy light diffused from the metallic-painted fiberglass-and-gypsum-board barrel-vaulted ceiling in Cesar Pelli’s hangarlike lobby at 181 West Madison Street, 1988–90, in Chicago, proves that atmospherics can be elegant where materials are only luxurious.

7. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, pp. 81–82.

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