Last week a number of architects and city planners gathered at IIT for "Thinking Outside the Box," a conference sponsored by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Discussions centered around two questions: Can an iconic building be created? and the old perennial, Are skyscrapers good for the street life of a city?
The first question is particularly relevant to all the striver buildings popping up provincial cities in the economic doldrums trying to seem sexy. Some of these buildings are way sexier than their surroundings; the best example is Ma Yansong and Yosuke Hayano's residential tower in Mississauga, Ontario. The building is already a hit with tenants, but it will take popular acclaim and, better yet, a nickname for the building to become an icon and therefore justify the expense and risk of the project.
The Ma and Hayano tower and Norman Foster's now iconic Swiss Re building in London (you know it's an icon because people have given it a nickname, in this case the Gherkin) are examples of the tendency, dating back to Corbusier at least, to build structures that are meant to be photographed, as opposed to occupied or experienced. What do they do for urban experience? This is a much knottier question, which has become all the more pressing as Chicago considers a 2,000 foot spike in our midst. People are getting uneasy about all the show-offy buildings appearing on our skylines, but at least they're not "giant air conditioners on the horizon," as Daniel Libeskind calls the standard-issue office park towers. Yes, Santiago's Spike, as the Fordham Spire is known, has been criticized for its lack of relation to the street, but so was the Sears Tower, a much more conventional (if gigantic) building. Skyscrapers have always had a tense relation to the urban texture from which they rise. Shapely or boxy, skyscrapers have at least as much symbolic value as utilitarian.