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Author Topic: The case against the skyscraper  (Read 1274 times)

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Online thebillshark

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The case against the skyscraper
« on: April 15, 2018, 09:14:10 AM »
It may sound strange to question (and be unpopular in this forum,) and indeed they are a powerful symbol of modernity and optimism, but are skyscrapers a positive development for the urban form?

1. The oldest ones today are only about a hundred years old. How will they handle aging through 200, 300 years?

2. They’re hugely expensive to build and maintain and require lots of concentrated capital to do so. That means they’re vulnerable to the sources of that capital drying up. It’s hard to imagine that happening everywhere all at once, but easy to imagine economic shifts, technology, or geopolitics taking away the sources of wealth of at least some cities currently experiencing skyscraper booms.

3. A related point to #2 above is they are large scale, course grained structures by nature. Fine grained urbanism is better at allowing a greater variety of building owners charging rent at different price points, which is more conducive to the organic growth of diverse small businesses.

4. If a skyscraper has some negative effect in its surroundings, that mistake is locked in. It’s rarely heard of for a skyscraper being methodically dismantled and replaced with another structure.

5. In Midwest cities that sprawl outward, a skyscraper can suck up what urban demand that exists. Meanwhile abandoned/empty buildings, vacant lots and parking oceans abound elsewhere downtown.

6. People love cities with height limits like Paris, Washington DC, or Barcelona (which is mostly mid rise with some skyscrapers.) Those cities have celebrated urbanism/strong urban fabric.

Thoughts? Tell me what I’m getting wrong or counterpoints! (This is more of a thought experiment for me than anything else.)

In particular what effect would a height limit on new construction, from this day forward, have on cities in the Midwest? Would it change how we grow? Would it improve our urban fabric and make it more cohesive? Would we construct better mass transit systems or have different parking needs? Or would it be completely harmful and drive away growth?

Online 1400 Sycamore

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #1 on: April 15, 2018, 09:59:27 AM »
We have one of the worst examples squatting on our most treasured footprint: Fountain Square. The Fifth Third Center is a mess. I am told it is loaded with asbestos, completed in 1969. Horribly inefficient, ugly as they come and basically immovable.

Offline mu2010

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #2 on: April 15, 2018, 10:58:32 AM »
5. In Midwest cities that sprawl outward, a skyscraper can suck up what urban demand that exists. Meanwhile abandoned/empty buildings, vacant lots and parking oceans abound elsewhere downtown.

6. People love cities with height limits like Paris, Washington DC, or Barcelona (which is mostly mid rise with some skyscrapers.) Those cities have celebrated urbanism/strong urban fabric.


Long time skyscraper skeptic here. I have never traveled to Hong Kong, Sao Paolo, or other huge skyscraper oriented cities (and so my only real experience with enormous skyscraper cities would be NY and Chicago) but my experiences traveling across the great cities of Europe have definitely convinced me that height is irrelevant for a great city.

Even European cities which have skyscrapers, like London, the skyscrapers are not seen as an important thing.  The skyline is equivalent to a very medium sized city in the US, not one of the world's leading financial centers.

In Cleveland, the population boom downtown has mostly consisted of residential conversions of old office towers, which has been great, but contrast it with Columbus and all the mid-rises along High St. You end up getting much longer unbroken stretches of vibrant streets.
« Last Edit: April 15, 2018, 11:03:05 AM by mu2010 »

Offline Dougal

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #3 on: April 15, 2018, 12:06:49 PM »
2. They’re hugely expensive to build and maintain and require lots of concentrated capital to do so. That means they’re vulnerable to the sources of that capital drying up. It’s hard to imagine that happening everywhere all at once, but easy to imagine economic shifts, technology, or geopolitics taking away the sources of wealth of at least some cities currently experiencing skyscraper booms.

If you look around Cleveland, you will find that two-story wooden structures are just as vulnerable.  Economic shifts sink all boats, so to speak.

Your economic worry is a genuine concern; the style of the architecture is an independent variable.
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Online thebillshark

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #4 on: April 15, 2018, 12:33:40 PM »
2. They’re hugely expensive to build and maintain and require lots of concentrated capital to do so. That means they’re vulnerable to the sources of that capital drying up. It’s hard to imagine that happening everywhere all at once, but easy to imagine economic shifts, technology, or geopolitics taking away the sources of wealth of at least some cities currently experiencing skyscraper booms.

If you look around Cleveland, you will find that two-story wooden structures are just as vulnerable.  Economic shifts sink all boats, so to speak.

Your economic worry is a genuine concern; the style of the architecture is an independent variable.

True, but someone on a middle class salary with pluck and gumption can bring a two story structure back from the dead. Not so with a skyscraper. It’s more so about scale than style.

Offline NEOBuckeye

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #5 on: April 15, 2018, 02:32:11 PM »
I'm not against them, per se. Honestly, most Midwestern cities have relatively few skyscrapers to begin with, and no city seems likely to go down the path of a Chicago or Tokyo anytime soon, if ever, to the point where we need to think about regulating them on a mass scale.

I'm mostly in the camp of wishing that some of our cities, like Cleveland, did a better job following through on some of their shelved proposals (e.g. Progressive Tower), if for no other reason than the fact that these would have contributed substantially to their character in ways both obvious and less so.

At the same time, I also wish Columbus, for example, had adhered better to its 1908 plan. We missed out on what could have been one of the most beautiful capitol squares in the US for a few mostly meh office towers across from the Statehouse on High St that easily could have been built elsewhere around its perimeter. The effect is a statehouse that seems almost incidental to the city and state, rather than a place of import with purpose beyond serving as the seat of state government. Overlooking urban form considerations like this are my only real critique in the construction of skyscrapers, but skyscrapers themselves obviously aren't to blame.

Offline Robuu

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #6 on: April 16, 2018, 09:47:40 AM »
2. They’re hugely expensive to build and maintain and require lots of concentrated capital to do so. That means they’re vulnerable to the sources of that capital drying up. It’s hard to imagine that happening everywhere all at once, but easy to imagine economic shifts, technology, or geopolitics taking away the sources of wealth of at least some cities currently experiencing skyscraper booms.

If you look around Cleveland, you will find that two-story wooden structures are just as vulnerable.  Economic shifts sink all boats, so to speak.

Your economic worry is a genuine concern; the style of the architecture is an independent variable.

True, but someone on a middle class salary with pluck and gumption can bring a two story structure back from the dead. Not so with a skyscraper. It’s more so about scale than style.

A two-story structure. That's just one parcel of land. Equivalent to a single condo in a skyscraper.

Even if a skyscraper totally deteriorates to the point it must come down, that is one parcel of land. As opposed to the two-story equivalent of space, which is a whole block or more of decay.

I think there are a couple things which skyscrapers excel at, which you can't replicate with a height-restricted city.

One is somewhat theoretical: keeping housing affordable. This is hard to prove, because 1) it's impossible to say what the rent would be in, say, Midtown Manhattan, without the high-rise residential buildings, and 2) there just aren't many or any examples of cities where there's an abundance of low-to-mid-end apartments in skyscrapers. Maybe in Asia there are, but North America has had super weird urban migration and construction patterns which has lead to alternating gluts and dearths of neighborhood housing supplies. And South America has such income disparity that talking of lower-middle or middle income classes (and hence housing for them) doesn't compute in the same way or at all.

The second thing is just limiting the footprint of a city, which has major environmental benefits. It also has economic benefits, since less infrastructure needs to be bought and maintained per capita. Basically, a skyscraper city is more efficient.

Offline Foraker

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #7 on: April 16, 2018, 12:37:00 PM »
I think there are a couple things which skyscrapers excel at, which you can't replicate with a height-restricted city.

One is somewhat theoretical: keeping housing affordable. This is hard to prove, because 1) it's impossible to say what the rent would be in, say, Midtown Manhattan, without the high-rise residential buildings, and 2) there just aren't many or any examples of cities where there's an abundance of low-to-mid-end apartments in skyscrapers. Maybe in Asia there are, but North America has had super weird urban migration and construction patterns which has lead to alternating gluts and dearths of neighborhood housing supplies. And South America has such income disparity that talking of lower-middle or middle income classes (and hence housing for them) doesn't compute in the same way or at all.

The second thing is just limiting the footprint of a city, which has major environmental benefits. It also has economic benefits, since less infrastructure needs to be bought and maintained per capita. Basically, a skyscraper city is more efficient.

I don't know, skyscrapers are so much more expensive to build than a mid-rise building, from having to deal with wind loads, possible seismic loads, deeper and stronger foundations, not to mention operating and maintaining the elevators, pumping water to the top floors and getting sewage back down.  The construction cost is so high that it's hard to imagine that you could rent any of it out as affordable low-end apartments.

And if the 50th floor is a disaster, how do you repurpose it for another use?  It's probably only suitable as office or apartments/condos.  No retail.  Can't easily be refurbished for light industrial.  Fewer options than a mid-rise building.

While a few iconic skyscrapers seem to provide some pride and distinctiveness in a city, overall I think the tax base in Cleveland would be stronger if we built six-story mid-rises on every empty lot downtown than if we built one new 20+ story tower.  (There's a research idea for an urban planning student!)

I also don't see how building skyscrapers reduces the city's footprint.  If we plot the area within the Cleveland metropolitan area, with metropolitan population, and plot when our bigger towers were built, do we see any slowdown in the expanding metropolitan boundary?  We'd be better off making the Emerald Necklace continuous and 2-miles wide and just stop subsidizing any development outside that border than building skyscrapers on all the vacant downtown lots.  Not that many Clevelanders are going to want to move to downtown.

Offline Robuu

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #8 on: April 16, 2018, 01:51:19 PM »
I'm more thinking of affordable units spread out across buildings, like what might come out of a successful inclusionary zoning policy. So affordable units in a building would be functionally subsidized by market rate units. Definitely true that construction financing becomes more complicated, and that is a common critique of inclusionary zoning.

As for reducing the footprint, it's a priori true that a Cleveland built at the density of Midtown Manhattan would have a smaller footprint than a Cleveland with no skyscrapers. I'm just examining the capabilities of skyscrapers at that level of abstraction: skyscrapers hold more people and businesses per square foot of land area; extend that out to many skyscrapers over square miles, and you can have more city in a smaller footprint.

Offline E Rocc

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #9 on: April 16, 2018, 03:04:49 PM »
They are a symbol of excellence in design and construction.  The triumph of ambition and will over gravity and other challenges.  The same things that sent us to the moon sent us past the 100 story mark.   If you don't try for greatness sometimes, there's really no point.

They make skylines recognizable from a distance.   DC and Paris being special cases for historical reasons.   Though each has its own iconic structure.

Online jmecklenborg

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #10 on: April 16, 2018, 03:30:26 PM »
Paris has a higher residential density than does New York City, despite its almost total lack of skyscrapers. 

Washington, DC seems to be doing just fine with zero high-rises. 

Offline Dougal

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #11 on: April 16, 2018, 04:13:25 PM »
Paris has a higher residential density than does New York City, despite its almost total lack of skyscrapers. 

Washington, DC seems to be doing just fine with zero high-rises. 

Paris has skyscrapers.

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Online jmecklenborg

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #12 on: April 16, 2018, 04:17:13 PM »

Paris has skyscrapers.



Yeah a handful of them, and not in the center of town.  And they look totally out-of-place, as tends to be the case in Europe. 

Offline Brutus_buckeye

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #13 on: April 16, 2018, 04:23:46 PM »
Paris looks about as dense as LA downtown or Seattle. It is kinda like New York with the downtown financial district and mid-town areas complimenting each other.

Offline Cincy513

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #14 on: April 16, 2018, 04:31:46 PM »
I wouldn't exactly call that a handful of skyscrapers in Paris.  They just aren't allowed in certain historic parts of the city so they created their own business district. 

Offline Chris DoorDashian

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #15 on: April 16, 2018, 04:32:04 PM »
"Downtown" Paris is actually completely low-rise and centered around the 8th and 9th arrondissements.  It's like an older downtown Washington DC...with stuff. La Défense, outside the city, would be akin to Rosslyn (but actually in the same "state") on steroids.  The city of Paris' largest "skyline" is in the 15th, mostly along the Seine and would be their...well...DC Waterfront Yards area with highrises:

« Last Edit: April 16, 2018, 04:36:08 PM by ColDayMan »
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Offline Robuu

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #16 on: April 16, 2018, 04:52:53 PM »
Paris has a higher residential density than does New York City, despite its almost total lack of skyscrapers. 

Which is why I said "a Cleveland built at the density of Midtown Manhattan" and not "a Cleveland built at the density of NYC"

Offline AmrapinVA

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #17 on: April 16, 2018, 05:57:23 PM »
Paris or DC can’t be the standard for much larger and faster growing urban areas like Manila or Shanghai.

Future major cities are on a growth trajectory never seen before. Five-story buildings aren’t going to cut it for a city that will be at 40 million in a few decades.

The death of the skyscraper isn’t happening globally. Skyscraper construction is accelerating at an incredible speed in East/South Asia and parts of the Middle East. Even lower income cities like Karachi and Mumbai are seeing a boom.

Or are we strictly talking about the Midwest here? That’s a whole different case where capping makes sense.




« Last Edit: April 16, 2018, 06:06:23 PM by AmrapinVA »

Offline 327

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #18 on: April 16, 2018, 07:37:22 PM »
Cleveland has long suffered from a lack of high-rise living options.  Not everyone prefers that but some do.  The 3 towers we're building right now are the first new ones in a generation.  We needed those just to maintain some balance in our housing market.

Another factor is location, for projects like the Lumen especially.  The whole point of that project is to offer immediate proximity to the theaters.  Spreading out the units would be self-defeating, it needs to be a tower.

Offline Toddguy

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #19 on: April 16, 2018, 08:14:53 PM »
It may sound strange to question (and be unpopular in this forum,) and indeed they are a powerful symbol of modernity and optimism, but are skyscrapers a positive development for the urban form?

1. The oldest ones today are only about a hundred years old. How will they handle aging through 200, 300 years?

2. They’re hugely expensive to build and maintain and require lots of concentrated capital to do so. That means they’re vulnerable to the sources of that capital drying up. It’s hard to imagine that happening everywhere all at once, but easy to imagine economic shifts, technology, or geopolitics taking away the sources of wealth of at least some cities currently experiencing skyscraper booms.

3. A related point to #2 above is they are large scale, course grained structures by nature. Fine grained urbanism is better at allowing a greater variety of building owners charging rent at different price points, which is more conducive to the organic growth of diverse small businesses.

4. If a skyscraper has some negative effect in its surroundings, that mistake is locked in. It’s rarely heard of for a skyscraper being methodically dismantled and replaced with another structure.

5. In Midwest cities that sprawl outward, a skyscraper can suck up what urban demand that exists. Meanwhile abandoned/empty buildings, vacant lots and parking oceans abound elsewhere downtown.

6. People love cities with height limits like Paris, Washington DC, or Barcelona (which is mostly mid rise with some skyscrapers.) Those cities have celebrated urbanism/strong urban fabric.

Thoughts? Tell me what I’m getting wrong or counterpoints! (This is more of a thought experiment for me than anything else.)

In particular what effect would a height limit on new construction, from this day forward, have on cities in the Midwest? Would it change how we grow? Would it improve our urban fabric and make it more cohesive? Would we construct better mass transit systems or have different parking needs? Or would it be completely harmful and drive away growth?


I can actually agree, and at the same time disagree, with almost all the points made. There is always a counter argument to be made.

I don't think we have enough real skyscrapers being built in most cities in the US for it really to be an issue in most areas. They can be often modified at the street level to be more "street friendly".  Adequate public transit could also help alleviate the problems that are the worst things that come with them-the huge surface parking lots, huge garages that are the bane of downtowns everywhere, or the "tower on the Podium" type of construction which just leaves a dead space in the building and puts actual uses that much higher up and removed from the street.

And yes people love Paris and DC and Barcelona, but they also love Dubai(not necessarily people on here), New York, etc.  People flock to visit those cities too.


And Paris basically just built itself a downtown very similar to what we find here(just with better public transit) just outside the city limits. La Defense is still a functioning part of the Paris urban area and is only 3 miles from the center of Paris. Instead of knocking down the center of their city like we did so many of ours, they knocked down 3 square miles of somewhat mixed use rundown suburbs and relocated the 25,000 people who lived there (some into monstrous high rise nightmare tower complexes). They were later at it, and smarter about it, and learned from their mistake (Tour Montparnasse).  Paris was worth (generally) preserving.

Basically there are pros, and there are cons, with skyscrapers as there are with most things.


*I actually wish London would have followed the lead that Paris set and had established the Docklands, and everything east of a north/south line there, as a financial/skyscraper/highrise district. I think central London is starting to look like a botanical garden of exotic skyscraper species, each narcissistic and full of itself speaking only to itself but having no relation whatsoever to each other or anything else around them. JMHO.

Offline AmrapinVA

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #20 on: April 16, 2018, 08:36:11 PM »
Was Paris smarter?

Segregation in Paris is so bad now it led to riots not so long ago. Their north suburbs have housing projects that could be dropped into Queens or the Bronx and fit right in.

Paris is romanticized by too many tourists. DC and Barcelona too.

Offline Toddguy

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #21 on: April 16, 2018, 08:47:16 PM »
Was Paris smarter?

Segregation in Paris is so bad now it led to riots not so long ago. Their north suburbs have housing projects that could be dropped into Queens or the Bronx and fit right in.

Paris is romanticized by too many tourists. DC and Barcelona too.


Well what I was discussing was Paris was smarter in not destroying a good swath of the central city and simply locating a downtown business center in a better but still proximate location. Those 3 square miles that were sacrificed were worth it. Now all of that other stuff is a different question.

Personally I would not want to live as packed in as those pics of the densest parts of Paris and certainly of Barcelona. I think most of DC is relatively low rise and certainly low density especially compared to the other two. How many people (especially outside of this forum) would really want to live in areas that have densities from 50,000 to 100,000 persons per square mile? 

I love tall buildings but personally even if I had the choice I would want a small yard/garden or even a "yardlette" or courtyard with plants. I would have to be very wealthy to have that in central Paris or Barcelona, and the probably only on a rooftop terrace or something.

« Last Edit: April 16, 2018, 08:50:17 PM by Toddguy »

Online jmecklenborg

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #22 on: April 16, 2018, 10:26:34 PM »
Two of the densest cities in the United States are the adjacent Cambridge and Sommerville, MA, which have very few residential high-rises.  The prevailing building height is 3 floors, not 6 as is the case in Paris. 

The big difference between Cambridge & Sommerville and areas that superficially look similar to them in Ohio is that the buildings often take up most of the lot and so have six large apartments instead of just two or three as is typical where I live in Cincinnati (outside Over-the-Rhine).  So it's usually 2x as dense as it looks.  They're of a similar population today to Over-the-Rhine in its heyday, and significantly denser than other areas of Cincinnati that look dense like Northside and Clifton Heights. 

Here is the street where I used to live...this is WAY denser than pretty much anywhere in Ohio, and it goes on and on for several square miles:
https://www.google.com/maps/@42.3676216,-71.0985697,3a,75y,36.05h,96.71t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1slRKPOQf4SWCYFook6hglwA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

Offline jjakucyk

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #23 on: April 17, 2018, 08:34:48 AM »
Quote
5. In Midwest cities that sprawl outward, a skyscraper can suck up what urban demand that exists. Meanwhile abandoned/empty buildings, vacant lots and parking oceans abound elsewhere downtown.

It's important to ask which of these things is actually the cause versus the symptom.  Aside from Manhattan and Chicago, skyscrapers (or even just high rises of any sort) didn't really become a thing until after zoning codes started locking down density everywhere but the center of the business district.  The parking oceans are more a case of poor property tax policy that rewards depreciation and vacancy.  Abandoned/empty buildings near downtown are also caused more by strict single-use zoning that's in conflict with what's in demand for that neighborhood.  All that said, the downtown high rise does tend to function as a demand sink, but only because of the system that's been set up around it.  If you need large floor plates or proximity to similarly sized businesses you don't really have any other choice. 

Offline mu2010

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #24 on: April 17, 2018, 08:40:00 AM »
Two of the densest cities in the United States are the adjacent Cambridge and Sommerville, MA, which have very few residential high-rises.  The prevailing building height is 3 floors, not 6 as is the case in Paris. 

The big difference between Cambridge & Sommerville and areas that superficially look similar to them in Ohio is that the buildings often take up most of the lot and so have six large apartments instead of just two or three as is typical where I live in Cincinnati (outside Over-the-Rhine).  So it's usually 2x as dense as it looks.  They're of a similar population today to Over-the-Rhine in its heyday, and significantly denser than other areas of Cincinnati that look dense like Northside and Clifton Heights. 

Here is the street where I used to live...this is WAY denser than pretty much anywhere in Ohio, and it goes on and on for several square miles:
https://www.google.com/maps/@42.3676216,-71.0985697,3a,75y,36.05h,96.71t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1slRKPOQf4SWCYFook6hglwA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

Even he LA metro area, which in spite of its car dependency is one of the densest in the country, is mostly a bunch of single family homes on very small lots on a very tight street grid.

Offline viscomi

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #25 on: April 17, 2018, 10:53:58 AM »
From a purely visual/livability and functionality standpoint i'm in the camp that is all up to how it's done. You can have a great skyscraper city as well as  an awful one. As you can also have a great low-rise city as well as pretty awful one (i.e. majority of United Sates built env.)

As far as the future maintenance of skyscrapers, i don't know. There isn't much historic information to analyze. Some of the first built skyscrapers are now in the part of their life-cycle that they need major upkeep overhauls, and they are getting it for the most part. But these are beautiful and treasured icons. I cant help but to wonder how we will manage some of these newer throw-away built skyscraper assets.  They certainly can't be left to beautifully degrade like the stone structures in an old world villages/cities. They will pose huge threats if not re-invested in.

Offline 327

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #26 on: April 17, 2018, 11:01:47 AM »
Dubai is planning one right now that will dwarf the monster they already have.  So is Riyadh.  What happens when their oil runs out, or when climate change makes that region uninhabitable?  Part of me wants to be there to hear the boom when one of those things falls.

Offline JYP

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Re: The case against the skyscraper
« Reply #27 on: April 17, 2018, 11:02:16 AM »
Here's a good article about the demolition and repurposing of skyscrapers.

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20535821

Interesting quote here:

"They need to be designed to be never taken down, such that their life cycle is as close to forever as you can get," he says.

"No-one's talking about when the pyramids are going to come down."
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