Shaping the Future of Skyscrapers



Graphic of typical tubular rectangle skyscraper shapesSilhouettes of urban skylines render skyscrapers as simple geometric shapes. Usually the answer to the question “What is the shape of a skyscraper?” is either “a rectangular prism” or “a blocky spire.”

The common tubular shape of skyscrapers is not without purpose. The shape helps tall structures resist lateral loads, such as wind and seismic activity.

However, modern skyscrapers take on a variety of shapes. Advances in engineering and construction technologies have freed architects to be as creative as they want to be—for functional or purely esoteric purposes.

Twisted Tower in Toulouse, FrancePlants define the twists around the Occitanie Tower (right, photo credit: Libeskind Studios) in Toulouse, France. The contrast between the soft textures of green against the glass of the building is striking.

"The tower becomes a unique object in a vast urban space,” said Daniel Libeskind of New York-based firm Studio Libeskind. “The tower will not only become a destination, but also a defining public space."

Skyscraper as Evocation of Place

The idea of a building defining—or being defined by—its locale is increasing in popularity.  The Occitanie Tower is just one example.

The building’s twisting shape references the waterways of the Canal du Midi, which winds through the city. The glazing of the building’s façade will reflect the pink lighting that other buildings in the city of Toulouse emit, and the brightness of this material will change perception of the space, according to the variation of light," said Libeskind.

The unusual design of a mixed-use building in Poland owes itself to the history of its community. Spanish architecture studio bakpak’s The Pottery Courtyard is a multipurpose building inspired by the work of local ceramics artisans.

Japan-based firm Kengo Kuma and Associates in late April unveiled designs for a new modern art museum in Eskisehir, Turkey, with the aim of promoting modern Turkish art to locals. The Odunpazari Modern Art Museum is inspired by traditional Ottoman houses that are made from wood and feature a cantilevered volume at the upper levels.

Skyscraper as Art

Beauty has become a driving factor in how skyscrapers are designed.

Height is one of the most prominent features of any commercial building. For aesthetic appeal, and to make the most efficient use of space, architects and builders usually look straight up. However, architect Ioannis Oikonomou, the founder of Oiio Studio, has another idea. Rather than building massive towers that rely solely on height to impress, he proposes building the world's longest building, not the tallest. “The Big Bend,” proposed for New York City, would be shaped like an upside-down “U.” It would be around 4,000 ft (1219 m) long, but less than 2,000 ft (610 m) tall.

London’s One Blackfriars is nicknamed The Boomerang due to its backward-bending profile. The luxury residential tower is set to reach a full height of 535 ft (163 m) upon completion later this year. The Boomerang seemingly bends as it goes skyward, bulging in the middle before tapering back.

Farther up the same road as the Boomerang will be another uniquely shaped tower. 18 Blackfriars Road will be a 585.6 ft (178.5 m) residential development. Sections of the tower will jut out and give it the appearance of a stack of glazed blocks. Each glazed façade is intended to be slightly angled to reflect light in different ways to make it appear less staid.

An even more pronounced blocky design for a skyscraper is being used in the under-construction 1500 West Georgia project in Vancouver, BC, Canada. The residential skyscraper evokes the popular block-stacking game Jenga with several levels extending outward horizontally in every direction. The architect, Hong-Kong-based Buro Ole Scheeren says the extruded design is intended to "engage the space of the city." It says its unusual design promotes “both physical and emotional connectivity between the indoor and outdoor environment.”

What is being called the world's first rotating skyscraper has been approved for Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The Dynamic Tower is an 80-story, 1,380 ft (420 m) residential building in which each floor is designed to rotate independently at 0.2 mph (6 m/min), resulting in the tower constantly changing shape. The architect, David Fisher of Florence, Italy-based Dynamic Architecture, summed up his firm’s motivation for the design in a statement that seems apropos for the entire current wave of unusual building designs. "An architect should design buildings that adjust to life," he said. "They should adapt to our space, our functionalities, and our needs that change continuously—and even to our sense of beauty, itself in continuous motion."

Pragmatic Polarity

Some skyscrapers stray from the norm in design because they pay homage to their environs. Some are different for aesthetic appeal. However, some buildings look different because that is what works.

Spring Street Salt Shed-- by Dattner ArchitectsNew York City’s Spring Street Salt Shed (right, photo credit: Dattner Architects) is one building whose different shape has practical purpose. The 70 ft (21 m) building along the Hudson River literally is to store salt for coating roads in winter. Dattner Architects with WXY Architecture + Urban Design took a simple commission from New York’s Department of Sanitation and made it eye-catching. The salt shed looks like a grain of salt. However, its asymmetric design is not merely to be pretty. The walls of the shed are taller on the side facing the water. This is so the salt rests in an "angle of repose." This slanting position enables salt delivery trucks to drive along one side of the salt mound and dump new batches on top.

As the grandest of architects’ ideas become technologically feasible, the envelope of design is being pushed further outward, where “unusual” designs will ultimately become, like the Salt Shed, simply utilitarian and common.

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