The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (Book Review)

 

Kate Ascher, The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (New York: Penguin Press, 2011)

Skyscrapers are a vital component of modern cites.  They allow tens of thousands of people to work in close proximity, allowing them to share ideas.  Tall residential buildings have also become important to supporting vibrant 24 X 7 downtowns, keeping thousands in close proximity to downtown amenities after the workforce has gone home.

Anyone interested in understanding the modern city would benefit from reading Kate Ascher’s masterful tribute to the skyscraper.

Ascher inter-weaves detailed technical descriptions of building components with a overarching narrative covering the relationship between skyscrapers and broader human history and the history of science.  The beautiful illustrations and photographs assist in the visual appeal of this book that would proudly sit atop any coffee table.  Her descriptions of the technology, materials, mechanical  systems and engineering challenges involved in constructing tall buildings are fascinating and highly readable to a non-technical reader (such as me).  Yet, I suspect those with an engineering or construction background would find the descriptions equally compelling.

This book offers something for almost everyone, whether your interest lies in engineering, construction, real estate or cities.  As someone with a Ph.D. in history (although I work in the real estate investment industry), I was particularly drawn to Ascher’s discussion of the relationship between the economy, history of capitalism, history of technology and skyscraper evolution.

The industrial revolution and more specifically the mass-production of steel made the skyscraper revolution possible.

…the development of the internal steel skeleton permitted larger windows and more usable floor area…by the turn of the [19th] century, steel had replaced cast iron as the backbone of choice for new skyscrapers, and buildings of 15 to 20 stories [sic] had been completed in both New York and Chicago

The booming US economy from the 1880s through to 1929 allowed for a race to the sky that did not occur elsewhere, and New York and Chicago were the preeminent cities for this race..  Ascher describes how booming corporations each attempted to out-do each other in constructing ever taller buildings.  In 1930 there were vrtually no buildings with skyscraper technology outside of the USA.  This was an American phenomenon.

It was not until the post-world-war-two expansion in the 1950s and 1960s that the skyscraper race to the top began again (although the style was the plain, modernist rather than the ornate art deco of the 1930s notes Ascher). And this time, it was slightly more global with Europe joining in.

Ascher correctly notes that the tallest buildings of an era tend to begin just before an economic downturn. The twin World Trade Centre towers of New York began construction in 1972.  Although Ascher avoids much non-technical (and therefore political) discussion of these buildings, looking back as an historian, I might argue that they represented the culmination of America’s 20th century economic expansion—the end of an era.

When the skyscraper race began again, in the 1990s, Ascher notes it became an Asian era.  Here’s some perspective she offers on the Asian rise: before 1980, 85% of buildings over 500 feet high (150 metres) were in North America.  By 2008 72% of skyscrapers were outside of North America.

The Asian version has tended to be mixed use.  Whereas in North America skyscrapers tended to offer only office and occasionally residential, in Asia developers combine retail, residential and even hotels within a single building. The new Burj Khalifa in Dubai is presented as the prime example of this urban lifestyle building where people live, work and play.

Ascher covers an impressive range of subjects and knowledge in this book from history to civil, mechanical and environmental engineering. Her background is a Ph.D. in government from the London School of Economics followed up with time in the real estate and consulting sectors. Specialists in any of the myriad topics she covers will no doubt find the occasional fact or interpretation to quibble with, as I did. But these do not detract from what the book offers–a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary examination of skyscrapers and their relationship to economic and urban history.

Ascher ends with a good question: what would Jane Jacobs think of cites in which a large percentage of the population lives in skyscrapers?  Do they allow for enough informal interaction that Jacobs believed helps to build community?

Maybe these are good questions for the TED prize initiative around Cities 2.0. How to we better build communities in the sky?

3 comments

  1. trish says:

    That’s fascinating about how the tallest buildings of an era tend to begin just before an economic downturn, and then your argument that the twin towers represented the culmination of America’s 20th century economic expansion—the end of an era. I never thought of what skyscrapers might represent; that adds a whole new dimension to the discussion.

    I also love that you think this book provides something for everyone. I have an 8 month old son, and I’m looking ahead to books that are of the how-things-work variety, and this seems to fit the bill quite nice.

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  2. Haans says:

    I purchased the book and find it to be pretty but full of technical errors. Many sections are like Star Trek techno-babble. They sound technical but are meaningless. I wonder if the author didn’t just make a lot of the book up? The lack of a bibliography adds additional suspicion.

  3. Catherine says:

    I was searching for reviews on this book on google, and it looks like someone is copying your review: http://mars-girls.com/view/The-Heights-Anatomy-of-a-Skyscraper-Book-Review_35090 That just came up in a google search, so I don’t know anything about the website, but I thought you might want to know.