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27 May 2020 

Lofty Proportionality: Is raising the skyline the way to go?


issue 26 - March/April 2015
Pondering over the human obsession to build taller buildings, Cleo Cantone wonders if our past can provide inspiration to move away from the disproportionate towers made of steel, glass and concrete

It’s a precarious life for the Latin American window cleaners in New York City. Dangling from dizzying heights in a ‘gondola’ for $15 an hour seems a disproportionately low amount for such a potentially hazardous job. There seems to be little accountability when it comes to the architects of such tall and window cleaner-unfriendly buildings. If building one taller than the last one appears to be the sole feat of the modern architect, some people (mostly ordinary citizens) are starting to question the validity of the mushrooming phenomenon of skyscrapers. A recent petition by 38 degrees, “Save London’s Skyline” reflects this concern, alleging that a further 238 monsters are planned in the capital alone. If their banal names are anything to go by, London’s ‘famous’ skyscrapers pose little threat to the world’s existing seven wonders. According to philosopher-sociologist Henri Lefebvre, the masculine principle is responsible for the construction of phallic architecture. Gherkin, Shard, Walkie-Talikie, Cheese-Grater represent little else than massive erections to their creators’ egos. The last of their considerations, surely, are the cleaners and their poorly paid services to keep these mega-galactic monoliths in pristine condition. The rationale for vertical buildings and cities rests on the premise that high-density dwellings are space saving. Indeed, according to the doyen of modern architecture, Le Corbusier: “Make advantageous use of the free space on the ground; preserve space that is free; magnify things by the feeling of space.” With cities razed to the ground in the Second World War, Europe’s cities needed to be rebuilt and Le Corbusier’s vision was to fill empty spaces with greenery, housing people in high-rise buildings. Opposing Auguste Lumière’s vision of the horizontal city made up of bungalows, Le Corbusier profoundly disagreed that this was a valid solution, rather it was the ‘conquest of height’ that could integrate three essential elements: sun, space, greenery. Thus if the main consideration is to save space as may well be the case in New York, can spiky architecture be justified in the vast expanses of the Gulf desert? Rather than heeding the Qur’an’s admonition: “How many populations have we destroyed which were given to wrongdoing? They tumbled down on their roofs. And how many wells are lying idle and neglected? And castles lofty and well built” (22:42) or Prophetic traditions about the signs of the end of the world including when shepherds compete to build tall buildings (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states apparently have an insatiable appetite for things vertical). While it may be difficult to agree on what constitutes an excessively tall building, the body known as the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) defines a ‘supertall’ building as one that measures 300 metres of which a percentage usually consists of ‘vanity height’, i.e. uninhabitable space (in the case of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, 29% of its vertiginous height is a sacrifice to vanity). A cursory glance at Islamic history reveals sensitivity to matters of urbanisation, down to the finest details of which materials should be used and how they should be priced. For the Hispano-Umayyad caliphs of Cordoba, proportionality was seen as an expression of beauty as these verses by ‘Abd al-Rahman III (r. 912-961) illustrate: “When kings want to immortalise the memory of their loftiest thoughts, They do so through the language of architecture. A building, when it is of noble proportions, Reflects the majesty and rank (of its builder).” (Trans. Ruggles) The inheritor of a diminished empire and ruler of Delhi, Firuz Shah (r. 1351-1388) was not only a prolific builder but also a keen restorer of architecture fallen into disrepair: “By the guidance of God, I was led to repair and rebuild the edifices and structures of former kings and ancient nobles, which had fallen into decay from lapse of time: giving restoration of these buildings the priority over my own building works.” Among his impressive list of restorations, he also built a Dar al-shifa (house for the sick) making no distinction as to the status of patients, bonded or free. Firuz’s dedication to curing the sick is mirrored in the care he took to repair his predecessors’ buildings. His wish to leave an architectural legacy seems to be counterbalanced by a list of ‘good works’, signs of altruism rather than merely self-aggrandisement. In Abdu’l-Fazl ‘Allami’s history of the Mughal emperor Akbar, the monarch similarly pays great attention to building practices, specifying prices of materials to prevent lack of ‘honesty and conscientiousness’ among traders. According to ‘Allami, part of the urbanisation process includes building ‘splendid edifices’, ‘mighty fortresses’, ‘delightful villas and imposing towers’ that ‘afford excellent protection against cold and rain, provide the comforts of the princesses of the Harem and are conductive to that dignity which is so necessary for worldly power’. Around the same time Thomas Moore wrote Utopia foreseeing this heightening trend: “…the houses in the beginning were very low, and like homely cottages or poor shepherd houses, made, at all adventures, of every rude piece of timber that came first to hand, with mud walls, and ridged roofs thatched over with straw. But now the houses be curiously built, after a gorgeous and gallant sort, with three storeys, one over another. The outsides of the walls be made either or hard flint, or of plaster, or else of brick, and the inner sides be well strengthened with timber work. The roofs be plain and flat, covered with a certain kind of plaster that is of no cost, and yet so tempered that no fire can hurt of perish it, and withstandeth the violence of the weather better than any lead. They keep the wind out of their windows with glass, for it is there much used, and some here also with fine linen cloth dipped in oil or amber, and that for two commodities. For by this more light cometh in, and the wind is better kept out.” Three storeys for 16th century Europe must have seemed exotic. In southern Arabia, since pre-Islamic times inhabitants had dwelled in multi-storeyed houses with terraces on their flat roofs. Indeed, the so-called samsara of Yemen were six or seven storeys high. Made of baked brick and stonework, these tall structures blended in with the surrounding landscape. Another example of tall vernacular architecture are the mud-brick or banco constructions in Mali and the Niger Bend: the Great Mosque of Jenne, for instance, towers 20 metres above its worshippers. Ironically these ‘tall’ traditions are millennial and still stand the test of time. If properly maintained - and it takes a whole community to make this happen - they last. Banco architecture may not be the solution for our post-modern, angst-ridden, rat-racing population but possibly something other than steel, glass and concrete could be envisaged. As well as flexing their muscles with more sustainable materials, architects could contemplate more sustainable solutions to deal with the ever-widening concrete footprint of man on earth. •
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