09 October 2012

About scyscrapers



Above the title "The Shard", or better "Shard London Bridge", since the new skyscraper delivered by Renzo Piano to the Londoners in time for the 2012 Olympics stands right close to the London Tower Bridge.
We have reviewed its unveiling in Taccuini Internazionali, with the article "The Piano Shard starts her life on July 4th 2012" (, in which we have highlighted the beauty and elegance that make this building a product of extremely high architectural quality, especially if compared to “The Gherkin” by Norman Foster, of pretty homely style despite its innovative conception, like all the buildings designed by the English architect, who is probably the only real competitor of the most well-known Italian architect in the world.  

We have chose the slim figure of The Shard caught from below as the opening image of this article dedicated to the “Skyscraper”, suggested to us by the widespread discontent towards this architectural typology, which has been really disputed lately due to numerous theories about decrease, energy saving and low finances.

The skyscraper typology needs to be brought into question, not because it’s outright obsolete (no trend has decreed it yet) but because many people would like it to be, and they even think it should be banned forever, despite its continuous flourishing (like in the case of The Shard), which leads to important and innovative solutions aimed at making the skyscrapers more active in the improvement of the urban environment. The Shard (320 meters high, 87 floors entirely covered with glass) already represents a model able to express a positive balance, which allows us to assert that the time hasn’t come yet to ban its typology, like its current detractors would like. They are quite numerous but definitely ill-informed: they divulge the new tendencies about energetic conservation and sustainable development, but they haven’t caught the enormous headway made over the last few years in cost write off or containment by the most advanced contemporary construction industry developing in height.  But most of all they haven’t realized the necessity of following some criteria of environmental adequacy and architectural quality, which should never mean a total renunciation of the languages of modernity – through an anti-historical attitude - and neither a nostalgic return to past. If they believe that this is possible, or rather desirable, it means that they haven’t understood anything of the challenges ahead of us, which require more updated and sophisticated researches, real development horizons for our habitat, courageous actions aimed at revealing what really counts in the improvement of our lives.

We can be sure of one thing: Renzo Piano, author of the Shard in London (in the picture above), would have never built a skyscraper in Venice, and least of all the highest of Italy. He would have certainly suggested something else, by adopting the aesthetic canon inspired by the lagoon and dictated by measure and sense of history.

Every time a new building giant – able to break the world records of height, or at least to surpass the surrounding buildings – rises in a big city (even though it doesn’t happen really often), the movement of “building enemies” troubles itself, through some of its quite numerous members, in order to curse the event as if it decreed the death of human kind.
The skyscrapers have basically been on trial since their existence. They have always been marked by a principle of preservation of the status quo, which can only be explained as a tendency to radicalize a human inalienable component: the inability to set a limit in our rushing to the new, in the surpassing of ourselves and our competitors, in our “flying high”.
This impulse already existed in the medieval towered towns and is even stronger today, because of the crucial role played by technologies both in safety and innovative performances.
Since we are talking about skyscrapers, as we could do with any other subject of architectural debate, we would like to use this occasion not to talk about the destiny of architecture (as some catastrophists periodically do) but rather about the factors able to determine a renounce to a real architectural quality and the preference for an indistinct and colorless mediocrity, or at worst an amalgam of real vileness. The problem is another one: the real issue of environmental sustainability is not only a quantitative factor but a qualitative one. This is the hardest thing to distinguish for all those who don’t have a deep knowledge of these practices and prefer to condemn indiscriminately, wishing for the advent of a past that is no longer possible. The matter is in fact mainly linked to quality, since it has been proved that the problems of energetic containment, induced traffic and pollution (typical of our age and finally acknowledged) have been fully solved as far as usable technologies or can be positively faced by the most modern constructions developing in height in the biggest cities of the world. 
The problem today is administrative more than technical, in other words it concerns the urban policies linked to their development more than to their growth. The Shard represents a model of how a skyscraper should be built today, not an obstacle to the cities balanced development. Obviously, it is always necessary to distinguish between the different cities and the needs of man depending on climate, latitude, culture and history.
In the big cities, especially the historical ones that are not of recent formation, the problem is linked to some needs of qualitative-aesthetical nature, good functioning of citizens, workers or tourists’ lives more than to pure cultural ties. This is why the construction of high structures often brings solutions rather than new problems, provided that the environmental impact is taken into consideration and the planning process is worked out carefully; this concerns in particular the creation of wide surfaces for the citizens’ services on the available ground, which are going to substitute all the disused parts of the city.
All that has accompanied the carrying out of The Shard in London, which has followed some strict criteria of energetic autonomy as well as the absolute autonomy from private traffic; this allowed to avoid any traumatic change of what already existed around the tower, and any impact on the private vehicular traffic in the city sector usually affected by it.

The Swiss Re Tower, also known as "Il cetriolo" (“The cucumber”) because of its unusual shape, is the work of Norman Foster and his ex associate Ken Shuttleworth.

The skyscraper, in such contexts, is unpopular because it’s connectable to the ganglia of a system that nobody feels part of, and it’s an icon of powers that everyone wants to destroy. Besides these remarks, which can be described as pre-political, we must admit that sometimes the skyscraper detractors are simply annoyed by the changes it causes in the surrounding and long range places, thus contradicting and disfiguring the skyline they had grown fond of, thanks to a romantic view of reality.

Above: a crayon drawing by Frank Lloyd Wright of his project (never realized) for the “mile-high skyscraper”. It was in all probability a utopia at the time it was designed, both economically and technologically. In fact, the construction of an over 600-700 meters high structure (about half the size of Wright’s skyscraper) would be complicated even today. There is a certain similarity in Renzo Piano’s outline for The Shard and the one imagined by F.L Wright for this work in the state of Illinois. It’s no accident: architectural quality has its aesthetic rules, which can in some way surpass the fashion and culture of the moment. Of course the quality determined by Piano in his recent realization goes beyond pure aesthetics and involves all the aspects of life quality that modern techniques have been able to express, including those linked to energy saving. Today, in fact, great importance is given to those factors able to decrease rather than increase certain numbers: as everybody knows, there are very few places for cars at the base of The Shard (only the ones strictly necessary for security) and this will discourage the use of private means of transport in favor of public ones when reaching and leaving the building. Looking at Wright’s project in Illinois, you can clearly see the huge parking lots arranged at its base (times weren’t ripe enough to imagine this counter-revolution).

We posted, above the title, an effective picture from below of “The Shard”, the new cement, steel and glass structure inaugurated last week in London by its designer Renzo Piano. We wanted to use it as the opening picture of these considerations for a double reason:  first of all because, among the skyscrapers proposed by the history of architecture so far, the one by Piano (which is certainly going to go down in history) is one of the most beautiful ones (the theme of beauty in architecture has many different roots and, despite its specific autonomy, it can be assimilated to every other field); the second reason is what drove us into these considerations: the new debate we want to propose about the “skyscraper” topic, searching for those things in common able to match all the pros and cons, in a view many people can agree on. We would like to do that because the matter seems to divide, more than in the past, both public opinion and the experts; the enthusiasm towards the “Race to the skies” was greater then, and everybody thought this issue involved only cities like New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and not all the cities worldwide, which believed to be immune from this “disputable event”. In this connection we recently recorded (see Torre Pierre Cardin: and we are posting an image here too: even Venice, if the wretched project won’t be avoided, has become a breeding ground for one of the biggest skyscrapers of Europe, as a demonstration that the qualities of a skyscraper involve both its architectural content and its contextuality (which, in fact, is true for any other architectural subject. But in the case of a skyscraper or any other building with unusually big proportions, it requires a widespread and inalienable sharing).

Above, a day view of the advanced state building site at the “Ex Varesine” of Milan, near Porta Garibaldi Train Station, which includes some new skyscrapers; it’s the work of the italo-american architect Lee Polisano, of the architecture study Kohn Pedersen Fox, assisted by Paolo Caputo.

Also, a rendering of the structures in a night version. Below: examples of Milanese projects of skyscrapers, already nicknamed by the inhabitants “crooked skyscrapers”, at the core of the ex Fiera Campionaria (Trade Fair) area, now being completely rebuilt after the demolition of the Fiera in 2010. The three skyscrapers have been planned by three names of international architectural fame:  Zaha Hadid, Daniel Lebeskind and Arata Isozaki. 

The reported examples say a lot about the indirect correspondence between quality of the architectural product and importance of its designer’s name. The latter, in fact, is not necessarily a warranty. All these projects come from recent decisions of the Moratti administration, which preceded the current one. It was characterized by risky choices in the urban and building policy, to such an extent that it massively raised the buildable volumes in the central areas of the city, and assigned professional responsibilities without opening any public debate at least on those works that were going to influence the city’s image forever. Unfortunately, many of the realizations in the Ex Varesine area are almost completed, showing their squalid legacy of pompous vacuity and gigantic formal weakness, thus determining a widespread drop in attraction that the city with its culture had always forged around its great historical cycles.

Even the Italian people, who tried harder than other countries to balance their modern cities’ structure with the models of their ancient cores – as if they could function as antibodies against every incongruous structure – recently experienced, in Milan for example (but also in other Central European cities), the appetites of the ones who build and rule; they produced, in a few years, epoch-making changes in the altimetric, volumetric and qualitative standard of architectural production, which gave birth to out-and-out monsters in the city center, unable to excite the same pride felt by the Milanese people for the Pirelli skyscraper by Gio Ponti and the Velasca by BBPR, both perfectly blended in the city. 

Now more than ever, instead, vulgar pettiness and ugliness have got the upper hand. All that is unbearable. All that leads to an incalculable loss of beauty, a decay of the liveliest economies of the city and consequently a decay of promotion in business world, fashion, art, design, tourism. All that gets poor, around those squalid volumes of ugliness, every aspect of city life loses weight and self-consciousness. The city economy misfires, losing the momentum of its original pride.  

Pier Cardin would like to realize this tower in Venice within a couple of years; it is one of the worst examples of good architectural contextualization and one of the most miserable examples of historical-environmental ignorance ever put forward in the history of architecture of all times, especially in Italy. A tribute to the pure “image of the product” and to merchandising as the only existential horizon. An offense to sense of history and society represented in the appropriate environment for its community. A scorn for everybody’s heritage and for the will of conveying values before impressive images. Its construction keeps looming over the city even after the publicity launch that filled the newspapers in these days, and only the voice of all those who have the unique lagoon city’s destiny close to their heart can foil its realization.
See:  (

In spite of all, we believe that every big city worldwide shouldn’t stop building skyscrapers. Because, as each good skyscraper designer must (or should) know, as well as each citizen who would like to give an assessment, every single situation must be analyzed in its specificity. And so, if on the one side the presence of a skyscraper like The Shard in London is fair, we are not of the same opinion about Dubai City being built in the same way since the last decade: the structure that is about to be completed, 800 meters high, appears to be completely inappropriate, even though its shape recalls in some way Wright’s archetype and, consequently, the London Shard of Renzo Piano, also born from the same roots. Considering each aspect described so far, the inappropriateness derives in the first place from the extreme weather conditions to which the structure is subjected given its proximity to the desert; secondly, and most importantly, from its being way far from the cultures ruling over those lands until a couple of decades ago, who pursued the “magnificence of the West”, very attractive for the upper classes whose wealth derived from oil exports in the West. We could say that small countries like Hong Kong or Montecarlo have every reason for building in height, given the scarce ground surfaces available; however, this can’t lead to the construction of building complexes of such density that they become unacceptable for every human being. It happened way too often, and you can judge this phenomenon yourselves from this last picture we are showing you. 

The latest skyscraper built in Dubai, 800 meters high. Even its shape recalls Wright’s archetype. Below, a nightmare image: a sky fragment between a group of skyscrapers in Hong Kong 

A nightmare image: a sky fragment between a group of skyscrapers in Hong Kong 

We can be sure of one thing: Renzo Piano, author of the Shard in London (in the opening picture), would have never built a skyscraper in Venice, and least of all the highest of Italy. He would have certainly suggested something else, by adopting the aesthetic canon inspired by the lagoon and dictated by measure and sense of history.

Enrico Mercatali
Lesa, 6th August 2012
tradotto in inglese da Penelope Mirotti
english edition 9th October 2012


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