godschalk1_150The Future of the City:  Tall Buildings and Urban Design
K. Al-Kodmany and M.M. Ali
WIT Press
25 Bridge Street, Billerica, MA 01821; www.witpress.com.
2012. 460 pages. Hardback: $374.

The Future of the City is a treasure trove of skyscraper designs from around the world. Almost an encyclopedia, the book tells you everything you would want to know about the architecture and urban design of the tall buildings sprouting up in Dubai, Beijing, Chicago, London, and elsewhere.

Skyscrapers are no longer limited to dark rectangular box forms.

  • The iconic Barj Al Arab luxury hotel in Dubai is shaped like a dhow sailing vessel, with its silhouette following the curve of a sail.
  • The Swiss Re building in London, nicknamed “the Gherkin” for its swirling pickle-like shape, has changed the London skyline.
  • The 38-story Agbar Tower in Barcelona, with a similar phallic form, employs high-tech glass and LED devices that gleam, creating a spectacular nighttime mosaic.
  • The Absolute World 1 Tower in Mississauga, Ontario, has a curvaceous hourglass figure, leading to its nickname, “the Marilyn Monroe tower.”
  • Capital Gate, the leaning tower of Abu Dhabi, is recognized by Guinness as the world’s farthest-leaning manmade tower.
  • The top of the Strata Tower in London is pierced with three openings that house 30-foot (9 m) wind turbines that provide power for the common areas of the building.

This is the masterwork of Al-Kodmany, who has documented the state of the art of today’s skyscraper design through his meticulous drawings and striking color photographs. A faculty member in the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he previously worked as a designer with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago. His coauthor, M.M. Ali, is professor emeritus in the structures division at the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

These knowledgeable authors criticize the often egocentric ideas and fantasies of those “starchitects” who continue to design tall buildings in isolation from the surrounding urban environment. They propose comprehensive design guidelines to make these soaring focal landmarks on the skyline compatible with their host cities, including stipulations on height, color, lighting, access, and public spaces. A key concept is to cluster tall buildings in order to provide a coherent skyline and avoid competition with existing buildings and breaks in the historic fabric.

Sustainability is the book’s central thesis. It argues that as urban populations grow, high-rise habitats will be necessary to curb sprawl, ensure creation of compact cities, and assist in generating energy and cutting carbon releases. Made possible by leaps in engineering and computer technology, this vertical density will be the defining feature of the future metropolis and the key to staying competitive in the global economic sphere.

The history of skyscrapers is studded with attempts to earn the title “World’s Tallest Building,” all doomed to be superseded by the next project to break the height barrier. The present U.S. record holder is One World Trade Center, which rises to a symbolic height of 1,776 feet (541 m) at the Ground Zero site in lower Manhattan. But the United States lags behind China, the United Arab Emirates, and other Eastern economic powerhouses in the number of new tall buildings completed. The race to the top is tracked by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which recorded some 50 “supertall” buildings—more than 984 feet (300 m) high—around the world as of 2011, with eight having been completed in 2010.

David R. Godschalk is professor emeritus of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is coauthor of Sustainable Development Projects: Integrating Design, Development, and Regulation, to be published by the American Planning Association in 2013.