They’re Alive! Skyscrapers that Breathe, Evolve, and (Maybe Even) Move
In an essay originally authored for the December 2018 issue of A+U, writer Clifford Pearson explores the evolution of skyscrapers, asking how they can respond to their users over time, adapt for changing conditions and support the urban ecosystem. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.
Back in the 1960s, Ron Herron and his compadres in the Archigram group envisioned a Walking City standing on telescopic steel legs that would allow it to ramble off to a new place if its residents got tired of its initial location. While no one has tried to build such a nomadic metropolis, many of the ideas behind this exercise in paper architecture are very much alive and kicking. The notion that buildings should respond to the needs of their users and change over time to adapt to new conditions is driving much thinking on high-rise design today. In addition, Archigram’s faith in technology’s ability to make a better future—while perhaps a bit naïve—still resonates with many of us. But instead of creating machines for living, 21st-century architects are aiming to design living machines that breathe, generate energy and listen to their users. “Alexa, prepare the skyscraper for the incoming storm.”
The 825-foot-tall Tencent headquarters in Shenzhen, China, by NBBJ doesn’t stand on legs, but it has arms that reach out and embrace its two towers. The arms don’t move, but they facilitate movement by the workers inside, providing horizontal connections between the towers and serving as activity hubs for exercise, dining and congregating. NBBJ rotated the towers and offset their heights so one shades the other and together they capture the site’s prevailing breezes to ventilate indoor atria. A modular shading system on the curtain wall varies according to the degree of sun exposure, thereby reducing glare and heat gain. The building’s skin seems alive. And its various rooftops support gardens that offer changing outdoor experiences to people working on upper floors.
The obvious question to ask about the future of skyscrapers is: How tall can they go? The answer is: Much taller than they need to. At 2,723 feet and 160 stories, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is a notoriously inefficient building with more than 800 feet at the apex un-occupiable and a large percent of its top habitable floors consumed by elevators and core. When the 3,307-foot Jeddah Tower opens in 2020 in Saudi Arabia, it will have more than 1,000 feet of “vanity height.” Structural engineers’ skill at building high now far exceeds the market’s demand or users’ desire for such things.
While the particular technologies used will change over time, the direction of high-rise architecture points to various forms of biomimicry—design that’s modeled on biological processes. One way to do this is to undermine the hermetically sealed environment inside buildings, by either adding outdoor spaces such as sky-gardens that are accessible to people on upper floors or creating landscaped atria at various heights throughout a tower. Malaysian architect Ken Yeang has been greening his skyscrapers in these ways for decades, adding nature to architecture and in the process reducing energy loads and creating healthier indoor environments. The next step is to make building envelopes that actually breathe—allowing fresh air in and pushing heat and carbon dioxide out. While studying at the University of Stuttgart, Tobias Becker developed a breathing glass skin that controls the flow of light, air and temperature by changing the size of apertures or “pores.” These openings dilate or contract pneumatically like muscles and require little energy to operate.
In recent years, Arup has been developing building skins impregnated with micro-algae that insulate indoor spaces while absorbing carbon dioxide and generating oxygen. The algae can also be harvested and used as a bio-fuel. The engineering firm tested the technology in a five-story building in Hamburg a few years ago and now XTU, a French studio, is proposing to use its own micro-algae system in a high-rise project in Hangzhou, China.
Meanwhile, David Benjamin and his firm The Living have been building structures using bricks made from a fungus called mycelium. Materials that are grown instead of manufactured have lots of advantages, such as requiring less energy to produce and being biodegradable. Benjamin’s most prominent project was his Hi-Fy Tower installed in the courtyards at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, in the summer of 2014. At Cambridge University in the U.K., bioengineer Michelle Oyen is trying to develop building materials made of artificial bone or eggshell, which are stronger and lighter on a per-weight basis than steel. And because they are produced at room or body temperature, rather than more than 1,000 degrees for cement, they require less energy to manufacture. A lot more research needs to be done before a skyscraper’s structural members truly resemble an animal’s skeleton, but we can now imagine a day when columns and beams can be grown and can perhaps even repair themselves.
Haresh Lalvani, the cofounder of the Pratt Center for Experimental Structures, wants to go one step further—developing building systems that are encoded with information on how to shape themselves, similar to the way stem cells and genes are in living organisms. Working with metal fabricator Milgo/Bufkin, Lalvani has created perforated metal sheets that can be stretched out—using gravity or some kind of applied force—to become three-dimensional structures. The process is similar to cutting a piece of paper into a spiral and then pulling it into a telescoping coil. It gives “pop-up” architecture a whole new meaning.
While the gee-whiz factor of such experimental strategies can be either exciting or a bit silly, the main goal of skyscraper innovation should be creating buildings that are more environmentally friendly, more responsive to the needs of their users and healthier for the people inside and around them. Sensors will monitor and automatically adjust temperature, humidity, lighting, air quality and all kinds of interior conditions. Ideally, we’ll be able to tune these buildings to improve performance and erect them so they can clean and repair themselves. I doubt we’ll ever have skyscrapers that walk, but I can imagine a day when they grow and contribute to an urban ecosystem that’s sustainable, resilient and enticing.