Could Designing Up Be Bringing us Down?

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If the recent spate of ‘world first’ and ‘tallest ever’ skyscraper concepts are anything to go by, architecture in Australia is having a bit of a growth spurt.

Architects nationwide are unlocking air rights, breaking through traditional height constraints and building upwards in order to make the most of a small footprint of prime metropolitan land. While this creates an impressive skyline – a sentiment debated by some – are tall buildings all they’re cracked up to be?

We’ve asked the question ‘does being tallest matter?’ and now we ask does being tall matter at all?

Well according to a growing number in this industry being the biggest may in fact come at the expense of a building’s lifespan.

Carbon Guzzling

While there is much debate surrounding whether taller buildings are always more carbon inefficient than those with a lower height, this has not stopped a growing number of ‘vertically green’ skyscraper concepts and developments across the global industry. Farms, waste management and entire communities are all moving upwards, offering to use the basic inner-city skyscraper design model to bring environmental elements into space-short areas.

But will they really work as planned? That has yet to be seen, but there can be no questioning the fact that our outdated ‘brown’ skyscrapers only get dirtier the taller they become. Herein lies a key element of Steve Mouzon’s report ‘Uninhabitable High-Rises.’

Operational windows are out of the question in a skyscraper due to high wind issues, making natural climate control a near impossibility. Furthermore, ventilation in square plated buildings is a challenge and with the sheer width of the buildings, natural lighting of conventional skyscrapers in all areas – and particularly in central spaces – is completely unrealistic. These are not buildings that lend themselves to be easily retrofitted or even newly designed and constructed to be optimally green.

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Cost

Due to the aforementioned facts, Mouzon predicts that when the cost on carbon soars – which it undoubtedly will – these buildings will be simply too expensive to inhabit. The cost to completely light, heat, cool and run tall buildings that are completely on-grid and have no capability to perform these tasks naturally will simply be too much for this generation and the next, says Mouzon, and these buildings will need to be redeveloped, or simply left unused.

Tall buildings have been described as the SUV of the architecture world, and while both these buildings and SUVs may seem impressive on a superficial level, their inefficiency makes them unrealistic and unhelpful towards common carbon cutting goals.

Competition

Competition may very well be the driving force behind why some exceedingly tall buildings have gone up. For human beings, there is a power behind height. It represents dominion, strength and leadership, with the ‘tallest’ of any kind of structure representing the ‘best’ for a majority of this industry.

However, is competition leading to a misuse of height? Even as Melbourne is reaching for the skies, with a barrage of new ‘tallest’ skyscrapers in their own sectors, including the Queensbridge Tower and the Forté building, many, including the city’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, are wondering as to what it will mean for the city aesthetic.

“The difficulty is not the architecture of the buildings, it is what is the culture you are creating at street level,” says Doyle.

Queensbridge tower development

Essentially, this competition leads to an inundation of the next big thing, and then the next big thing after that, changing cityscapes to represent this trend. Should our architecture ambitions be only limited to height?

Height is but one element of a building and should be treated as such. While for practical reasons such as increased city density, buildings are predicted to continue to rise. While this may be a reality, it does not mean that it needs to be continually glorified like we do in this industry. We need to take the focus off height as a building’s only feature and put it back onto buildings that offer more, that go above and beyond in a context that has nothing to do with a tape measure.

By Emily D’Alterio
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