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Friday, 21 September, 2001, 17:13 GMT 18:13 UK
What is the future for skyscrapers?
Lower Manhattan's skyline after the destruction of the World Trade Center
Will Americans fall out of love with the skyscraper?
by BBC News Online's Emma Clark

The collapse of the World Trade Center was in some ways a tragic accident of design.

Both jets managed to penetrate the very core of the buildings, disbursing jet fuel and fire into the heart of the structure.

Had there been more fire-resistant concrete and less steel in the core, many more of the building's occupants might have evacuated before any collapse.

Equally, had the twin towers not stood as a blatant symbol of American capitalism, the terrorists might have chosen another target.

For the present, however, such rationality does little to neutralise the fear now associated with working in skyscrapers.

Initial reactions

At the time of the attack on 11 September, almost every skyscraper in the US evacuated as workers became terrified that they would become the next victims.


There will be no proposals for 100 storey buildings in America for a long, long time

Eugene Kohn
Kohn Pederson Fox Associates

According to a USA Today/CNN poll, 70% of Americans remain favourable to the construction of skyscrapers, although 35% say they now have no intention of entering one.

"There will be no proposals for 100-storey buildings in America for a long, long time," says Eugene Kohn, president of Kohn Pederson Fox Associates, a firm of architects in New York.

So what future is there for the skyscraper, a supposed emblem of society's technological prowess?

Is height a factor?

For Mr Kohn - whose firm is designing the world's next tallest building, the Shanghai World Financial Center - height is less relevant than what the twin towers represented.

"Had [the World Trade Center] been 60 storeys, they still would have gone after it," he says, although he concedes that 100 storeys made it easier.

Similarly, consultant engineers Ove Arup argue that "the focus may be on tall buildings initially, but it is not a question only for tall buildings".

Tenants of these buildings, however, may feel differently.

Thinking twice

Already in London, Barclays and HSBC are reviewing designs and safety requirements for their new headquarters.

A building site in Canary Wharf
Barclays and HSBC are reviewing building plans

"People may well think twice about ultra-high levels," says William McKee, chief executive of the British Property Federation.

This could lead to greater popularity and higher rent for lower floors in high-rise buildings.

In recognition of this, the New York developer who holds part of the 99-year lease on the Trade Center is looking to replace it with four smaller buildings.

"There is no doubt in my mind we would be seriously looking at building four towers of 55 to 60 storeys in height," says Larry Silverstein.

Market forces

However, Mr Silverstein acknowledges that attracting tenants to the new buildings, even if they are lower, would be a challenge.

Andy Smith from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in London adds: "More powerful than anything else is the market - and if people want to work elsewhere, that will be decisive."

Exorbitant insurance premiums may also discourage landlords from taking on tall or landmark buildings.

Most experts agree, however, that it is too early to predict whether demand for office space in skyscrapers will drop off in the long term.

Mr Kohn believes that "it will take time, maybe a year or two to get over this".

Safety measures

One more immediate concern is to improve safety provisions in existing super tall buildings.


It is incumbent upon us to reconsider certain aspects of design criteria

Jeffrey McCarthy
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

"It is incumbent upon us to reconsider certain aspects of design criteria, particularly egress," says architect Jeffrey McCarthy, managing partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago.

In the US, work is afoot to modernise some of the buildings lacking security features, such as a fireman's lift that is separate from the main stairwell.

In the Trade Center attack, firemen running up the stairwell were said to have delayed the evacuation.

"It is possible to build super tall buildings that are safe to evacuate, and there are ways to protect them from damage," says Mr Kohn.

Certainly if skyscrapers manage to maintain their popularity, the events of last week will usher in a new breed.

A new breed

In Asia, Herculean towers with state-of-art safety features have already arrived, on the crest of a skyscraper boom.

Shanghai skyline
Some skyscrapers in Asia have more safety features

The Shanghai World Financial Center has a reinforced concrete core with a dedicated fire lift and refuge floors at every 15 levels.

Refuge floors contain no furniture and are designed to be totally fire proof so that they can harbour people in the middle of an evacuation.

Ironically, Kohn Pederson Fox had originally considered refuge floors as a conservative measure.

The lure of skyscrapers

The skyscraper of course has many advantages for the packed cities of the world.

They allow people to come together in greater density and support clustering of companies, particularly financial services.

They also provide more room for open spaces and maximise the efficiency of travel networks, such as the New York subway.

"There is still going to be a commitment to the high-rise building," says Mr McCarthy.

"It is the nature of the urban landscape and it is required by companies."

Exploitation

However, the very virtues of skyscrapers can also be weaknesses.

The terrorist mind is looking to exploit centres of density, as well as landmark buildings that speak for a culture they oppose.

And although many people are keen to resist an over-defensive mentality, any repeated attack on a tall building will no doubt sound a death knell for this kind of architecture.

Inevitably, the success of governments around the world in quashing terrorism will determine whether we fall back in love with the skyscraper.

See also:

21 Sep 01 | Americas
Bush raises stakes
14 May 00 | Middle East
Saudi opens first skyscraper
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