6 June 2019

Anecdotes: A Tale of Two Apartments

A 1928 drawing by Clarence D. Batchelor. How do the two experiences compare? What are the benefits and costs of each of these lifestyles?

Over the past few years, I've had two very different living experiences. The first, a 48th floor apartment in the Financial District of New York City. The second, a first floor flat in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I loved living in each of these apartments immensely, but the differences between the two have taught me a great deal about Verticality and its effects on our lives.

13 May 2019

Trinity Church and The Contemporary Dwarfing of Historic Structures

Woodcut of Trinity Church's Spire with the Equitable building behind it. Trinity, once the tallest building in the United States, has since been dwarfed by the subsequent construction around it. Image by Paul Morand.

Height in the built environment is relative. A tall building at the center of a major city today is quite a different idea than a tall building was a hundred years ago. As a city grows, taller buildings will get built throughout time, and the meaning of tall gets taller with them. Buildings once considered tall get overshadowed by more contemporary structures. This phenomenon can be seen wherever skyscraper construction is commonplace. Trinity Church, located at the end of Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, is a well-documented case of this. Once the tallest building in the United States, Trinity is now dwarfed by its surroundings, and made to look small in comparison. Let's take a closer look at how the character of a tall building changes when larger buildings overtake it through time.

14 April 2019

Antoni Gaudí's New York Skyscraper

Antoni Gaudí's Hotel Attraction, designed in 1908 for New York City. Drawing by Juan Matemala.

The Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí is known the world over for his iconic architecture, rich in organic, curvilinear forms. One lesser-known project of his is the Hotel Attraction, pictured above and designed in 1908, for an unspecified site in Lower Manhattan, New York City. The project would have housed a hotel, restaurants, theatre hall, exhibition hall, galleries, and a panoramic lookout at the top, called the 'Space Tower'. If built, it would have been 360 meters, or 1,181 feet tall.

1 April 2019

Verticality, Part V: Global Threads

How Defense and God provided the initial thrust for the Verticality narrative

This article is part of a series that compose the main verticality narrative. The full series is located here.

Once our ancestors ceased to be nomadic and began establishing permanent settlements, two major threads of our development emerged. The first was the need to defend our territories against others. Once we’d accomplished this, our attention shifted to the second: our relationship with the unknown, or God. Each of these threads would evolve over time, and each was approached through the lens of Verticality.

28 March 2019

The Moai of Easter Island

Ahu and Moai at Tongariki, Easter Island. The Moai represented past kings of a village who were buried below each statue.

Easter Island is known the world over for its famous Moai statues, carved by the indigenous Rapa Nui people between 1250 and 1500. These statues have become iconic over the years, and most everyone has seen photos of them. A closer look at their design progression over time reveals a fascinating story, however. The Moai have a mysterious quality to them, partly because their story is one we don't have all the answers to. For instance, we don't know why all the statues were knocked over sometime in the 19th century (the ones standing today have all been restored). An intriguing question with many theories, but for our purposes here we’ll focus on the statues themselves and the design of their sites, which both exhibit Verticality.

The Moai represent past kings of the Rapa Nui people. The statues were placed on ahu, or raised platforms, that served as a grave site for these past kings. Each time a king died, the village would commission a Moai to be carved for him from Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater and quarry where all the Moai were carved. When completed, the statue would be transported from the quarry to the village and placed on the ahu directly over the grave. On the ahu, each king would be buried next to the previous one, which resulted in a linear arrangement that would grow over time. The longest arrangement was Ahu Tongariki, with 15, but most ahu only had one Moai. Another part of the mystery is how the Rapa Nui transported the sculptures around the island and stood them up on the ahu. This was a major undertaking due to their size and the fragility of the volcanic stone they were carved from. Various theories exist as to the methods involved, but we have no clear answers.

The ahu and its surroundings were considered sacred ground for the village. The Moai were at the rear of this sacred ground and faced the village in order to protect and watch over the villagers. The most important residents of each village lived closest to the ahu on the edge of a large open space reserved for rituals and special occasions. The image below shows a typical ahu and village.

14 March 2019

The Izumo-taisha Shrine

Artist rendering of the Izumo-taisha Shrine, circa 950AD. How do you convey the importance of your temple to others? Raise it 48 meters above the ground, of course.

The ancient Izumo-taisha Shrine in southern Japan, built sometime around the 10th century AD, has all the ingredients of Verticality in its built form. The structure pictured above no longer exists, and we don't know exactly how it looked, but some records claim that the ancient temple was raised as high as 48 meters above the ground.[1] At first glance, you might wonder, why would the builders go to such lengths to raise the temple so far off the ground? The answer, of course, is to convey its importance to others through its height. When a building is raised up above the ground, the builders are saying two major things about their structure:

The first is: this building and its functions are too important to reside on the surface with the rest of us. The surface is where we all live our lives, so important buildings must be raised up above the ground to signify their importance to others. Think about it: nearly every significant religious, civic or governmental building you've ever entered required some sort of ascension (usually a staircase) to reach the front door. This ascension is symbolic of a transition to a higher plane that is more important than the day-to-day life of a person.

A 1:10 scale model of how the ancient shrine may have looked, from the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo. Image from Japan-Guide.com. Source here.

The second is twofold: either you must be important to enter, or you must put in an effort to enter. Traditionally, important temples and religious buildings were considered sacred, and were only entered by high-ranking priests and holy men. The rest of society were not generally permitted entry. This was true all over the world, including temples in Ancient Greece, pre-Columbian Inca, Aztec and Maya temples, the Ziggurats in Ancient Mesopotamia, and many others. When entry was granted to common people, it would take a notable effort to reach the front door by way of the building's height. This was achieved either by raising up the building onto a high platform, like the Izumo-taisha Shrine, or by placing the building on an existing hilltop or high place, which was common in the ancient world as well.


[1]: See: "Izumo-taisha." Wikipedia. Accessed March 14, 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org. and "Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo." Japan-Guide. Accessed March 14, 2019. Available at https://www.japan-guide.com.

12 March 2019

Verticality, Part XI: Terracing and the Green Machine

Making meaningful green spaces in high places

This article is part of a series that compose the main verticality narrative. The full series is located here.

Two things that every human being needs are to escape the surface of the earth through Verticality, and to be around plants and vegetation. Ever since the beginnings of permanent shelter and architecture, humans have been attempting to escape the surface by creating and inhabiting high places. We’ve also been repeatedly trying to recreate the experience of the surface by linking these spaces with greenery. Take the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for example, pictured below; it was most likely built in the 6th century BC and is considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It also represents one of the first major attempts by humanity to link our high places with the experience of the surface through the inclusion of plants and vegetation. There is little evidence of this building actually existing today, but the idea of creating high places with vegetation and green space was so profound that written accounts of the building have survived, and throughout time many artists have created representations of how the building may have looked.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and possibly our first major attempt at linking our high places with greenery and vegetation. Image source.

16 February 2019

Bologna Rising

Postcard of Bologna, Italy from the early 20th century. Towers as status symbols for wealthy families.

Here's a forest of towers in the Italian town Bologna, from the early 20th century. These towers were built as extensions of private homes for wealthy families. Their exact purpose isn't quite clear, but most likely it was a combination of status symbols and as means of defense during uncertain times. The image is quite compelling, with the forest of needle-like towers poking out above the lower buildings of the town below. The town seems to foreshadow many cities of today, where the battle for access to light and air is not unlike the competition between trees in a forest; the taller the better, and to hell with the neighbors. Back in medieval times, however, the access to views was crucial for different reasons; these towers most likely provided safety for their residents during attacks, and gave great viewpoints to spot danger before it reached the town.

A View of Bologna at The Time of Dante by Francis S. Swales from 1931. A veritable forest announcing its presence to the surrounding landscape.

All the elements of Verticality are here. These families needed to escape the surface of the earth and built towers to do so. The added height provided them with safety and access to light and air, as well as a status symbol among the townsfolk. The aggregate of all the towers also announced the presence and wealth of Bologna to the surrounding landscape, as if to say we're important and rich, look at all the towers we've built! Not many of the towers still exist today, but back in the day there was a veritable forest rising above the city walls.

11 February 2019

Stacking Suburbia

A cartoon by A.B. Walker from Life Magazine in 1909. Reprinted in Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas,  pg 83.

One of the major challenges with the high places we construct is that we're built for a surface-based existence. The surface is where the action is, and it's where our species has lived and evolved since before we colonized the world. Even the Ancient Romans called their six- to seven-story apartment buildings insulae, which is Latin for island, symbolizing the isolation that comes with living and working away from the surface. The advent of the modern skyscraper brought with it the possibility of living and working far, far away from the surface, which creates a special set of problems. How can we recreate the variety of the surface in the sky?

Take a look at this cartoon by A.B. Walker from Life Magazine from 1909. It shows a skyscraper that stacks suburban homes on top of each other. Consider living like this for a moment. Would you be willing to take an elevator to get to your single-family home, 100 meters above the surface? Would this be more desirable than a typical apartment in a high-rise building? It's an entertaining thought to ponder, and an interesting mashup of different paradigms of living in the modern world. You'd be living in a suburban dwelling, but you wouldn't be living in the suburbs. What you do get is a single-family detached home; what you don't get is easy access to the surface next to you or the sky above you. You'd have a roof over the roof above your head, and you'd need to take an elevator ride to get to your actual front door.

5 February 2019

Man Vs. Nature

A graphic from Le Petit Larousse Illustré, called Man Vs. Nature from 1925.

A bit of context can change many things. Take a look at this drawing, titled Man Vs. Nature from a 1925 edition of Le Petit Larousse Illustré. The graphic compares the tallest works of architecture at the time to major mountain peaks from nature. It's a reality check to consider the size of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, shown as a tiny speck on the bottom left of the image. It's quite humbling that our tallest, most important buildings are mere crumbs compared to the giants of nature. Currently, our greatest achievement of height is the Kingdom Tower, under construction in Saudi Arabia and designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. That tower is planned to be 1 kilometer (3,281 feet) tall, which is the height of the first horizontal zone in this drawing. Humans can have profound effects on our environment, but our greatest physical achievements come nowhere close to the sheer scale of it.