It used to be that towers were built for the view, a statement of power or a place to put broadcast antennae. Still true, but now the world's tall towers are becoming multi-use entertainment zones — high tech theme parks topping hotels, condos, offices, retail developments, event spaces, even transit hubs. They're playing a revitalized role in this age of urbanization.
They're even organized. Take for example the World Federation of Great Towers, an international organization representing tall spires from the Eiffel Tower and Space Needle to the Empire State Building and the new Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at over 2,700 feet the tallest building in the world. There are 39 towers in the organization, and representatives from 29 — hailing from China, Germany, the U.S., France, Egypt, Canada, Austria, Australia, Malaysia, Korea, The Czech Republic, Britain, Japan and Slovakia — met recently in Seattle for their annual conference. Location and host? The Space Needle, of course. The international delegation communicated with the help of simultaneous translations in English, French and Mandarin.
Towers have been around since the days of Babel. They have been used to broadcast messages and provide views, and they've long been architectural and engineering showcases — a demonstration of urban technological prowess. For cities, they are often potent symbols, even if local residents don't use them very much (only 5 percent of the Eiffel Tower's six to seven million visitors per year are from greater Paris). Urbanites love them for their symbolism, but avoid the crowds.
The Eiffel Tower set the mold for modern towers. The Empire State Building expanded that as a modern skyscraper that was also a tourist attraction (it was supposed to host docking zeppelins too, but that didn't work out). The Space Needle added the idea of revolving restaurants, which have flourished across the globe since its birth in 1962. But towers are not static. Just like the cities they sprout from, they are dynamic; more so than they might look.
For one thing, there's something of a tower boom going on. Every emerging city seems to want one, especially in Asia. Of the top 30 freestanding towers in the world, 12 are in China or Hong Kong and one is in Taiwan. All were built since 1990, and eight of them put up since 2004. Canton, Beijing, Shanghai, Sichuan, Macau, Harbin — everybody's doing it. Restaurants, broadcast and telecommunications, tourism are staple functions. The fact is people love to go up and get a bird's-eye view of any city they're visiting; it's a way of seeing cities in context, and as a whole. From the ground Seoul is a large modern megalopolis with little apparent charm, but from the top of the N Seoul Tower, itself on top of a high hill, you can see a city that sprawls, yes, but is interrupted by an archipelago of beautiful green islands. The view brings beauty, sanity and a nice breeze, mitigating what can be an otherwise intense experience of the concrete jungle.
But new towers seem to be gaining in ambition as technology and design permit traditional skyscrapers to take on the shape of spires, sails and other lofty forms. Take the Burj Khalifa, the tall, pyramidal spire in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It has been described as a "vertical city" and is more than half a mile high at 160 stories (in contrast, Seattle's Columbia Tower is only 76).
The Burj Khalifa, opened in 2010, comes the closest yet to fulfilling Frank Lloyd Wright's proposed mile-high skyscraper in Chicago (Now that's density!). There are upscale offices, corporate suites, residences, and a hotel designed by Armani. There are boutiques, a spa, galleries, special event spaces, and an observation area. At the base is the massive Dubai Mall, with 5.9 million square feet. The mall alone has more structural steel in it than the Eiffel Tower, which is just one way the development makes old-school towers seem rather quaint. Chihuly Garden and Glass, at the base of the Space Needle, is probably the size of a single mall shop. Towers today want people to shop until they drop and carefully try and devise ways to get you in and out quickly, but not so fast that you don't have time to spend money on souvenirs, meals, photographs and other add-ons.
Another "Great Tower" about to open (February, 2013) is London's The Shard, a skyscraper in a city not known for them. Its sharp, spire design is said to have been inspired by the steeples of old London and the ship masts on the Thames. In many respects, The Shard is the ultimate in transit-oriented development. It is the tallest mixed-use tower in Western Europe at over 1,000 feet. Financed mostly by the Qataris, it features offices, a hotel, a limited number (10) of luxury residences, boutiques, restaurants and retail. It's located smack on top of London Bridge Station, a subway and rail hub used by some 54 million people a year. The tower is built on the public air rights overhead. Interestingly, the building has more than one peak (though the shards of The Shard don't meet at the top, resembling a jagged crystal).
Like other towers, The Shard expects to see a million or more visitors coming up for the view, and has a complex system to keep them separated from other building occupants — visitors will have their own dedicated elevators and entrance. The upscale tower doesn't want to upset the tenants of this "prestige" address with herds of tacky tourists roving around. They've segregated the route to the top and turned it into a veritable high-tech pavilion of LCD screens. As people line up and work their way to the elevators, they'll be bombarded with images of London neighborhoods, people, history, a city map following the Thames. Even the elevators are outfitted top and bottom with digital screens that will flash images of the sky or historic London ceilings that will set the mood as visitors break through to the top. Unlike many towers, these elevators are on the inside and don't have windows, but you can create a virtual reality ride inside the lift.
The object of all this, The Shard says, is to immerse visitors in London to get them ready for what they'll see up top. It'll be a multimedia extravaganza before anyone actually sees the view. Even at the observation deck level, the sights will be enhanced with digital telescopes and recorded street sounds — played to give visitors an "audio experience" of the London below. The slogan of The Shard — "Rise Above it All" — will be familiar to Seattleites as the motto of the Monorail Green Line campaign.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!