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As the world’s towers turn

A Seattle celebration of New Year's. Credit: Wonderlane

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.

One has the sense that The Shard is designed to give people the impression they've visited London, even if they've never left the tube or the building.

Towers new and old are retrofitting to make themselves more exciting. Even if your restaurant rotates, you can't stand still. The venerable Eiffel Tower, for example, is installing a glass floor on its first level so that visitors can walk out over empty space. Some towers have built skyboxes — transparent add-ons that put visitors several feel out over empty space in transparent wings. The Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago has this. So does the tower in Melbourne. Even the Needle is proposing to add two transparent boxes to its observation deck.

Letting people suspend themselves from straps on the exterior of towers is the new thrill ride. At the CN Tower in Toronto, sober visitors can pay $175 to "Edge Walk" and experience what tower builders of another era experienced when they walked on top without safety harnesses or nets. Adding zip lines is another idea. The Macau Sky Tower offers bungee jumping, a trampoline, edge-walking around the rim, and brave guests can climb the concrete tower like Spiderman, or take a 2-hour climb up the tower's mast 1,000 feet above the ground. For many people, the view isn't enough. They want thrills.

At the Seattle conference, tower managers heard from Microsoft about the potential of emerging software applications that could create new experiences for tower visitors. Imagine using a smart phone app to identify the buildings and business you can see from the top and perhaps planning the rest of your visit. Or a digital avatar who can be called up to describe what you're seeing, or even what you're not seeing. On a foggy day, your digital guide could show you where Mt. Rainier is behind the clouds.

And speaking of clouds, cloud computing is making it easier for towers and other businesses to afford the computing power that might be required to run creative programs. One possibility is using 3-D virtual reality to recreate climbing around on the outside of the tower so that the less brave can have the Holodeck-type thrill of "Edge Walking" without any of the risk.

Advice to the towers from the Seattle branding and design company Hornell-Anderson was that people now are "craving deeper, more compelling experiences." Towers are more than high-rise playgrounds; they carry the burden of being important civic symbols, embodying the place they look out on, and as such should be about more than selling hot dogs and t-shirts.

As at The Shard, digital storytelling can enable towers to act as portals to urban history, culture and values. Smart phones, tablets and other digital devices become a means by which a broader, deeper story can be told or accessed, something that answers their questions and fills in the blanks about the city and people below. For many visitors, their only experience of a city might be from the top of the tower they've climbed. Along with the thrills of height and space, towers offer an opportunity to let visitors know where they've been before they move on.

That might also help bring the locals in more often. The Eiffel Tower's head Nicholas Lefebvre said that one of his goals was to help Parisians "re-appropriate" their tower. Surveys, he said, showed that locals were tremendously proud of the Eiffel Tower, but avoided it because of tourists and crowds. He expects online ticket purchasing and new elevators to lessen the lines and to attract more locals with a small new museum. Embodying local pride, telling a story and becoming more accessible could attract more of the people who live in a tower's shadow. All towers seem to want to boost local attendance.

On Sept. 11, 2001, all the world's towers took a big hit when the World Trade Center's Twin Towers went down. Some, like San Francisco's Transamerica pyramid, permanently closed their observatories and many others beefed up security measures with metal detectors, barricades and additional guards. Still, towers seem to have rebounded with soaring ambition, vision and innovation. The World Federation of Great Towers estimates that their member landmarks are visited by some 40 million people every year. Disasters might occasionally strike, but the power of towers to entertain and transform are not only undiminished, but undergoing a kind of towerful renaissance.

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