Tall buildings all fall down

Fifteen buildings of in Yunnan, China, were imploded on Aug. 27. (Taiwan News)

Is there something off-kilter about the photo above from a video sent to me yesterday by architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros? Yes, there is.

At first I thought it was a video of Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis public housing project, all 33 eleven-story buildings of which were demolished in between 1972 and 1976 – an event described (falsely, alas) as “the end of modern architecture” by postmodernist architectural historian Charles Jencks. Interesting factoid: the 33 buildings were designed by Minoru Yamasaki, better known for his twin World Trade Center towers, infamously demolished on Sept. 11, 2001, by the terrorist group al-Qaeda. The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe was memorialized in about nine minutes of the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance.

Woolworth Building rises behind Public Advocates building. (Wikipedia)

A moment’s reflection concluded my delusion. In fact, the photograph above from early in the video at this link records the demolition of the Liyang Star City Phase II project in the Chinese city of Kunming. Note the tilt of several buildings at the start of their demolition last Friday. The dynamite expunged $154 million worth of property in 45 seconds. Some 5,300 people in 2,000 units were evacuated (before demolition, one trusts). The 15 buildings were allegedly demolished because, in the opinion of the Chinese authorities, the eight years since the beginning of construction was too long. How many buildings were occupied and why they were among those torn down was not explained. In other words, this information must be consumed with a very large pinch of salt.

Another video of the demolition gives a much clearer idea of its context as a minor dent in the skyscraperopolis that is Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. I am not quite as confirmed an opponent of skyscrapers as my friend Nikos, who sent me the video in the hope that I might find it interesting. He was correct. And most skyscrapers are an ecological abomination, needing too much energy to build and operate without housing enough people to justify their carbon footprint. Paris with its gorgeous Haussmanesque flats of seven stories or so has an equivalent density using architecture of much greater sustainability. I suppose I’d have applauded the assassination of this group of skyscrapers in China even if they had all looked like the Woolworth Building (1913) in Manhattan. What a mockery of beauty that would have been!

The Chinese are known for the number of neighborhoods and even whole cities that have been built but are not yet occupied. No doubt the progression from legal one-child families to two- and now three-child families since 2016 plays a role. Those empty population centers have not been torn down. Could that be because some are knock-offs of European architecture and hence popular?

Chinese President Xi has banned “weird” architecture in China, and cited the CCTV tower (which looks like it is crushing the people) and the People’s Daily headquarters (which looks like a penis), both in Beijing. But the skyscrapers demolished in Yunnan are not weird or lewd but dull. On the other hand, Xi has also banned “copycat” architecture, such as, presumably, neighborhoods inspired by European architecture, which perhaps qualify as weird copycats. They are not all built with equal architectural verismilitude, to say the least. What about all those other cities filled with tedious towers, throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas? Are those not copycat buildings? Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer. Pop go the overinflated egos! Meanwhile, Olympic construction in China has obliterated traditional hutong neighborhoods that go back many centuries, and possibly other examples of Chinese heritage whose demise remains unknown to the public. Shame!

It seems to me that the entire city of Yunnan should be demolished. But what good would that do? Chinese skyscrapers and Chinese power plants resemble each other in that so many are being built that, however many are torn down, they still swamp all efforts to put a lid on the globe’s carbon footprint. Too bad! I will continue to oppose ugly modernist towers and support the construction of beautiful new classical towers, however rare they may be. I suppose I can count them on the fingers of no more than a pair of hands. No fear of their interfering with the war on climate change. Again: Too bad.

Demolition in 1072 of Pruitt-Igoe complex, built in 1956-1958. (Finnbar5000)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Tall buildings all fall down

  1. thenerdysaxophonist says:

    Cool Fact: Chicago Union Station almost had a “skyscraper” on top of it. According to Chapter 5 of Fred Ash’s “Chicago Union Station,” the original Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White rendering of the Waiting Room had skylights that were very similar to those used in Penn Station and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition terminal. A picture of one of the renderings can be found on https://collections.carli.illinois.edu/digital/collection/nby_teich/id/416103 . Unfortunately, thanks to the 1st World War, financing the station went southbound, so Ernest Graham decided to modify his renderings in 1920 and replace the skylights with 22 stories of office space, visible here https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chicago_Union_Station_Plan.jpg . Thankfully, the city placed a height limit that resulted in 8 of those stories being built instead, seen here https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chicago_Union_Station_from_Canal_Street_(NBY_416532).jpg .


  2. LazyReader says:

    You can trace modern urban planning back to the late nineteenth century, when people such as Jacob Riis and shit; had alerted people to “How the Other Half Lives”. This 1890 book used photographs to show the terrible living conditions in high-density tenements found in many major cities. Early planners, who Hall called “anarchists,” sought to get working-class people out of these tenements and into the same types of suburbs then being inhabited by middle-class families.

    That eventually happened, but it was thanks to Henry Ford, not urban planners. Ford’s moving assembly line made automobiles affordable turning once enclave toys of the rich to transports fo working-class families, enabling them to buy cheap land and build cheap homes outside of the big cities. Since moving-assembly lines required horizontal real estate; ie land, the jobs moved to the suburbs too. This led to a backlash, however, which came from two sources. First was the planners themselves, who were appalled by the suburban neighborhoods built by the working class. In books published in Britain before World War II, and echoed by books published in America in the 1950s, planners complained that the suburbs were boring, sterile, and that the people in them didn’t truly appreciate country life. As Hall observed, what really offended the planners were the architectural styles chosen by the working class: instead of building modern, flat-roofed homes, they built neocolonial or other older styles that planners considered to be out of date. This ass-holey-ness, what spawned the “Mid-Century” suburban landscape look that now Stereotypes suburbia.

    The second backlash came from city governments who saw their tax revenues flee to the suburbs and downtown property owners who saw the value of their land and investments decline. Riding to the rescue was a Swiss architect who called himself Le Corbusier. According to Hall, Corbusier “argued that the evil of the modern city was its density of development and that the remedy, perversely, was to increase that density.” Specially, Corbusier proposed that all new urban development, for housing, retail, offices, and factories, be in high rises surrounded by greenspaces, and that all existing development be replaced by such high rises. He called this the Radiant City.

    Prodded by city governments and downtown property owners, and given cover by planners and other elitists who claimed to be helping the downtrodden masses, governments began building high-rise housing in major cities all over the world after World War II. Some of this was in response to post-war reconstruction needs, particularly in Europe, but much was just due to high rises being an urban planning fad.

    Congress passed a housing act in 1949 that resulted in the construction of high-rise housing projects in major cities all over the United States under the excuse that they were replacing slums with better housing. decades later these projects became the crime infested housing projects when government simply gave up.

    One of those cities was New York, where an architecture critic Jane Jacobs objected to Corbusian plans to replace her neighborhood, Greenwich Village, with high rises. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, argued that urban planners didn’t understand how cities work, which was true, and that she did understand how cities work, which was wrong. According to her, Greenwich Village was the ideal that city planners should strive for.

    In fact, most of Greenwich Village was made up of the mid-rise tenements that had been the subject of Riis’s How the Other Half Lives. By 1960, thanks to the automobile, most of the residents had moved out and living conditions weren’t as bad as they had been. But apartments were still too small for people to entertain inside, so they did their entertainment on their front porches, which led to the lively streets that Jacobs lauded. The neighborhood still had a lot of immigrants and ethnic groups who hadn’t yet moved to the suburbs, and Jacobs appreciated the bohemian atmosphere.

    People don’t realize the skyscraper is obsolete, they’re not built to accommodate the boom and bust cycles of real estate. This is best summed up in places like Dubai where highrise construction has broke record pace, I’ve seen them many of them are virtually empty. What do you expect when the heat where it costs as much as 1,000 a month just to air condition or China whom built 1000 highrises in a mere decade, most of which are empty.

    Furthermore, economists have found large new skyscrapers to be a negative economic indicator, as these buildings often open on the verge of bad economy. Much of the study on this phenomenon was done in 1999 by Andrew Lawrence, a research director at Deutsche Bank who created the “skyscraper index,” originally as a joke. But later discovered a true phenomena that these towers open often during economic problems. Examples like
    The Singer Building which opened during the Panic of 1907
    40 Wall Street, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building built during the Great Depression
    the World Trade Center and Sears Tower built during the 1970s economic flop
    the Petronas Towers built during the Asian Crisis of the late 1990s
    the Burj Khalifa built during the late-2000s recession.


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