Tall Buildings - Not The Only Way


            The tallest tower in Europe is about to be erected in London’s Southwark district. Planned by Renzo Piano, the 'London Bridge' will be 305 meters high. Dains Sedjic, curator of this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, is leading a campaign against the plan under the slogan, 'Who said the only way is up?”. This dilemma is not new - high rise building has always been controversial. The question is, when will it be accepted here?

            The ambition to reach the sky is has been reflected in every culture, particularly in ceremonial and symbolic buildings such as the Tower of Babylon, the Pyramids in Egypt, Buddhist Temples, cathedrals and mosques. The industrial revolution contributed a functional aspect, where block buildings of two to four floors were built next to factories to house laborers. Changes in living patterns in the twentieth century have bought new demand for housing solutions as well as a desire to limit the spread of urban areas into agricultural lands. Vertical building may therefore be a logical progression but in terms of serving the needs of a rising population, the high rise experience has not always been positive. In Denmark, England, Germany and even the U.S., experiments in the seventies and eighties showed that living vertically may not meet the expectations of the residents used to living at ground-level; in numerous cases, authorities were forced to demolish residential towers built only a few years earlier.


            In recent years, there has been much research into the connection between rising population and vertical building and the conditions under which it is the best option.  Popular opinion holds there is a vast difference between commercial and residential building. Whereas commercial building leads to improvement in existing transportation, parking and sewage infrastructures, while offering employment opportunities, it does not statistically increase population density. Manhattan, for example, loses a third of its daytime population during the evening. Residential building increases the density while adding to the pressure on existing infrastructures, and demands additional commercial areas, schools, clinics, shopping centers, police and designated open areas for recreational activity. How efficient, then is vertical building as a catalyst for increasing population density, and to what extent is it a solution for the preservation of open areas?


            Conducted in collaboration with the Technion Faculty of Architecture, Mann-Shinar Architects research project findings indicate that the positive effects of vertical building do not necessarily outweigh the negative. Here, like in other cases, the principle of survival  plays a cardinal role: if it works, it survives. Statistics upon which the research is based shows that in Israel there are approximately 2,100 high rise buildings (according to the legal definition). Although half of them are located in the three largest cities (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa), others are in Beer Sheva, Carmiel and Herzliya, towns that have no problem of urban expansion into surrounding areas. The majority of high rise buildings in Israel (1,809) have 10-17 floors, while 264 have 18-30 floors, and only 16 buildings have over 30 floors. Of 1,000 planned buildings, 60 will be over thirty floors, but  most will have between 10-17 floors. Only 262 are planned in the 18-30 floors category. This contradicts the general assumption that the trend for future residential building is in favor of very tall constructions.


            The legitimacy for vertical building in Israel is based on its status as a 'proven method' of increasing population density as a means to avoid the continuing loss of open areas. Even in cases where vertical building does represent a reasonable solution - i. e. in large cities - in smaller towns there is no reason to cultivate skyscrapers, just for the sake of prestige. Furthermore, towns like Carmiel, Nazareth Elite or Afula must expand if they are to meet economic and political expectations.  In Israeli reality, the push toward vertical building comes from entrepreneurs and from the Israel Lands Administration’s efforts to maximize the number of building permits per site.


            There is a great difference between saturated cities such as Tel Aviv (Hong Kong or Manhattan), where the cost of land is very high, and less densely populated cities such as Beer Sheva, Raanana or even Herzliya, where there is no lack of allocated land. Here, residents still dream of a single home on a single lot, the type of horizontal low-rise building that increases dependency on private transportation. As long as public transportation does not present a convenient alternative, there is no justification in boosting population in these areas.


            Because of the proven inter-dependency between accessibility and population density, vertical building can serve as a local solution where buildings are close to a train station or main access roads. Models constructed in the eighties (as in the Mann-Shinar research project), reveal that vertical building does not necessarily increase population density, especially when public areas are limited and there are infrastructure and parking problems. One recommendation made by the researchers is that vertical building should be integrated within lower, horizontal building textures in order to best utilize expanded building rights. This is particularly true in areas where it is in the common interest to limit building rights such as those designated for conservation, i.e. in Jerusalem, Jaffa or the Yemenite Quarter of Tel Aviv. The few skyscrapers found in the metropolitan area of Tel Aviv are concentrated near the Ayalon Freeway, close to the inter-urban rail track. Commercial sites are more valuable to the entrepreneur as well as to the municipality, and most of the towers will eventually be used mainly for offices and commercial business.


            The correlation between the need to preserve open spaces and the necessity to build vertically can be refuted in various ways. Even if we accept the assumption that population density improves availability of residences in saturated cities, the high cost of building and maintaining tall buildings create an absurd situation in which the extravagant supply does not comply with standard demands. This is because living in towers is more expensive and does not suit all levels of society, as demonstrated in the UK, where poorly-maintained residential towers in urban areas quickly deteriorated under increased crime and vandalism.


            Secondly, despite the undeniable demand for high rise apartments, living in very tall buildings has many physical, mental and social implications. From a physiological point of view, any distancing from the ground impinges on balance and stability, and people who live for extended periods at high attitudes develop adaptations such as expansion of the blood-vessels, higher levels of hemoglobin and greater lung capacity. However, in the case of a drastic movement from a low to very high floor, the adjustments must take place several times a day, and are a burden on bodily functions. From a psychological point of view, the lack of physical stability as a result of the buildings shifting and fear of natural disasters such as an earthquake or fire can be very stressful.


            Spatially and socially, a high rise building is a dead-end street (cul-de-sac). Researchers in England and Denmark have recorded the negative effects on community life of former low-rise home residents who had freedom to move around and develop relations with neighbors of their choice. Research shows that after moving to an apartment building, residents’ feelings of isolation increase in direct relation to the height of the building and the number of residents it houses, result from confinement to an apartment with few outside windows (due to strong winds), categorical separation between the different floors, the number of elevators, etc.


            As for the need to preserve Israel’s open spaces,  the most barbaric hacking of open areas is carried out by agricultural land owners who are encouraged by local authorities and the Israel Lands Administration to change the designated use of their land, in exchange for financial benefits. The finger can also be pointed at cellular phone companies that, again encouraged by authorities, are usurping open green areas by planting horrifying antennae. Addressing these problems would immediately free  areas of green land, and prevent the expansion of settlements into the open space. These trends are particularly frustrating in light of the governmental declarations of the need to strengthen the larger cities and to limit expansion in suburban areas,  which involve the state in huge amounts of undirected expenditures on development.


            The push for high rise building is partially dictated by the human desire to break records, as indicated by a brief look at the history of building . For 4,500 years, the Pyramids at Giza, 150 meters above the ground, were the world’s tallest buildings. In 1884, the Washington Obelisk was erected to the height of 165 meters, shortly followed in 1889 by Paris’s Eiffel Tower. The vast steel construction, 300 meters tall, held the world record for 41 years until the United States erected in 1931 the Empire State Building. Over 380 meters high, the building at the center of Manhattan has drawn millions of tourists. In 1971, the first of the Twin Towers was completed at 441 meters. The Twin Towers held the record for a relatively short time, until in 1974 the Chicago Sears Towers were built at 443 meters high. The competition soon spread to Asia and the Far East, where skyscrapers were funded by oil and other industries competing successfully in the global market. Today, the Patrons Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, are the tallest buildings in the world. Soaring to a height of 457 meters, the towers were planned by American architect Cesar Pelli. The tallest construction ever built was an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico at 975 meters tall. New projects already approved for execution propose buildings over 1,000 meters tall, and a 'bionic' tower is planned for Hong Kong by a group of architects from Madrid; it will be reach 1,228 meters.


            In the nature of things, tall buildings represent an intrusion into the urban fabric. It is therefore important to differentiate between the building at street level and its significance as a point of reference in a given space. Tall buildings get high ratings and influence the citys image. Skyscraper construction demands enormous costs and advanced technology if the building is to have any prolonged shelf-life beyond a passing architectural trend. Although the skyscraper is the result of urban circumstances and an effort to express technological achievements, their building and technological nature are part of a package deal. Many planners worldwide believe  that the skyscraper must have a very definite shape – like the 'Empire State Building' at best, or  Graves style, at worst. Entrepreneurs who recognize the real estate value of a skyscraper, create a situation in which the horizon of a metropolis looks like a stage in the competition for the 'city’s tallest building.'

            A positive change in the Tel Aviv skyline is discernible following the completion of the two Azrieli Towers, which, despite the disputes and power struggles that accompanied their construction, demonstrate the positive aspect of vertical building for commercial purposes. The experience added to the knowledge of its planners and constructors, and raised the level of daring among entrepreneurs. The building is a result of the combination of the experience of architect Eli Attia in building skyscrapers in the U.S., and the daring of the entrepreneur, architect David Azrieli. The use of shapes and materials free of pretensions and correct proportions create a dynamic look which changes in relation to ones perspective and while traveling along the Ayalon Freeway. The buildings blend and divide with the skyline according to the light at different hours of the day. Even so, it is important to point out that even this extravagant center is not lacking in access problems, particularly on the street level on Petach Tikva Road. As of today, all access points at street level are for loading and unloading and parking facilities. Tel Aviv Municipality has plans to change the situation in favor of the pedestrian.


            Two exclusively residential buildings are now being completed by Yaski and Co. on Pinkas Street. The Tel Aviv Tower residential building is almost fully occupied. This model, to house a few hundred financially-sound families, will not solve population density problems. Rather, they threaten to become a role model. Nowadays we are witnessing the construction of two new Government Headquarters. Instead of symbolizing the Israeli vision with climate awareness, their maintenance costs will cost the tax payer a fortune. The Haifa Government Tower, a Foster creation, is almost complete, and in Tel Aviv the tower designated to replace the original Templar buildings in the Kirya area, is a strange combination of shapes and materials.


            Beyond this debate, which will probably be settled by politicians and entrepreneurs who will not read the research, there is new food for thought on the subject of reaching for the sky: the attack on New York City’s Twin Towers hints that the global competition to build the worlds the tallest building may turn into a rush for its destruction.




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