Is the Age of the Skyscraper Over? (It Should Be)

"For those that might still claim that skyscrapers are symbols of progress, the evidence is clear they now represent progress towards societal collapse."

Dubai in a fog

Captured Blinks Photography / Getty Images

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH)  is best known for tracking building height and acting as "the global authority that bestows titles such as 'The World’s Tallest Building.'" They describe themselves as: "The world’s leading nonprofit organization for all those interested in the future of cities. It explores how increased urban density and vertical growth can support more sustainable and healthy cities, especially in the face of mass urbanization and the increasing effects of climate change worldwide."

Architects Declare

Architects Declare

However, many are now questioning whether vertical growth is the best way to build sustainably or increase urban density. Architects Declare, described as a network of architectural practices committed to addressing the climate and biodiversity emergency, wrote to the CTBUH and suggested they change their tune and stop praising tall buildings.

They acknowledge the wonder and power of skyscrapers, but note in their open letter:

"Times however, have changed, and skyscrapers are no longer what they were. We are now in a planetary emergency and we have very few years left in which to chart a new and safe course for humanity. The evidence now is overwhelming that tall buildings hinder, rather than assist, our efforts to address key challenges of climate breakdown, resource depletion and biodiversity loss."

Architects Declare points to studies that show that office buildings with more than 20 stories use two and a half times as much electricity as buildings less than six stories. "The unavoidable fact is that, in terms of resource efficiency, the embodied carbon in their construction and energy consumption in use, skyscrapers are an absurdity," wrote the group.

Paris housing
Very dense Paris without very tall buildings.

Lloyd Alter

We have covered many of these studies on Treehugger in posts like "Studies Find That Operating and Embodied Energy Increases With Building Height" and "Are Skyscrapers Wasteful, Damaging, and Outmoded?" I have also previously reported there are many ways to achieve urban density without going straight up, that we should learn from Montreal, and how we will always have Paris and other cities that achieve tremendous densities without towers.

Architects Declare picks up on this:

 "It is widely known that compact cities like Barcelona and Paris have much lower transport-related energy consumption than more diffuse cities like Atlanta or Houston. At the other end of the scale, very dense conurbations like Hong Kong or Ho Chi Minh City rarely provide enough open space or parks. We need to establish what architect and writer Lloyd Alter refers to as ‘the goldilocks density’ – compact enough to allow transformative approaches like the 15-minute city but not so dense as to reduce green space:
'"At the Goldilocks density, streets are a joy to walk; sun can penetrate to street level and the ground floors are often filled with cafes that spill out onto the street, where one can sit without being blown away, as often happens around towers. Yet the buildings can accommodate a lot of people: traditional Parisian districts house up to 26,000 people per sq km; Barcelona's Eixample district clocks in at an extraordinary 36,000."

The quote above is from my article in The Guardian that described how "the trend for elite towers that reach ever skywards isn't healthy for a sustainable community or a balanced quality of life." There is an overview in Treehugger in "The Goldilocks Density Delivers the Lowest Lifecycle Carbon Emissions."

Dario Trabucco
Dario Trabucco is the research manager of CTBUH.

Lloyd Alter

I have met many members of CTBUH, including President Antony Wood and research director Dario Trabucco, who delivers a mean history of the elevator and the skyscraper. I have tremendous respect for them and the organization. So does Architects Declare, which wrote: "It would be correct to say that the CTBUH has promoted a lot of useful research in the area of sustainability and tall buildings. But this is based on an increasingly discredited definition of sustainability—mitigating the negative impacts of something without thinking about whether, as a society, we should be doing it in the first place."

David Rubenstein Forum
The David Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago.

Eric Allix Rogers / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

It should be noted that the CTBUH is cognizant of the issue, as demonstrated by their choice of the best tall building in the world for 2022, which isn't tall at all. The David Rubenstein Forum, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Brininstool + Lynch, is just 171 feet tall.

“It is no longer enough to simply build tall,” CTBUH CEO Javier Quintana de Una said in a statement. “We must approach density in ways that are meaningful, creative, innovative, carbon neutral, and affordable. Only then can we support balanced and healthy living, working, and civic and social engagement."

Very tall buildings use a disproportionate amount of steel and concrete. Some say that the alternative is sprawl, but Paris, Barcelona, and Montreal prove otherwise, demonstrating that you can get significant urban density without going super-tall.

And, in a world where we are trying to use renewable materials like wood, going tall is a real technical challenge and uses a lot of fiber. As architect Piers Taylor told The Guardian, “Anything below two storeys and housing isn’t dense enough, anything much over five and it becomes too resource intensive.” That may be an extreme position—I am very fond of the eight stories common in Paris or Vienna—but perhaps skyscrapers are wasteful, damaging, and outmoded.

As Architects Declare concluded, "For those that might still claim that skyscrapers are symbols of progress, the evidence is clear they now represent progress towards societal collapse."

The CTBUH noted, "The relationship between policy, buildings, people, urban density, urban space, interior space, and infrastructure is key." We all agree on that; let's just get over this height fetish.