"Jenga Architecture" Is All the Rage These Days. What's Wrong With This Picture?

56 Leonard in New York City
56 Leonard in New York City.

 Lloyd Alter

56 Leonard in New York is the poster child for everything we shouldn't be doing, but these days it is much imitated.

Writing in Dezeen, the critic, writer and teacher Aaron Betsky discusses “the emergence and popularity of Jenga-style towers and pixelated buildings around the world”

They rise up in pumps and jumps, pushing in and out of the sky while they teeter on bases that seem too small for the pulsations of the shaft. No, get your mind out of gutter, I am talking about the Jenga towers that have become all the rage for developers around the globe.

56 leaondard in sunlight

Lloyd Alter/ 56 Leonard, 2018/CC BY 2.0

The original, and most famous of these, is 56 Leonard in New York, designed by the very talented Herzog & de Meuron. Betsky notes that Jenga towers have become all the rage on good and bad buildings, a “signature bump-and-grind on the skin of an otherwise typical building with structure and floor plan like all the rest.”

That is the genius of the Jenga theme: if you don't push it too far and balance things just so, you gain back every square foot pushing out from the volume that you lose from pushing in, and you can use all of an office building's standard elements with just a little reinforcement. You get a high-tech effect, and one that can mask the mass and scale of a tower, without too much effort.

OK, enough. This from a guy who runs Taliesen, an architectural school, discussing the pushing out and pushing in, without noting the ridiculous increase in surface area, or the additional concrete and steel required for the cantilevers.

56 Daytime

56 Leonard Tribeca/Promo image

Back in 2008 in Condo design jumps the shark, I described it as “everything you are taught in architecture school and in the harder school of actually building things that you shouldn't do.” The project epitomized everything I thought that was wrong about architecture, an example of the kind of wretched excess that actually contributed to the great recession.

from WTC

Lloyd Alter/ From 63rd floor of the World Trade Center/CC BY 2.0

It died in the recession but was resuscitated, and in 2012, I complained that while designing dense, tall buildings is generally a good thing, “that doesn't give architects carte blanche to ignore energy. But that doesn't mean that architects should design those dense buildings as if they were trying to maximize the surface area and heat loss.”

Urban density is a wonderful thing, but it is not a Get Out Of Jail Free card, you still have to design like you give a damn, to borrow a phrase, about the problems we face, even if the purchasers of these units are rich enough to throw money out the windows. We can't, as a society, afford to build like this any more.

condo tower

Lloyd Alter/ 56 Leonard/CC BY 2.0

In the end, the developer kind of cheaped out and it is not nearly as dramatic as the renderings that upset me so much were. I wrote in 2016, in Another look at Herzog and de Meuron's shark-jumping condo:

56 leonard from north

Lloyd Alter/ 56 Leonard/CC BY 2.0

It also appears to be not quite as full of jogs as the renderings were, but has some big pushes in and out at the base and at the top, with a long stretch of what looks like a conventional square glass box, with big chunky cantilevered balconies, in between.

Bjarke in vancouver

Lloyd Alter/ swervy Bjarke! tower under construction in Vancouver/CC BY 2.0

But still, as Betsky notes, it has become a template for developers who cannot afford Bjarke! “swerves” that I find equally appalling.

Aaron Betsky knows full well that we are in the middle of a climate crisis, he is probably frying out in Scottsdale. Yet he doesn’t mention the problems with Jenga buildings like 56 Leonard: glass walls, no matter how good, don’t work as well as conventional walls at keeping heat in and sun out. Jogs and swerves and pushes and pulls don’t work; they increase surface area and the amount of concrete needed.

This is a problem for people who love design and architecture; boxy buildings with small windows are hard to get right. But as I noted about the Cornell tower,

If we are going to ever get a handle on our CO2, we are going to see a lot more tall urban buildings without big windows, without bumps and jogs. Perhaps we might even have to reassess our standards of beauty.

What I said about 56 Leonard bears bears repeating: We can't, as a society, afford to build like this any more.