On the Future of the Tall Office Building
If you wander around the new Moynihan Train Hall in midtown Manhattan, at some point you’ll encounter “The Hive,” an art installation located inside the West 34th Street entrance. Dangling from the vaulted ceilings like stalactite are glittering replicas of upside-down skyscrapers, futuristic shapes that stretch up to nine feet long. Their pretend windows are illuminated by hidden LED lights. The exhibit’s aluminum base plate ripples with the reflection of passersby. The piece was designed as an idealistic ode to the modern skyline, the beautiful logic of busy central districts, the “huge collaboration [required] to make everyone survive,” as one of the two Berlin-based artists said recently to the New York Times. But upon the exhibit’s unveiling in the brutal winter of 2021, nearly a year into a global pandemic, its stylish optimism already feels like an artifact from a bygone era.
Like most major cities around the world, New York is experiencing historic rates of vacancy. Nearly 9 in 10 office employees are still working from home; the traditional proximity of central offices has been re-configured around instant Slack messages and Zoom video calls, the latest buzzy tech products to colonize the household (and whose friendly names obscure darker realities —i.e., constant work from solitary desks). Many wealthy residents have fled to second homes in the suburbs or faraway tropical climates. While there remains hope that an improved vaccine rollout could trigger some return to normalcy later this year, most analysts are already predicting that remote-work arrangements will last through the end of 2022. Meanwhile, the storied office towers of Manhattan, and other cosmopolitan capitals, have been sitting dark and vacant. Even as the affordable housing crisis grows more dire. Even as landlords evict more families from their homes. Even as wildlife has begun to roam and nestle into empty lobbies.
The pandemic is finally testing the idea, proposed by management theorists as early as the 1970s, that modern computing makes the high-rise office tower irrelevant—that these buildings are destined to become like the pyramids, something at which we’ll continue to marvel but that will one day serve no functional purpose. Sure enough, the technological whiplash of the past half-century saw mainframe servers replace storerooms, software extinguish paper, and email transform every employee into self-sufficient switchboards and secretaries. In recent years, even before the WeWork debacle, when companies began refashioning their pricey downtown offices into amenity-rich communes—complete with kitchens and gyms, foosball tables and nap pods—we should have sensed the end of an era was upon us.
Few realize the full extent of the crisis awaiting cities on the other side of the immunity curve. Last May, just two months after lockdowns began, the chief executive of Morgan Stanley, one of New York’s largest commercial tenants, was already bragging that the company had “proven we can operate with no footprint.” The remote-work environment has highlighted how disembodied the modern corporation has become, how difficult to pin down and integrate, let alone regulate. They increasingly touch earth only through dispersed workforces and offshore bank accounts.
If early skyscrapers of the late 19th and 20th centuries were symbols of dizzying progress across the Western world—as they are now in many parts of Asia and the Middle East—today they are more often generic symbols of corporate power, recalling the many challenges of our age. Gaping inequality. Runaway greenhouse emissions. Strained public infrastructures. As these soaring towers remain dormant, and nervous landlords await commercial tenants who may not return, it’s time for the rest of us to reimagine what these structures could accomplish.
Raised in the suburbs of Chicago, I was fascinated by the bewildering geometry of cityscapes. On family trips downtown, we’d visit the observation decks of the Sears Tower and John Hancock, some hundred stories in the sky. I remember the whooshing sound of the elevator shaft before crossing into the muted awe of the viewing room. Perhaps it was these early experiences that propelled me to New York for college, where I lucked into a 24th-floor dormitory my freshman year, the best skyline view I’ll ever have—a cluster of downtown towers, the Empire State Building peeking above the horizon; in the foreground, an older classical building displayed an austere clock, that free public good that doubles as a curse.
As an undergraduate at NYU’s business school, many classes began with a view from the archetypal high-rise office. We’d read and debate case studies published by the Harvard Business School—that so-called “West Point of capitalism”—which often revolved around a worried executive gazing from the perch of their corner office. They would survey the city landscape like a board game, people and cars reduced to ant-sized specks, neighborhoods rendered as geometric patterns, a manufactured world created and controlled by the “panopticon of corporate power” (to borrow David Nye’s phrase). Often the skies were fraught with clouds or rain, which would reliably part later in the story—or in our small group discussions—once a solution was reached and quarterly revenues returned to expected growth levels.
At first, it was exciting to imagine myself occupying this rare helm. Similar to how those enormous towers lent my little life a greater sense of gravity, this birds-eye perspective could invoke a kind of delirious submission, the dissociative effects of the urban sublime, that mix of terrifying and beautiful. But it was also the fall of 2009, and these case study debates often occurred in the school’s newly renovated Paulson Auditorium, named after a hedge fund analyst who netted his $3.5 billion fortune by short-selling the U.S. housing market. The whole conversation quickly began to feel contrived. Why were these company headquarters always stationed in the nearest downtown district, even if their business involved grain production in a rural province, or steel refineries somewhere overseas? Whether the issue at hand was a price hike, or a supplier dispute, or an unexpected PR scandal, success in these assignments required a blinkered approach: the challenge was ultimately to resolve a private problem, regardless of any sustained impact or collateral damage on the public.
Like the soaring observation decks built for tourists, these play-along exercises felt like another sleight-of-hand: a peek into the view of capital that could allow anyone to feel falsely empowered, to believe that this intricately engineered world was good and could be theirs to mold and shape—but to what end or benefit, beyond the abstract measures of a balance sheet? What did continue to excite me were the social conditions which enabled that magisterial gaze of corporate destiny. The simple presence of a high-rise building—as opposed to a secluded homestead or farm, a dilapidated strip mall—forces one to consider the idea of a public (or a lack thereof). Its hulking shadow and immense resource needs cast an immediate effect, and costly externalities, on its dense surroundings. Every skyscraper is a collaborative effort, requiring a bevy of approvals and contractors, revealing the systems by which large-scale projects are built and valued, for good and worse. As tempting as it is to “change” the world from that lavish corner office, more thrilling to me, as time passed, was the prospect of blowing up that bastion of privilege in favor of alternative visions, built environments that could address social problems beyond the interests of investors and corporations, or absent landlords interested in one dimension of progress.
The ambitions of the tall office building have never been virtuous. From its beginning, these towers embodied a corrosive blend of masculine and capitalist ambition. In his essay on Chicago’s fraternity temples, historian Edward Wolner dispels the myth that the first modern skyscraper was Chicago’s storied Home Insurance Building, a boxy, 16-floor high-rise built in 1885 that utilized the novel steel-frame structure. Rather, he argues it was the Masonic Lodge across town that a few years later ushered in the era of “skyscraper sensationalism,” proclaiming on its adverts a vision to house “a city under one roof” and establishing the self-promotional category of “highest commercial building in the world.” The project was funded by a flailing chapter of Masons, virtually all men, looking to join the money-race, breaking with the old fraternal aim of “asylum from commercialism.”
Since that initial advertisement, the modern skyline has been the site of a never-ending race to nowhere. You could argue that high-rise offices gave birth to the modern city, their density catalyzing the rise of central downtown districts and mass transit, their tax proceeds paying for public parks and services. But since that auspicious beginning, and even as other facets of the urban environment have evolved, the buildings themselves have changed little in their structural logic or “program” (as architects refer to the intended use of a project). From the Gilded Age through the post-war eras, high-rise offices inched ever higher, the pet projects of vain tycoons—still virtually all men—who wanted to extract lucrative rents from downtown real estate while also casting their phallic wrath into the sky for the world to see.
These developments frequently experienced criticism—from the displaced communities and underpaid laborers that made the towers possible; in cities like London and Paris that sought to preserve their historic districts; from the Soviet leaders who cast the nefarious objects as temples to greed (before constructing their own government towers). Time and again, the dynamism of modernity and technology embodied in these structures proved irresistible. In a meditation on New York’s disorienting skyline, Gertrude Stein once lamented how the towering Flatiron Building of her youth years later looked like “just a house” amid the ever-taller mid-century towers, which lack any kind of decorative top or cornice and “that is right because why end anything.”
The second half of the 20th century saw the mass commoditization of the high-rise office. Glass-box designs were prioritized for their cost and efficiency, for the cheapest and thinnest materials that maximized the rentable square footage. Relaxed zoning laws permitted developers to disregard the public sphere entirely, erecting sixty-plus-story monoliths within historic districts of mid-rise buildings. In her 1984 manifesto on skyscraper design, architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable decries this spree of overbuilding that overtook major cities like New York, and the complicit architects that continued to abdicate any sense of social or civic responsibility beyond the narrow interests of their egos and clients’ pocketbooks. “Is there a line where economic destiny can no longer be distinguished from pure greed?” she writes. “At what point do the urban and cultural assets that are the city’s great draw lose out to a painful and abrasive and underserviced environment?”
We don’t know when to stop, and little about our technological age encourages us to consider the thought. If anything, the idea of widespread doubt or shame around overdevelopment feels quaint. In recent years, the only evolution in skyscraper design has been to further push the extremes. The latest “supertall” buildings surpass 1,000 feet, many so thin as to earn the moniker “pencil towers,” and which appear prone to snapping. These elegant anomalies effectively are cities in the sky, requiring their own light rail transport and electric substations. They tend to be mixed-use or residential, instead of purely commercial. They might not be structurally sound or socially viable. In 2016, the leaning Millennium Tower of San Francisco raised questions about the architectural integrity of modern high-rises. Earlier this month, reports of angry residents, flooding, and faulty mechanical systems at 432 Park Avenue, the 85-story pencil tower overlooking Central Park, were reminiscent of J. G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise, a quarreling community of primal urges held together only by fear of ruined property values.
The search for a reimagined skyscraper continues today, and we desperately need architects to resume their mantle as stewards of public need and civic mind, not merely henchmen for private interests. A rare example of such thinking can be found in the forgotten blueprint of a “Skyrise for Harlem.” Co-authored in 1965 by literary scholar June Jordan and architect Buckminster Fuller, the plan aimed to transform the neighborhood without displacing the Black residents who so often bore the costs of “urban renewal.” Fifteen conical, multi-purpose towers would be erected over existing tenements, whose residents would simply move up into their new high-rise apartment, the existing low-rise building eventually cleared to make room for public parks and plazas. “Partial renovation is not enough,” wrote Jordan in a feature essay for Esquire. “A half century of despair requires exorcism.” The magazine editors undermined, if not entirely botched, the noble project, rebranding the article with title “Instant Slum Clearance,” reviving the very stereotype that Jordan had tried to bury.
Who is proposing such bold architectural visions today? Mostly, big-tech billionaires and gulf oil tycoons—still largely men—who see urban development as a leisurely Lego project. Man-made archipelagos. Floating countries. Remote eco-cities. Anything that can provide the fantasy of a blank slate from which to build, avoiding the thorny social and political questions by which any city ultimately lives or dies.
The difficult truth is that we should probably stop building high-rise offices (if not skyscrapers altogether). This may sound like blasphemy in rapidly urbanizing regions like China or the Middle East, where hundreds of new skyscrapers are erected each year. But in Western cities, where skylines have already felt stagnant, it’s not an unrealistic proposition. There is increasingly no need, and little desire, for downtown office headquarters, and there is more than enough existing space for companies that do revert back to in-person work after the pandemic subsides. The benefits of urban density and walkable neighborhoods can be achieved by low- and mid-rise buildings that hew closer to human scale and all-around efficiency, from their carbon footprint to the demands on local utilities.
The surprisingly slim but growing field of environmental research around skyscrapers has revealed just how damaging their second-order effects can be. High-rise towers account for anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of a city’s greenhouse emissions, and this encompasses only their “in-use” energy. For years, regulators and the public alike have been distracted by tall tales of green-friendly design, approved by shiny LEED placards on building entrances. This framework completely ignores the environmental cost, or “embodied” energy, of constructing the tower in the first place—the steel forged in China and shipped overseas; the glass that arrives from Germany via massive aircraft; the groaning cement trucks that clog downtown streets and churn day and night.
If the prolonged downturn of the pandemic indeed leads to a permanent shift towards remote work, cities can expect these towers to retreat from their astronomical market values, and perhaps even become distressed assets. Urban planners and city leaders have a rare opportunity to halt and rethink construction of these obsolete structures, and commandeer the vertical wasteland in favor of development that supports a more equitable and enjoyable future.
Common sense suggests that affordable housing is the obvious priority. The crisis continues to worsen in precisely the built-up megacities where high-rise offices have been vacated. City leaders could do much worse than to turn every last square foot of liberated commercial space into rent-controlled apartments—or better yet, subsidized homes. Singapore is often held up as a model of public housing, and though its authoritarian government makes for an inexact comparison, there are lessons in its leasing model—which turns renters into home-owners—and its deliberately integrated buildings that are mixed by income and gender (perhaps the fatal oversight behind public housing the West). Retrofitting office towers into residences also transcends the thorny dichotomy of the pro- vs. anti-development (or “YIMBY vs. NIMBY”) debate, which continues to escalate and ossify into opposing ideological clusters.
Large metropolitan cities also need ready supplies of food. By 2050, nearly 70 percent of the world population, or roughly 7 billion people, will live in urban areas. While the dream of vertical farming—or indoor, soilless agriculture methods—remains fraught with cost and energy-use challenges, the building blocks of aeroponic and hydroponic technologies have finally taken off in recent years. Currently, these operations are typically run in exurban warehouses, but as methods improve and economies of scale increase, there is the exciting possibility of vertically integrated farms in downtown centers that could reduce wasteful shipping routes and improve urban resilience. In a 2009 feature for Scientific American, microbiologist Dr. Dickson Despommier sketched his vision for a 30-story vertical farm that would not only grow fruits, vegetables, and grains, but also include street-level groceries and restaurants, as well as on-site composting and wastewater replenishment, all powered by solar cells and, for those few scraps that cannot be recycled, waste-to-energy incinerators.
Housing and agriculture are just two of the many pressing needs facing cities. But these examples can help shatter our narrow preconceptions and reimagine those hulking containers not as end-games for corporate hegemony or winner-take-all capitalism, but as sites of bold experimentation to revitalize our conception of the urban public—from better schools and integrated hospitals to abundant libraries and community centers. Rebuilding a better future can begin with repurposing these existing spaces.
The skyscraper must rank among America’s most successful inventions, as measured by its viral reach, its hegemonic financial logic, its pure endurance. As western skylines stagnate, emerging cities abroad are rising more quickly than ever. Before-and-after pictures from Southeast Asia or the Gulf region show the baffling transformation of farmland and desert into towering metropolises, in the span of twenty years, like some alien virus had spawned an entirely new civilization. In many parts of the world, the skyscraper is as prevalent and widespread as airplanes or fast food, as undeniably convenient and secretly insidious to ourselves and the natural environment.
More than anything, the skyscraper can represent a poetic achievement, a space-age fantasy akin to the ballyhooed moon landing—a psychic threshold that deludes otherwise reasonable individuals with a superiority complex, over others and the natural world we inherit. The city-in-the-sky is another frontier fantasy that stems from an imperial desire to export or recreate our presumably better way of life in some far-flung place. Techno-optimists envision bubble cities on the moon, or aboard seasteading superships. It is a false notion of progress, disconnected from any real social problem or need, other than narcissistic self-propagation.
In some ways, it can feel as though skyscrapers are the last great architecture. At your local library, the “Design” shelves are likely filled with books bearing titles like “From Stones to Skyscrapers,” or the “Skyward Trend of Thought,” childrens’ books and adult hardbacks alike that recall the wonder I once felt about those aspirational skylines, and which I still believe can be salvaged towards some renaissance of greater purpose or meaning. But what comes next? Is there a signature architecture of the digital age? Is it the hidden, monolithic warehouses beyond the city limits that have piped goods to our homes throughout the pandemic? As we continue to imagine new possibilities for the vacant office tower, we can also remember that there remains an expansive field of opportunities to solve these problems with novel and more human-scale designs as well.