Saturday, January 23, 2010

Giddy heights...

My fascination for climbing tall building and looking down at the land and people below is an old one. I was already fascinated by buildings and had tried to reach the highest floor of tall buildings in my hometown of Bangalore, when I read the romantic interpretation of the skyscraper as an epitome of human achievement in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and I was hooked. There is something about a tall building that is surreal - it literally and figuratively takes you above and beyond the mundane and the trite.

This fascination for reaching the top floors of tall buildings continued, and when I was in Singapore, I remember pestering my friends to accompany me in trying to get to the top of some random skyscraper. One hilarious incident took place when I forcefully took a bunch of friends up the elevators of a tall building in the Raffles area of Singapore. We ended up on the topmost floor accessible through the elevator only to find that there was no view to be had, as this was the lobby of one of the offices in the building. Although, I was mildly disappointed that there was no 'view from the top' to be had, it filled me with excitement to feel my ears pop at the altitude! But, this of course did not satiate my need to 'reach the top' and towards the end of my stay in Singapore, my friend and I did manage to go up to the 71st floor of the Swisotel building, Singapore's tallest, to the New Asia Bar, and my glee was visible!

Another experience in heights was when I visited Kuala Lumpur and went up the Menara Kuala Lumpur, or KL tower. Although, shorter in height than the Petronas Towers, which I could not climb due to unavailability of tickets, it was nevertheless a tall building and I enjoyed every moment of being on top of it.

People who know me, clearly know my dislike for Dubai as a city. It is, according to me, very pretentious and tries very hard at being a tourist friendly place, but it is not. For a skyscraper enthusiast though, there can be no going around the fact that the tallest building in the world is now in Dubai and I am itching to go see it - from the top. I remember going to the base of the construction site of the Burj Khalifa in early 2009, when it was still being constructed and being awestruck at its height.

My inherent fascination for tall buildings, combined with this inspiring comparison about the Burj Khalifa's design being inspired from Frank Lloyd Wright's unbuilt Mile-High Illinois makes it irresistible to my skyscraper fetish. (Frank Lloyd Wright, who it has been noted by Ayn Rand herself, as being the inspiration for the character of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, adds compelling incentive)

The Burj is American in another way. Most of the coverage of the Dubai tower has focussed on its height and its location, but it is also an interesting design. The form is not a minaret, like the Petronas Towers, or a stylized spire, like the Taipei Financial Center. Smith (who is no longer with SOM) and Baker have not produced an elongated cluster of shoe boxes like the Sears Tower, a high-tech-construction like Norman Foster's Hearst Tower, or a twisty sculpture a la Santiago Calatrava. Instead, they have opted for a distinctly unfashionable organic form, a sort of stalagmite. Many observers have noted the similarities between the Burj and Frank Lloyd Wright's unbuilt 1956 proposal for a 528-story state office building for Chicago's lakefront, which he christened the Mile-High Illinois. Wright's design is twice as high as the Burj, but there are distinct parallels. Both buildings are constructed of reinforced concrete; both have floor plates that reduce in area as the building rises, producing a stepped-back silhouette; both have a treelike central core that rises the full height of the building to become a spire. And both use a tripod design: The Mile High is triangular in plan, and the Burj has three wings that act as buttresses.

I'm not sure if the famously prickly Wright would have considered imitation the sincerest form of flattery, but he would have been pleased to see a version of his conception take shape in the Middle East, which was the site of one of his most spectacular unbuilt projects. In 1956, the government of the young king of Iraq, Faysal II, aiming to modernize the city of Baghdad, commissioned a number of leading Western architects: Walter Gropius for a new university, Alvar Aalto for the national gallery, and Le Corbusier for a stadium and sports complex. Wright was invited to build the opera house. The Old Wizard, as his biographer Brendan Gill called him, produced an astonishing interpretation of Scheherazade on the Tigris, a circular opera house surrounded by colonnades and water gardens, and topped by an open spire containing a statue of Aladdin and the wonderful lamp. Shortly after the design was completed, King Faysal and his family were murdered in a military coup, and the new regime abandoned the project. Fanciful proposals, such as the Baghdad Opera House and the Mile-High Illinois, are usually regarded as slightly off-key, the day dreams of a master in his dotage. The Burj suggests that the Wiz still has lessons to teach us.

(Read the complete article here)

Custom Search