Paul Barker: An end to the high-rise dream of the majestic metropolis

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The Independent Online

City living is dominated by the imagery of power. And those who haven't got the power hope the magic will rub off on them if they imitate the architecture of the powerful. A skyscraper, on this reckoning, is Aladdin's lamp, or Open Sesame into a world of wondrous riches. Stalin surrounded Moscow with skyscrapers that shamelessly copied Manhattan's Art Deco towers.

After New York, he hoped, the world's capital would be Moscow. No dice; but the high-rise dream lingered on. It is now dead.

Skyscrapers are, or were, a statement about the future. Hence the significance of the World Trade Centre towers' collapse. They were an ugly, awkward triumph of engineering, not architecture. Wind howled around the plaza, as it does round all high-rise buildings. But the 30-year-old towers came to symbolise New York, its power and its glory, even if aesthetic taste preferred the older, fancier Chrysler Building. Aesthetics was never what it was about.

To prove it was the most tigerish of Asia's economic tigers, Malaysia built even higher than Manhattan. In the City of London, planners have been ruminating about a planned skyscraper, intended to put Canary Wharf in the shade. Canary Wharf itself is a pale shadow of New York. Olympia & York, its developers, made their big money from Manhattan offices erected on infill land created by dumping rock from the World Trade Centre's building excavations.

But the international phallic competition to erect ever-higher buildings will never be the same again. City life will change. Already Canary Wharf has announced it will slow down new construction. Yolande Barnes, research director at the major London estate agency FPD Savills, recalls how the recession of the early 1990s shifted office building away from 1980s flashiness.

So far, skyscrapers have remained highly symbolic. "HSBC has nailed its flag to that mast," she notes, with its move into a new Canary Wharf tower. "Now companies may decide to go for something more low-key," she says, "especially if the World Trade Centre attack is repeated." Once, all nascent European empires built classical-style to show that they were the new Rome. As the past hundred years became more and more obviously the American century, the focus of emulation changed. In London, St Paul's bowed its head before the NatWest Tower. In Paris, Mitterrand's new national library stacked delicate books disastrously in a tall, glass-sided tower, and showed that culture could play the same Manhattan-ish game.

In all cinema visions of the future, from Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, skyscrapers dominate the cityscape. Chicago pioneered the structural form, but in Manhattan there were special reasons why they took root: land prices and the underlying granite. But photography carried the dream worldwide. Le Corbusier drooled over the Manhattan skyline before he had ever set foot in America. When King Kong was re-made in 1976, Jessica Lange was held in an ape-like grip on the World Trade Centre (1,350ft), out-topping the peril endured by Fay Wray in 1933 on the Empire State (1,250ft).

On 16 May 1968, Ronan Point, an east London high-rise council housing block, collapsed. It was the beginning of the end of that kind of house construction. Fashion, not economics, drives buildings high. (The taller you build, the more space you need for lift shafts and other mechanisms.) Fear drives out fashion, as office letting agencies will soon find.

On 11 September 2001, the symbol of American power cracked like an old jug. It's goodbye to the city of towers.

Paul Barker is senior research fellow, Institute of Community Studies

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