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Book Review: Eco Skyscrapers

Eco Skyscrapers
Authored by: Ken Yeang,
Edited by: Ivor Richards
Contributors: David Scolt, Steve Featherstone
Edition: 3, illustrated
Published by Images Publishing, 2007
ISBN 978 1 86470 268 2

Ken Yeang acknowledges early in his introduction that the title may be, and probably is, an oxymoron. It was wise to disarm us as early as possible and then beguile us with his trademark vision of green skyscrapers which reassert the beauty of living high above the ground.

The summer palace on the summit of Siguriya in Sri Lanka, the Mayan ziggurats and Angor Vat are separated by distance, time and culture but they share an understanding of the value of height, elevating their ruling or priesthood owners above the tree canopy and the near focus of the forest, enabling them to see the horizon and gain a privileged and empowering perspective.

Raymond Williams suggests in his wonderful book The Country and the City that the fog which enshrouds London and takes a central role in the Sherlock Holmes stories is a metaphor for the Victorians’ inability to understand the metropolis which they had created. Only the gimlet-eyed detective can see through the miasma and lead his clients to an understanding of the city’s complex relationships and the causality of the events which had brought them to him.

Corbusier’s early polemical projects for high-rise living combine these twin strands, creating communities that rose above the cramped poverty of Paris to bring light, order and opportunity to their inhabitants, providing them with a command of the high ground and a control of the horizon, literally and metaphorically.  Their architectural legacy was more prosaic – mass housing for the poor, high-rise apartments for the wealthy and civic expressions of commercial power.

The potential for creating towns in the sky was never properly realised, despite a continuing tradition of visionary design. Buckminster Fuller, Haabraken, Cedric Price, Archigram et al redrew the future, creating provocatively beautiful designs for restructuring the urban fabric, which remained tantalising unrealised yet exerted a formative infl uence on the architecture of the last four decades.

Ken Yeang and Ivor Richards’s book Eco Skyscrapers continues this tradition. It presents an unapologetic and compelling argument for a sustainable high-rise architecture which embraces the opportunities which a multifunctional brief and a multi-disciplinary approach can bring. Ken Yeang has been designing tall structures for two decades. Fifteen of these are illustrated and presented in some detail as case studies, documented and illustrated in a standard format.

Most are unrealised – I reckoned only three had been built – and as a consequence present an uncompromised vision of complex buildings based on a real integration between engineering and architecture. Yeang’s towers accommodate vertical communities – these are genuinely multivalent mixed-use buildings.

Twisting floor plates overlap. Vertical green gardens are carved out of the plan, spiralling upwards through the building’s sections, to provide stacked natural ventilation and cooling. Lift cores and service shafts shade those surfaces most exposed to the sun.

The green walls and planted courts achieve a laudable biodiversity that is the essential component in these buildings as is Yeang’s absolute belief in the inseparability of engineering and architecture. The vertical courts that cut through the building’s section create a far more complex environment than conventional high-rise structures.

But they are one of several components which make these skyscrapers far more interesting constructs than the ‘iconic’ and vapid shape-making of the last 15 years and place Yeang within an older tradition of polemical discursive architecture.

John Cooper is an architect, writer and consultant

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