Where are all the gleaming futuristic towers stretching like needles a mile or more into the sky like science fiction promised would be the Future, realized by the 21st century? The closest we’ve come to a real-life Coruscant, at least aesthetically, is places like Dubai; its tallest structure, the Burj Khalifa (shown in this post’s featured image) is the current world record holder, 2722 feet tall. Which was like a thousand feet more than the previous world record holders, heights of the tallest buildings having largely stagnated since the 1970s. The Jeddah Tower, if the thing’s ever finished, will top out at 3300 feet, breaking the kilometer-high mark for the first time.
The architect behind the Jeddah Tower has outright admitted he was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for “The Illinois” (pictured to the left), a mile-high skyscraper envisioned as being built in Chicago. Turns out Chicago isn’t what it used to be, so basically the same structure is being built in a place that does have some money to spare: Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that countries rich in oil wealth are dueling for the title of the world’s tallest structure; diversifying their economies away from oil and fostering other industries makes eminent sense, and there are few better ways to do that than to have a big flashy centerpiece, like a futuristic “world’s tallest building!”.
Skyscrapers are a demonstration of wealth, power, and technical prowess, a needle extending into the sky to meet the clouds just because we can do it. Which brings me to the question: why don’t the richest and most powerful American companies ever build anything architecturally impressive or interesting? In America we’ve got several companies worth over a trillion dollars by market cap who have thousands of employees at their headquarters. Surely that would be enough to make good use of even a mile-high building, together with various tenants, tourist attractions, and “dead” space like so-called “vanity height”.
Yet the richest and most powerful businesses in the world are run from what might as well be dingy industrial parks from 1960. What gives? The only big tech company headquarters that’s remotely interesting enough for me to have heard about is Apple Park. Sure, a perfectly circular ring-shaped building is kinda cool, but face it: it’s just insipid compared to something like the Burj Khalifa or The Illinois.
Amazon, for example, seems to occupy swaths of closely-clustered generic high-rise office buildings in downtowns, as we see in Seattle. The company apparently employs 60,000 (!) office workers in Seattle. For perspective, the Burj Khalifa can hold 10,000 people at any one time, so depending on the exact dimensions of the structure (narrow vs. wide, etc.) Amazon employs more than enough people in its offices to support occupancy of even a mile-high building.
Admittedly Amazon has many more employees than the average high-tech company, but even a more purely software-focused entity like Google has a headquarters with thousands of workers in it, still more than enough to support some of the world’s tallest buildings.
Yet we don’t see anything nearly so awesome as Jeff Bezos having whole floors to himself 5000 feet up, looking down at Seattle’s winter cloud layers and his puny competitors’ buildings peeking out from under it like Padmé Amidala in “Attack of the Clones”, as tens of thousands of his minions carry out his vision for Amazon, the owner of the world’s tallest structure, to take over the world, while tourists frolic to exhibitions of Amazon’s experimental technologies, the largest, most sophisticated, and highest-up Amazon physical store in the world, and the world’s highest restaurants, observation decks, and the like.
Why can’t we have cool stuff like that? Sure, the more social-democratic utopian vision of the mid-20th century gave way to dystopian cyberpunk by the 1980s, but even in cyberpunk dystopias there were usually the same imposing technologies as in Raygun Gothic, just in a sublime rather than beautiful mode. We don’t live in a Raygun Gothic world, but where are our corporate ziggurats that cover whole square miles of California? If we have to live in a dystopian cyberpunk universe why does everything have to look and be so pathetic? Can’t we at least get some sublime aesthetic out of the deal? Blech.
Our whole culture is honestly insipid; for example, since 9/11 America has been a police state, yet we’re denied the Nazi-style flashy uniforms, mass rallies, cathedrals of light, and the like. It’s as if today’s authoritarians are the laziest crop yet, feeling no need or desire to even try to make their evil look good. Louis XIV’s politics have little to recommend them, but at least he left us the magnificence that was the Palace of Versailles; what will our latter-day dictators leave behind? The NSA data center? Please.
The Culture of Fear and the Last Man
I can’t help but wonder, though, how much of this is linked to over-regulation borne of risk aversion. Consider that the headquarters of the most powerful companies that are located in the most urban areas in America, i.e. the very places that lend themselves the most to super-tall structures, the very places where any new construction is put into a vise of red tape, where any change to the way things are is rejected out of hand by extremely conservative (in a temperamental small-c sense) local elites and power-brokers. Consider that it took decades for even a project as insipid as Apple Park to come to fruition through this bureaucratic gauntlet.
Sure, the big tech companies these days probably have enough money to bribe local elites into building anything they want if they were hell-bent on building it, but the money this would add to the total sum for building the world’s tallest buildings makes it much more compelling to lease existing office buildings or build new generic office buildings, as opposed to building a far higher-profile structure, than it was generations ago, and this might decisively swing the equation against building anything new or different.
Another factor might be tech elites’ compulsion to pose as ordinary people even though they’re anything but. Consider the casual dress codes pioneered by Silicon Valley, and how even its richest billionaires with the biggest egos dress like they’re a lower-middle-class office drone who just got out of bed instead of a master of the universe. And needless to say a lower-middle-class office drone doesn’t work in a mile-high tower that signals “we rule the world!” to everybody within a hundred miles of its location.
To a large extent this could be considered the culmination of the plain-dress “Great Male Renunciation” trend that took hold in the 18th century and solidified in the 19th century, which is where the business suit’s domination came from. Men renounced any claim to beauty and adornment, even extending into rejecting bright vivid colors as too feminine, in an intriguing sex-specific parallel to the depressing Reformation-vintage Protestant norm of “plain dress”. What is today’s hegemony of “business casual” if not “plain dress” rebranded?
And naturally cultures that take plain dress to new heights would want to work in equally drab and generic buildings. A perfect aesthetic for, to use Friedrich Nietzsche’s term, the Letzter Mensch. The type is everywhere, including the tech industry, which despite a greater abundance of heroic Übermensch types than the general economy cannot quite escape the vortex of risk aversion and dulled imaginations that pervades our society; consider we have the greatest tool ever devised to link people together, and the frontiers of imagination any significant sector of the tech industry supports is…using that tool as a platform to shove advertisements into people’s faces. Is that the best we can do? Really?
Lessons from EPCOT
This lack of vision might be what’s behind the aesthetic and technological failure of today’s high-tech industry, the founders, the owners, the top managers, the entrepreneurs. Sure, the political regime in the places these companies originated from is unfavorable to constructing mile-high skyscrapers, but consider that it would be technically, and likely economically, feasible for the wealthiest and most powerful companies to move their headquarters to locations friendlier to new construction; I’m thinking of how Walt Disney arranged for the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District in the 1960s, granting his company near-complete autonomy from both the county and state government on the land it owned, being obligated to submit only to property taxation and (of all things) elevator inspections. Interestingly, this represented the creation of a kind of special economic zone years before the concept became en vogue in places like China and the Emirates.
Originally it wasn’t even supposed to primarily be for a tourist resort, but a whole city, the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow, or EPCOT; yes, the same name as today’s theme park, only this was to be a whole real city, a utopia autocratically controlled by Walt Disney himself, designed to be a crucible for the latest technologies, a living blueprint of the future. The whole thing is really quite fascinating; I encourage you to read up all about it if you’re not familiar with this bit of history.
Aside from being a crypto-feudalist reactionary project, and being counter-cultural even in other ways, such as being a company town at a time when they hadn’t been en vogue for generations, EPCOT sounds like something Apple might have built at some point. Seems to me it would have been right up their alley. Steve Jobs was a visionary founder, but perhaps he wasn’t the type to want to build whole new cities from scratch, unlike Walt Disney. Disney himself is a curiously singular character in this respect; after he died nobody else at the company could even truly figure out what to do with his plans for EPCOT, let alone be gutsy enough to actually build the thing. So the vision was converted into something the managers who succeeded the visionary could understand: another theme park. Not bad for what it is, but it could have been so much more.
But more to the point, people talk about corporate influence now, but it is curious that Disney World remains the only prominent example of a corporation possessing a special zone for its own use free from most local and state regulations, and that was over 50 years ago. I’d think, especially given some bribes (er, lobbying money), there would be many suitably strategic sites with governments willing to let a Big Tech company have free reign over some big tracts of land it purchased.
Thinking about this, I almost get the impression that everything we think we know about recent political history is wrong, and big business’s influence over the government has actually shrunk since the mid 20th century, but it’s much more likely that big business could do these things even more easily now than they did then, they just don’t want to anymore. Even in the 1960s it’s unlikely the Disney company’s acts would have been so far-reaching if it wasn’t for Walt’s visionary guidance.
What if there was more Vision?
But let’s say companies did have such visionary guidance; let’s say we lived in some alternate timeline where entrepreneurs thought bigger and the culture and political regime supported new super-tall construction. What would be the limits of what’s technically feasible? What would these buildings look like?
We might see things resembling some of the visionary architecture that came out of turn-of-the-millennium Japan, perhaps attaining some features associated with arcologies (Jared Lain has a great write-up on the possibilities for that…). Steel is the traditional material used to make super-tall structures, but in recent decades concrete has advanced enough to be a more suitable material, due to less sway at great heights. Tuned mass dampers to counteract this effect have also become very common, a technology that wasn’t well-known in the 1950s when Frank Lloyd Wright was designing The Illinois. Another feature of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design that has become common in recent years is the tripod shape; not only is it more stable, but it also allows for a lot more rooms to have windows than would be the case in a box-shaped structure.
Indeed, in such a timeline we would see structures dwarfing the Burj Khalifa’s height that all resemble its tripod needle shape; much like the boxy shape exemplified by the old World Trade Center or the still-extant Sears Tower, the tripod needle shape would be the standard for the tallest buildings. Obviously at the very least 2722 feet, the height attained by the Burj Khalifa, is technically feasible, but I’ve read where even the Burj Khalifa, even the 3300 foot height planned for the Jeddah Tower, doesn’t even come close to the technological limit.
Frank Lloyd Wright believed his 5000-foot tower was feasible even with 1950s technology and materials, let alone what’s available today; I spent some time reading up on this issue some years ago, and my best guess is that with modern technology and materials a freestanding tower up to around 15,000 feet in height could be constructed. Considering that even with insipid skyscraper-building activity we’re already at roughly 3,000 feet, I figure that in a timeline where pushing the envelope was valued in the skyscraper space the tallest freestanding structures might be 10,000 feet or so in height, about two miles. It seems unlikely that the technical limit would actually be reached, but it would likely be approached.
These structures are so tall it might actually be more economical to, relative to today’s standards, devote a lot more of the space to structural support and aesthetics than cramming in as many offices, apartments, and the like as they can. In particular, structural components at the top to enhance aesthetics are dubbed “vanity height”, which is honestly offensive, as the extra height above the top inhabited floor does in most cases serve a purpose: making the building look better, and often even housing various components that keep the insides of the thing running and habitable for the occupants.
Nevertheless I suspect that many of these structures might be towers as opposed to buildings; the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, whose definitions are commonly used, apparently classifies a tall structure as a building only if more than half its space is habitable, with structures with less than half habitable space being towers. The CN Tower is one example of a structure built to be impressive and tall, much like a skyscraper, but containing little habitable area, thus being a tower rather than a building. Indeed, the CN Tower was the tallest freestanding structure in the world for a long time, from 1976 to 2007, and was built in large measure to showcase the wealth, power, and technical prowess of the Canadian National Railway, and of course mankind in general.
It’s honestly a bit puzzling how simpler structures like the CN Tower aren’t much more common in major cities that have large corporate patrons available; an outfit like Google with great wealth but relatively few employees might prefer to house its headquarters in a tower as opposed to a true building. Maybe in some other timeline such structures are much more common?
Personally I suspect one such timeline would be none other than my own alternate-history science-fiction space-opera universe, where the culture of fear, risk aversion, economic stagnation, and Western malaise never really set in, and to the extent they do are comprehensively repudiated in the great awakening era of the 1960s and 70s, concomitant with the space age truly coming into its own with lunar and Martian colonization as well as free-orbiting space habitats. Gyrodynes, supersonic transports, personal aircraft, great wealth being generated, and new materials technology could make towers and buildings very tall indeed. I’ve actually been thinking of writing a story with my timeline’s urban fabric and structures as the centerpiece, the protagonist going on a tour of some of the biggest and best examples the world has to offer. I’m thinking I’ll make this my next story, when I get around to writing it; should be a lot of fun!