Dec 2, 2009

The Tall Bank Building Sustainably Considered

In December 2007, a 255.5 ft architectural spire was added to the new Bank of America building at One Bryant Park, finally giving it its intended height of 1,200 ft. This made it the second tallest building, and the tallest glass‐walled skyscraper in New York City. However, its biggest claim to fame is something that is unfortunately not visible in the architectural renderings, or to the passer‐by on the street: it is being touted as the world’s greenest skyscraper.

The Bank of America Tower is the first skyscraper designed to attain a Platinum LEED certification: the ultimate stamp of approval for sustainable construction. The developers, the Durst Organisation, and the architects Cook+Fox are confident their building will achieve this rating. At One Bryant Park, they claim to have bettered their earlier efforts with the Four Times Square building, creating a compendium of best sustainable practices using the technology that exists today.

Most of the evidence of this lies concealed in the innards of the building. All the mechanics of a skyscraper this size are customarily located at the top of the building. At One Bryant Park, these mechanics have been shunted to the bottom of the building, in a foundation several feet below bedrock level. Here a complex circulation system provides air conditioning for the entire building. 44 enormous storage tanks turn water into ice, using electricity drawn from the city’s grid at off‐peak hours. The building is cooled by melting this ice, thus reducing the load on the electricity grid during peak hours. Grey water from the building is recycled back into this system, and all the washrooms are fitted with waterless urinals, reportedly saving 8 million gallons of water per year. Condensation towers concealed at the top of the building are used to cool the air, which is then supplied to each worker in the building, who will supposedly be able to individually control their microenvironments. Under construction is a 4.6 megawatt cogeneration plant, which will make the building at least partially energy self‐sufficient.

Whether all this effort will actually prove successful remains to be seen. Only the analysts of the future might be able to truly gauge the long‐term consequences of these systems. To the common visitor of today, however, the outward indicators of sustainability are few and far between. The materials of the building have been sourced locally as far as possible, in most cases from suppliers operating within 500 miles. But those immediately visible at street level - such as the champagne coloured granite flooring, the large limestone clad walls, or the bamboo roof in the lobby ‐ are certainly not local. Greenery and plantations are conspicuous by their absence, save for two large living sculptures in an enclosed garden room on 43rd Street and 6th Avenue. Above this ground floor, the building rises for another 52 floors in two Siamese‐twinned glass towers that seem to twist into each other, culminating in an asymmetrical top and that allimportant spire.

Nothing in this extensive faceted façade suggests that this enormous skyscraper is among the greenest buildings in the world. With a budget of US$ 1 billion, this is probably one of the most expensive architectural efforts towards sustainability. One would imagine that the architects were aiming at a form that would fix the building forever in the public imagination as a symbol for sustainable design. After all, this is the one issue that immediately concerns every single person that looks at the building; and it is an urgent issue that could very well do with some prominently visible cultural icons speaking for it. Yet, there is nothing about One Bryant Park that visually distinguishes it from the multitudes of other inefficient, energy guzzling skyscrapers that dot midtown Manhattan.

This tower follows in the fifty year old tradition of the glass‐and‐steel, curtain wall skyscraper as the architecture of choice for the large corporation. Lever House, designed by Gordon Bunshaft in 1952, and the Seagram Building designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1958, created the archetype for this kind of building: an all‐glass façade, and a simple, modernist, geometric form. The shape of the skyscraper has since undergone some transformations, in the hands of Philip Johnson, Robert Venturi, and other architects of post‐modern persuasion, but glass and steel façades have remained the norm.

The architects explain that the inspiration for the design of One Bryant Park was crystalline structures found in nature. Cook+Fox partner Richard Cook said in a press release, “The transparent, faceted surfaces of the building function as a permeable membrane for shifting qualities of perception and light.” The crystalline inspiration seems a tad anachronistic: fiftyseven years ago, Lewis Mumford described Lever House as crystalline. As for the permeable glass membrane, it might be just a little too permeable for a tall sustainable building. A glass wall does result in savings in terms of lighting during the day. Construction costs are lower, and there is considerably less load on the structure. But it puts a tremendous burden on climate control within the building: thus all the fuss about air conditioning. Also, people are not always happy with so much daylight: it is mindboggling to think of the sheer volume of plastic in the venetian blinds that cover the walls of at least 50 floors of the Bank of America Tower.

At the turn of the century, rising pressures on commercial urban spaces, and the invention of the safety elevator, pushed office buildings up towards the sky, creating the mode of building that we now know as the skyscraper. Most architects of the time responded to this challenge by harking back to historical antecedents of tall buildings: the Renaissance Chateau, and the Gothic Cathedral. But some architects, such as Louis Sullivan, argued that a new method of building demanded an appropriate aesthetic. He insisted that the form of a building was linked to its function, and that floors with the same function should be architecturally identical. It was this aesthetic idea that developed over time into the modernist glass skyscraper.

One hundred years after Sullivan, we find ourselves in a strikingly similar situation. Today, all architecture, the skyscraper included, is subject to the pressures of sustainability. Every architectural decision must be weighed against this standard, including the outer form of the building. And yet, tall sustainable buildings continue to hark back to recent historical antecedents. They continue to be completely enveloped in glass skins, heedless of whether this is appropriate to the immediate surrounding environment and to the future of the planet. But is there really an alternative?

Long time proponent of green architecture, Malaysian architect Ken Yeang might have one answer. In his smaller buildings such as the Menara Mesiniaga (1994) and in his unrealized concept for the Tokyo Nara tower (1995), he offers his prototype of a bioclimatic tower: concrete and glass buildings, but with plantations and solar paneling included in the outer skin. Buildings developed for harsher climates might have another answer, because they are built to respond to their environments. The triangular National Commercial Bank Building (1984) that Skidmore Owings & Merrill built in Saudi Arabia, uses cutouts in its stone façade to shade an inset glass wall. BEP Architect’s Dayabumi Complex in Kaula Lumpur uses an outer skin fretted in Islamic patterns to achieve the same objective. There is also a spate of more recent conceptual work that offers imaginative solutions. Oppenheim Architect’s proposal for the COR tower in Miami has just enough glass surface for the building to be sustainable without unwarranted heat gain. But this glass is in the form of amoebic windows that give the building a decidedly ‘organic’ air.

In this milieu, as one of the largest buildings to claim the title of ‘sustainable’, One Bryant Park had the opportunity to show the world a definitive new archetype: a form that reflected a deep engagement with the environment; a solid, soaring billboard for sustainability. Sadly, the architects have missed this opportunity, delivering a building that is not particularly groundbreaking, especially in this age of ‘starchitects’ like Norman Foster and Santigo Calatrava. Cook+Fox Architects have given us a building that only serves to even more urgently underline the architectural imperative for today: it is time for the tall, sustainable building to be artistically reconsidered.
Louis Sullivan wrote an essay in 1896, titled "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered". This is a seminal piece that contains that famous maxim "Form ever follows function". Read it here, or download it as a pdf here.

Image 1 (L to R): One Bryant Park under construction; A height comparison to the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings; One Bryant Park at street level.
Image 2 (L to R): The National Commercial Bank Building; The Menara Mesiniaga; The Tokyo Nara Tower; The COR Tower in Miami.

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