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2003 Sky High

The Sky High: Vertical Architecture exhibition curated by Sir Norman Foster within the Royal Academy’s 2003 Summer Exhibition was the latest in a long line to be hosted by the Academy on the subject dating back to 1910, but in other ways it was the very first of its kind. Significantly, Sky High was the first such exhibition at the Academy to focus on a specific form of building rather than a period in architectural history or individual architects, the chosen theme being the controversial topic of high-rise architecture. Covering both historical exemplars and current re-interpretations of the form, the description in the Exhibition’s subtitle, “vertical architecture” was purposefully coined to encourage visitors to dispense with preconceptions and to examine the form afresh.

In acknowledgement of the rapid pace of urban growth in the East, especially in South and East Asia,1 as conceived by Foster, Sky High was also the first architecture exhibition at the Academy that paid equal attention to innovative designs in both the East and West.2 Renowned for his own ground-breaking design for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Headquarters (1986) in Hong Kong and many other projects on the Pacific Rim as well as in the West, Foster was particularly keen to bring attention to new design approaches in both parts of the world (Figs. 1 and 2).

Explore the 2003 catalogue

In support of the Exhibition’s global viewpoint, rather than producing the conventional catalogue of items and brief introduction, Foster also proposed that, as co-curator, I write an accompanying book that would explain the broader urban history underlying the phenomenal growth in vertical architecture and related innovations.3 In his Foreword to the book, which was duly completed and published by the Academy in time for the exhibition, Foster summarises the ethos of the exhibit:

This exhibition and book come at a crucial moment in the development of our cities. Together they present an argument in favour of higher densities and taller structures, not because such approaches are the ultimate expression of the Modernist project or of a particular aesthetic, but because they can help to solve the problem of growth in our cities.4

That argument hinges upon a firm belief in the beneficial relations between high urban densities and efficient methods of land use and mass transportation—vital factors in curbing energy consumption and preserving the natural landscape and productive farmland. Already urgent issues at the time of the Exhibition, the mounting evidence of global warming and its urban causes have since validated those arguments, encouraging architects and urban designers throughout the world in search of new solutions, such as those presented at the Exhibition.5

However, in addition to many structural innovations and new energy saving features, a common goal among most if not all of the architects whose work was included in the Exhibition is a commitment to improving the quality of life at elevated levels. Accordingly, many of the exhibits featured mixed-use functions simulating the rich mixture of urban life more commonly encountered at ground level. Other related features include generous “sky gardens” or “sky-courts” as they are otherwise known—both enclosed and open air—offering opportunities for relaxation and socialising with other sky dwellers.

Comprising fifty-eight separate models of many of the most distinctive and original architectural designs from the first iconic skyscrapers of Chicago and New York up until the most recent projects in the Far East, all the models were mounted on two parallel platforms; one for projects built in the West and the other for those built in the East. Running the full length of the Exhibition Hall, the two platforms with their geographically separate exhibits dramatically highlighted the parallels between Eastern and Western urban developments. The high platforms were also specially designed to offer visitors an upward view of each and every model, imitating a pedestrian’s view of each structure as though seen from a street below. Thus, despite the varied scale of the models, even the smallest model benefitted from the upward perspective, an arrangement that Richard Saxon, writing in Building Design described as “riveting”.6 Two rows of small panels aligned along the facing sides of both platforms also offered concise descriptions and a selection of images of each project exhibited, whether built or unbuilt. Finally, a large mural down one side of the hall compared the outlines and heights of some of the most striking designs in the history of the form. Exploiting the more expansive format of the exhibition book, the exhibited projects were also supplemented by other examples of key projects not included among the fifty-eight models.

Among the radical designs illustrated in the book, several of the entries for the World Trade Center Competition of 2002 featured linked tall buildings, setting the pattern for future developments. Some later projects in the book, like the CCTV Building (2009) in Beijing by Rem Koolhaas and Arup engineers, merge vertical and horizontal elements in a striking manner, more like giant abstract sculptures than the simple skyscrapers of old. Of greater consequence, increasing numbers of residential as well as commercial and mixed-use projects feature “secondary ground levels” linking several structures together, mixing both horizontal and vertical spaces with their circulation systems in a complex multidimensional matrix.

Not least, the many new approaches to energy conservation for vertical architecture pioneered by designers like the Malaysian architect Ken Yeang—famous for his “bioclimatic skyscrapers”—as well as by Foster and others on display at the Exhibition are now increasingly common practice, suggesting achievable solutions to the pressing issue of global warming. Taken together, both the Exhibition and book provide a vision of the vertical architecture of the future, of which The Architects’ Journal wrote:

Foster’s exhibit is unashamedly didactic and polemic, proclaiming the potential of tall buildings, appropriately located, to enrich skylines and provide energy-conscious living and working spaces. It provides a useful antidote to attitudes, all too common in this country, that seek to throttle innovation and invention while sanctioning mediocre sprawl. For this room alone, the Summer Exhibition is not to be missed.7
  1. By 1990, the number of cities in the world with a population of over 5 million had already grown to thirty-one, twenty-one of which were to be found in Asia. By 2017, a majority (thirteen out of twenty) of the world’s megacities with populations exceeding 10 million were also located in Asia (Demographia’s World Urban Areas Index, 2017).↩︎

  2. Some previous Academy exhibitions had also featured individual architects from the East, such as Arata Isozaki (1995), and Tadao Ando (1998), but none within the same exhibition.↩︎

  3. As with the growth of megacities, the construction of tall buildings in the East, especially the “super tall” buildings exceeding 200m, continues to outpace by far those built in the West. In the year 2003, there were just three such buildings completed in the West, 143 in the East, and two in Australia (data provided by the Skyscraper Center, Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat).↩︎

  4. Quoted from Chris Abel, Sky High: Vertical Architecture (London: Royal Academy, 2003), 9.↩︎

  5. Urban dispersal and related high levels of private transportation and use of fossil fuels are among the well-established causes of global warming, which now threaten to exceed the previous “safe” limit of 2C above pre-industrial levels. For detailed analyses, see the Fifth Assessment Report (2014) of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.↩︎

  6. Richard Saxon, Building Design, 11 July 2003.↩︎

  7. The Architects’ Journal, 5 June 2003.↩︎

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Explore the 2003 catalogue