News
03.16.2012
Review> Tall Orders
Kate Ascher's The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper from the ground up.
Suburbia vs. the skyscraper.
Courtesy Penguin Press

The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper
Kate Ascher
Penguin Press, $35

Ninety-nine years ago, Dr. Adolphus Knopf petitioned the Heights of Buildings Commission in New York City to ban “disease-breeding, death-trap sky-scrapers” south of 23rd Street. Today, fears about tall buildings persist, revolving less around hygiene and more around exit strategies. Yet most city-dwellers are still comfortable enough with skyscraper technology to spend days and nights on high. Not content with urbanites’ relatively passive—if better-informed, post 9/11—acceptance of ever taller buildings, Kate Ascher, author of The Works: Anatomy of a City (2005), has written The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper, “an illustrated guide to everything you wanted to know about skyscrapers.”

Ascher’s short introduction to the history of tall buildings covers the New York/Chicago rivalry, the impact of New York’s groundbreaking 1916 Zoning Resolution, the glass behemoths of the International Style, and the super-tall towers of Asia and the Middle East. Condensing such a rich history into the first four pages of the introduction is no easy task, yet Ascher does so with clarity, authority, and a commendable editorial eye for what to leave in and what to keep out.

From there, the author begins literally from the ground up, recounting the life of a skyscraper. Along the way, she peppers the 200-page text with anecdotes, some well-known in the architecture community but others surprising pieces of tall building trivia: Though Disney’s thrill ride “Tower of Terror” exploits an innate fear of uncontrolled descent, there are no cases of an elevator free fall causing death. Even when an elevator in the Empire State Building plunged over 75 stories in 1945, the elevator cab operator’s life was spared thanks to the compressed air in the shaft beneath the cab, combined with a pile of severed cables, which cushioned the fall.

 
Dissecting a mechanical room (left) and comparing heights of various skyscrapers (right).
 

The Heights dispels myths and reveals unexpected but intriguing details—like the fact that operator booths of the cranes that build super-tall buildings are sometimes decked out with TVs and fridges. But one can’t help but notice that in its dissection of scientific, sociological, and economic realities of building tall, the book, though never disparaging or inconsiderate of the architect, underscores the dominance of function and finance in the mainly managerial effort of building a skyscraper. Ascher identifies the architect’s contribution as the most visible part of the building, something that has historically correlated to a certain absolute ownership of a tower by an architect (Mies’ Seagram Building, Norman Foster’s Gherkin, etc.), but the author’s approach also clearly exposes everything that architects can’t and don’t do.

Accessibly written and well illustrated with copious diagrams, The Heights pleasantly lends itself to being flipped through, like most publications in which text and image receive equal real estate. As an artifact, the book is reminiscent of a middle school textbook, with its glossy paper, bright, full-color images, and backpack-sized dimensions. The same goes for its content: A cover-to-cover reading emphasizes commonly used terms and ideas; it’s outlined to the teeth with short didactic paragraphs that explain diagrams, which in turn explain other paragraphs where one-sentence definitions explain “key concepts” that have been the sole subjects of dissertations. The goal here is basic understanding, and The Heights, like your middle school textbooks, makes it very hard to do anything but retain the presented information.

It’s a level of handholding that will perfectly suit some but others may find overly pedantic. But Ascher did not intend to write a book for professional architects, and for what The Heights claims to be, it is decidedly successful. It’s not marketed as a book for children, but it could be, and one that different ages could plug into at different levels. Like a good student of the school of skyscraper, Ascher knows the benefit of flexible programs.

Becky Quintal

Becky Quintal is a New York-based architecture editor and researcher.