IIT and CTBUH launch new tall-buildings degree programs

Upward, with Form and Policy

IIT and CTBUH launch new tall-buildings degree programs

An output from the “The Remaking of Mumbai” studio: The final scheme showcases each student group working on a different tower within the collective urban vision. Project by Ketki Bhadkamkar, Pallavi Bondre, Prajakta Girkar, Harshavardhan Jatkar, Swapnil Kangankar, Apeksha Kore, Bharat Lohar, Darshan Maru, Amey Panchal, Anuja Panchal, Pooja Parchure, Dwitiya Patil, Sonam Patil, Priyanka Raut, Vaibhav Shelar, Sayali Shringarpure, Priyanka Talreja, and Neha Therade. (© IIT/CTBUH)

Antony Wood, president of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), begins just about every speech he delivers with “Ninety-five percent of tall buildings are crap; they should have never been built.”

That is why he started a new degree program at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) architecture school. He said the program will be a revisionist and critical examination of the role tall buildings should play in an era of cataclysmic climate change and epochal urban migration. “This is not a rah-rah-rah tall-buildings program,” he told AN.

The millions of people pouring into cities, displacement pressure resulting from climate change, and the broader collective lifestyle and sustainability benefits of density “portend a future with many tall buildings,” said Reed Kroloff, dean of IIT’s College of Architecture.

But today, tall buildings are most often pure “commercial containers” for one-dimensional market exchanges or a “piece of ridiculous sculpture”—superficial iconography with no relation to the city, said Wood. And these types of high-rises seldom serve the people experiencing the precarity and deprivation that tall buildings can address.

Wood (the new program’s director) and Kroloff will be trading on IIT’s historic legacy as a hotbed of high-rise research and design, from the architecture school’s early embrace of Mies van der Rohe, who developed some of the earliest glass-and-steel high-rises in the world, to the super-tall innovations of Fazlur Khan and Bruce Graham, who collaborated on the bundled tube structures (researched at IIT) that pushed skyscrapers ever higher with greater and greater material economy. “There’s no other school that has the expertise to deliver this kind of education like IIT,” said Kroloff.

people mill around an architectural model at an exhibition
The professional community surveys the final results of “The Remaking of Mumbai” high-rise studio at the IIT College of Architecture ‘Open House’ exhibition. (© IIT/CTBUH)

Classes begin this fall, and two nonprofessional degrees will be offered: a master of tall buildings and vertical urbanism and a master of science in architecture. The former is open to anyone with a bachelor’s degree, and the latter is available to anyone with an undergraduate architecture degree, and both degrees consist of two semesters of coursework. The degrees emphasize design and research and are organized around design studios, technology, research methodology, and seminars that address the cultural, historical, design, and built context of tall buildings. Students will get access to internship opportunities that are “not available to anybody else,” said Kroloff. “They’ve been specifically created for this program.”

Though the program emanates from an architecture school, it aims to attract students with backgrounds in all the professions involved in the creation of tall buildings: architecture, real estate, engineering, construction, business, and finance. Altogether, it’s the first multidisciplinary advanced degree program focused specifically on the high-rise. Research topics for students to address include materials like mass timber, structural technologies, the integration of vegetation, sky bridges, and new finance models.

Still, the program’s commitment to a single typology and emphasis on technology create reasons to suspect that tall buildings are the most direct route to a sustainable and dignified future for humankind. By shepherding an ambitious series of Green New Deal design studios through nearly 100 universities over the past several years, Billy Fleming, director of the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania, is well-known for connecting pedagogy to the realities of policy and political economy. He told AN that the density derived from tall buildings is an “insufficient means of achieving any climate [and] social justice goals.”

a brochure for a class featuring rendering of two learning skyscrapers
Cover image of the M.TBVU brochure distributed online: Project entitled “CO2ngress Gateway Towers,” created by Kyle Bigart and Peter Binggeser as part of the IIT-CTBUH Tall Building Studio, and featured in the Chicago Architecture Foundation exhibit “Unseen City: Designs for a Future Chicago.” (© IIT/CTBUH)

Research from the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research indicates that the sustainability and induced carbon emissions of a development are determined less by the density of what’s built and more by the consumption habits of the population that lives there. And in many parts of the world, high-rises are built for and attract high-income people with consumption rates that entail much higher carbon emissions.

Policy determines how high-rises are built and who can access them, so the “risk is always that this kind of program, which is focused on technology, becomes viewed as a plug-and-play fix to the climate crisis,” said Fleming. Truly reassessing how tall buildings function is “less about structural engineering and more about how the political economy of the built environment works.”

Wood said that his nearly two decades of work with the CTBUH have brought him to the same conclusion. “I’ve been doing this for 16 years, and [the architects] agree,” he said. “But it has no impact, because the people that need to hear this message are the policy makers. It’s all about policy.” As the program matures, he hopes to attract a student body that can fine-tune policy recommendations and situate tall buildings within real-world constraints as expertly as formalists tinker with proportion and detailing and technological innovations alter performance and structural regimes. “The tall building needs to be a part of the city, including its infrastructure—parks, sidewalks—flipped vertically and connected,” said Wood.

“High-rises are not the only solution to the challenges of rapid urbanization,” Kroloff said. “They are part of the solution, and an important part of the solution. We would like to develop this program to make sure that this building type is steered toward, as often as possible, innovations that benefit people of every economic level and that make these buildings more environmentally sensitive and sustainable. How can we make tall buildings a tool to help alleviate economic hardship rather than becoming a defining example of why there is that hardship?”

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist and critic, focused on architecture and landscape architecture’s relationship to public policy.