Asset Architeture 3 … The Best Building Money Can Buy

The Best Building Money Can Buy – The Future of the Skyscraper Outside its Current Capitalist Logic is my text contribution to PennDesign’s forthcoming publication Asset Architecture 3, edited by Ali Rahim, which documents the design research of last year’s post professional MSD AAD students about Asset Archtecture in Manhattan. The MSD AAD Fall 2016 studio was taught by Ali Rahim, Nate Hume, Ezio Blasetti and myself.

The image you just clicked on shows the project VERTICAL ABYSS by students Ke Liu, Angeliki Tzifa and Dongliang Li.

The Best Building Money Can Buy – The Future of the Skyscraper Outside its Current Capitalist Logic

Once you learn to look at architecture not merely as an art more or less well or more or less badly done, but as a social manifestation, the critical eye becomes clairvoyant.” – Louis Sullivan

In 1896 Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan completed what would eventually be their practice’s last mayor built project, the Guaranty Building in downtown Buffalo. At the time of its completion however, the building had already changed its name. Carefully located at the intersection of Church and Pearl Street close to most of the city’s and the county’s official buildings, it was initially supposed to be called The Taylor Building, named after a local businessman by the name of Hascal T. Taylor, who had developed the early skyscraper as a speculative office building in the wake of the construction boom surrounding Buffalo’s quick but temporary rise to importance as its former mayor Grover Cleveland was elected 22nd president of the United States.

It was only due to the entrepreneur’s untimely death before the structure’s completion that the contracted Guaranty Construction Company decided to continue with the project alone. But also the architectural firm Adler & Sullivan met their fate. Ironically enough, a continuous decline in commissions, resulting from a severe recession, known as the Panic of 1893, that in turn started with the burst of a speculative bubble in Argentina, forced the two architects to dissolve their partnership in 1894.

So, speculation, I would argue, has from the early days on been one of the key drivers for real estate development in general but also for its most prominent protagonist in particular: the urban skyscraper. However, little attention has been given to the question of how the principles of financial speculation have affected its historic and typological development.

In her book Form Follows Finance, Carol Willis for example argues that high-rise buildings, especially in Chicago and New York, have always been speculative developments, and that their form, location, and distribution throughout the city are the result of complex interactions of parameters such as plot sizes, local or regional building patterns, cost effective construction technologies, fluctuating real estate cycles, building codes and zoning laws [1].

Christopher Marcinkoski defines speculative urbanization as “[...] the construction of urban infrastructure or settlement for political or economic purposes, rather than to meet real (as opposed to artificially exaggerated) demographic or market demand.” [2] Giving an overview of notable past and present speculation bubbles, he points out a fundamental change in what drives contemporary urban development. Urbanization is no longer a response to economic growth but is rather deployed as a driver for economic growth, thus becoming a preferred instrument of economic production.

As the amount of capital that is channeled towards real estate increases, the degree to which space functions as an asset has increased radically and the large-scale effects, that high-rise buildings as objects of financial investments have on their immediate built environment become visibly more clearly. It seems that cities nowadays have become complexly multi-layered commercial environments, where space is being privatized in all three dimensions and all property—similar to the stock market—is subject to fluctuating value cycles. Buildings have become assets and air rights have developed into a speculative commodity.

In that sense, for some time now, New York, and more specifically Manhattan with its long history of converting incoming capital to high dense building mass has been on the forefront of this development and therefore seems to be uniquely equipped as a location to examine the phenomena of speculation, asset architecture and its effects.

In direct contradiction to the standard evaluation criteria typically associated with any building in an urban context, the contemporary pencil shaped condominium towers, that sprout all over the city, only operate as financial investment assets. Following the national trend, speculative vacancy in New York has grown rapidly to 12% of the housing market [3] and explains why so many facade windows of upscale Fifth, Madison and Park Avenue apartment buildings remain dark every evening. In 2004 across the United States 23 percent of all the houses acquired were for investment purposes and another 13% were obtained as second homes [4].

As of now, New York is still the third most expensive city for prime real estate in the world. According to Knight Frank Research [5], in December 2016 one million US$ let you buy 26 m2 of prime property. At that time only Monaco and Hong Kong did better. For the amount of one million US$ you could afford 20 m2 of luxurious property, in the exclusive Mediterranean princedom that same amount of money bought you a meagre 17 m2 of first class real estate. But cities in the Western hemisphere appear to be on the decline, and Asia seems to be on the rise. In 2016 luxury residential market performance in New York was at 3.50% and market value is forecast to not increase at all in 2017. In comparison, the four top performing cities in the Prime International Residential Index (PIRI) 2016 were all Asian, Shanghai coming in first, closely followed by Beijing and Guangzhou (all three of them with an increase of prime real estate value of around 27%) and Seoul. And contrary to New York, Shanghai’s top real estate segment is predicted to increase in value by another 8% in 2017 [6].

It was only recently, and after looking back at a considerable record of burst real estate bubbles, that the notion of financial speculation as the main driver for urban tower development has started to rapidly gain influence within the contemporary discourse about high-rise structures within an urban context, considerably shifting the way we look at the history of the skyscraper. More than any other contemporary building typology, the tower has always been widely understood, by the general public as well as within the profession, as a symbol for innovation, modernity, technological advancements, and progress. As a consequence, historically, two narratives dominated the discourse about the development of the skyscraper. The first account is chronological, understanding the tower as a in itself shapeless typology that adapts throughout history to the prevailing styles, ideas and agendas of any given specific time period. The second reading focuses on technological aspects, linking constant advances in building and construction technology as the main drivers behind skyscraper development. However as both of these narratives can only operate post festum, they lack the projective mechanisms that would be needed to allow for productive speculations about this dynamic typology’s future.

But now, as these narratives are being cast aside by an increasing criticism of global capitalism, its relation to speculative capital, global wealth distribution and its impact on our built environment, high-rise buildings are rediscovered as ideological objects to bring back a strong social and political agenda to architecture, tying in with modernism’s long lost social project, where rationalization, new technologies, automated production techniques and innovative materials were supposed to provide affordable high-quality products and solve social problems on a global scale.

So, while the contemporary architectural production, such as Norman Foster’s 700-foot ultra-thin high-tech residential tower on 610 Lexington Avenue, just behind Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, is still well embedded within the current architectural paradigm and its speculative logic, shifting the architectural discourse back towards a more socially biased agenda has also jump-started academic speculation about the socially responsible future of the skyscraper, following Zaha’s famous dictum that “[w]ithout experimentation not much can be discovered. […] I think there should be no end to experimentation.” [7]. And in its more interesting recent moments, the results of these experimental design approaches manage to be innovative on multiple levels.

New York Horizon”, the winning entry of the 2016 Evolo Scyscraper Competition [8] for example explores a new high-rise typology by excavating Central Park down to its bedrock, thus creating a seven mile long and 1000 feet tall wall of skyscrapers along its perimeter, with an unobstructed view onto the newly emerging underground landscape.

Referring to one of Central Park’s designers, Frederick L. Olmsted’s initial intention, to provide a central common green space, equally accessible to all citizens, the project clearly sets its social agenda in providing an additional seven square miles of inhabitable indoor space with direct view to the park scenery, a commodity that has become scarce in recent years as new towers around Central Park have continued to rise higher than ever before as have the prizes of property with a direct view to it.

By doing so, at the same time, the project inverts the modernist understanding of the relationship between building and landscape, making the purposefully faceless architecture the mere background for the natural landscape as a centerpiece.

But, just like the “Manhattan Tower”, a twelve kilometer high extrusion of the “site formerly known as Central Park, scraping the Stratosphere” in Jimenez Lai’s dystopian graphic novel Babel [9], the proposal also makes us reconsider our understanding of scale and the reciprocity between volume and void. It reveals the complex interplay between the height limits of large-scale human structures and the immediate, yet not directly graspable dimensions of the geological and geographical structures that surround us and it reminds us of the unearthed potentials of the contemporary urban fabric’s inherently stratified nature and vertical complexity.

This year’s AAD PPD students responded to the design brief In equally innovative ways, speculating about how novel ideas about asset driven architecture could start to shape the program, structure, materiality, form and visual nature of the contemporary city tower.

Responding to the prevailing speculative urban high-rise development, the studio’s thesis is how to design a Manhattan skyscraper that, rather than fighting financial investment logic, subversively operates within the capitalist paradigm in order to come up with building proposals that will not only generate a return on investment that outperforms conventional investment strategies, but that will also at the same time be able to operate as a social, cultural or programmatic condenser within the surrounding city fabric.

Understanding the mechanics of asset architecture as a complex social phenomenon rather than an abstract and detached market mechanism, students are able to conceptualize the given challenge simultaneously on a social, cultural, programmatic and aesthetic level.

A series of seven sites in midtown Manhattan along the south end of Central Park that form part of Billionaires Row, becomes the testing ground for this semester’s speculative design research.

Some teams investigate alternative programs that might lend themselves as possible investments and their potential to be organized in new vertical ways.

Starting from the observation that burial space has become a scarce commodity in New York, leaving only one cemetery still selling space for remains on the crowded island of Manhattan, the project “Death in Manhattan” by students Carrie Frattali, Jeon Bosung, and Zhao Xiaoyu for example investigates a novel type of real estate by turning burial space into a commodity and developing it as a vertical program.

The vertically structured mausoleum can produce a huge variety of burial typologies at varying price levels, depending on prominence, orientation, views or relativity to ceremonial or public spaces. Vertically densely stacked mausoleums, niches, stacks of urns or caskets are contained within the structural elements of the building and connected by a procession of programs. The tower’s novel typology rotates the traditional ceremonial progression into verticality, thus elevating the process of ritual, meditation, and contemplation in a vertical version of the traditional landscaped cemeteries. The towers facade consists of a series of louvers that change direction and depth, highlighting program changes on the interior as well as providing a variety of light quality throughout the tower.

Another important field of research appears to be the investigation into new residential typologies. With new condominium towers going up across the city nowadays in the form of super slim pencil towers, the floor plans of New York’s most expensive apartments have locked into one standardized one storey layouts that wrap around a massive central core, increasingly failing to offer differentiated experiences in a saturated market.

Vertical Abyss”, a project by students Li Dongliang, Liu Ke, and Angelika Tzifa sets out to redefine the concept of luxury housing by developing an interiority of accentuated verticality, that reflects the soaring upright directionality of the tall building’s overall shape. 136 apartments units are devised with minimized footprints on multiple levels, which are connected internally by a moving platform. They are stacked and arranged following a vertical packing algorithm to interlock around a series of vertical void spaces that act as atria for the respective units.

Other design projects finally call into question the well-established financing models for contemporary asset architecture. “Ten Million New York” by students Chen Xiaonan, Wu Mengyue, and Zhong Jianbao for example suggest a participatory bottom-up real estate crowd funding model in which a multitude of small private investors contribute a modest investment to the overall cost of the skyscraper. In return they do not only receive tradeable shares of the building but also gain the exclusive right to access the tower and its semi-private facilities which are being shared by all the investors. The building’s interiority in turn consists of a vastly different spaces, levels, plateaus, niches, and crevices generating a multiplicity of atmospheres with their respective effective and affective conditions to be temporarily inhabited by its shareholders.

Consequentially the continuously variegated outdoor space that entwines the building, reads as a complex contemporary three-dimensional interpretation of New York’s private green spaces, such as Gramercy Park.


[1] Carol Willis. Form Follows Finance. Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995)

[2] Christopher Marcinkoski. The City That Never Was. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2015)

[3] Sam Roberts, “Homes Dark and Lifeless, Kept by Out-of-Towners.” The New York Times, 06 July 2011. Online Edition.

[4] “In Come the Waves” Economist, 06 November 2008.

[5] Kate Everett-Allen, “Going up, going down.” The Wealth Report 2017. ed. Andrew Shirley. (London: KnightFrank, 2017).

[6] James Roberts, “Future view.” The Wealth Report 2017. ed. Andrew Shirley. (London: KnightFrank, 2017).

[7] Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Foreword” Zaha Hadid Early Paintings and Drawings. (London: Serpentine Galleries and Koenig Books, 2016)

[8] “New York Horizons” Evolo Skyscraper Competition 2016.

[9] Jimenez Lai, “Babel” Citizens of No Place. An Architectural Graphic Novel. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012.