Kissing The Sky

It used to be that the only way to build a skyscraper was up. But now the tall building is being totally reimagined and taken in some very unusual directions. Look out below

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"Tall buildings are turning into urban fabrics," says Greg Lynn of FORM, one of the members of United Architects. "Architects are thinking about how to pull the qualities of the street into the building." The United Architects design was too massive and audacious to have any real hope of winning the competition. And to a public looking for stability after Sept. 11, it was also too tilted. But the firm's ideas about the ways public space can be brought inside a tall building were very much, well, in the air. One of the most talked about skyscrapers of the past year, Norman Foster's 30 St. Mary Axe building in London--better known as "the gherkin" because of its shape--is a glass-enclosed vertical torpedo with sizable interior light wells and gardens scattered throughout its circular floor plates. Those permit each floor to communicate visually with others. "We can compose completely different organizational structures in terms of how you move through a building vertically," says Thom Mayne, of the forward-looking firm Morphosis, based in Santa Monica, Calif. "It would be much more like how you would move through a city horizontally. We can make buildings with streets, walks and piazzas inside."

"A tower is a spiritual quest," says Libeskind. "Whether it's San Gimignano or the Freedom Tower, it's about the ancient poetic desire to reach the sky." And even sometimes to reach it by pretzeled means. Twelve years ago, the very visionary architect Peter Eisenman was commissioned to design a showcase building for the recently unified Berlin, a combination of offices and hotel and retail space to be called the Max Reinhardt Haus, after the also very visionary German theater producer. For inspiration, Eisenman turned to nothing less than the Möbius strip, the 3-D geometric form produced by a single twisted surface. Had it been completed, his 34-story tower would have folded, buckled, twisted and gazed in on itself.

"It twists through itself in such a way that inside becomes outside," says Eisenman. "We were looking at that building as a frame for looking at the city, a three-dimensional way of looking." Eisenman's unbuilt design has continued to resonate in architectural circles. Earlier this year a freshly minted large-scale model appeared in a show of new skyscraper design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Fifteen years ago, it seemed an impossible dream. Now it looks more like a plan for further action.

I have seen the future. And it's taking a bow. --With reporting by Carolina A. Miranda

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