Book Review: Kate Ascher’s The Heights

Midtown Manhattan | Photo: Tim Pearce

Elisha Otis moved to Yonkers, New York in 1852 to convert an abandoned sawmill into a bed frame factory. Endless trips hauling debris from floor to floor gave the tinkerer a challenge: wasn’t there a better way? With the help of his sons, Otis designed and built the first “safety elevator” to manage the task. Two years later, Otis presented his invention dramatically at New York City’s Crystal Palace Exhibition, where he drew himself, on the elevator platform, high above the crowd, then cut the cable from which the platform was suspended. To the crowd’s astonishment, the platform fell only a few inches. The elevator proliferated, allowing people and goods to be hauled to new heights and clearing the way for taller buildings. Today, express elevators shoot up more than 100 floors, double-decked and kitted-out with electromagnetic brakes. These new technologies push the limits of even a New Yorkers’ need for speed: in the city’s elevator lobbies, “morning wait times ranging from 20 to 25 seconds are considered good, while those between 30 and 35 seconds are generally considered unacceptable.” Faster, higher, stronger: we watch our buildings zoom up and kiss the sky.


The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper, by Kate Ascher. The New Press, 2001. Click image to purchase.


The image of the elevator frames Kate Ascher’s new book The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper, a form-centered analysis of the towering building typology. Ascher underscores her focus on the technologies that have enabled the skyscraper – like the elevator – in the book’s organization: she takes the reader from the ground level introduction up, through “Building It”, “Living In It”, “Supporting It”, and “Dreaming It.” Ascher’s elevator, however, doesn’t reach other, crucial floors. Like her previous book The Works: Anatomy of a City, this is intended to be a graphic investigation of the inner workings of our urban environment, and as such, it is a success. But Ascher, with an extensive career in real estate, corporate finance and municipal government that has primed her to take this investigation further, has sacrificed a more thorough exploration of the social implications of living and working at greater heights in favor of a review of construction processes and technology.

The skyscraper’s “original purpose was to make money from real estate,” an intention that has given rise to its characterization as “the ultimate architecture of capitalism.” Skyscrapers, Ascher writes, are the invention of 1880s urban America, first debuted in New York and Chicago once the elevator became a mainstay and building technology hurled forward. The Beaux-Arts period filled New York City blocks with masonry giants, but all were surpassed by the summit of the Empire State Building, the world’s tallest building for almost four decades — until a new generation of “supertall” American skyscrapers built in the 1970s outdid their forebears, especially the Willis (Sears) Tower, bolstered by load-bearing steel tubes, reinforced concrete, and glass curtain walls. Soon enough, though, supertall skyscrapers were widespread in Asia, where the form began to include not only commercial but also residential, retail and recreational functions. Growing economies (and a new class of developers within them) have fueled the desire for tall buildings, and for the last two decades, the world’s largest and most advanced towers have been based in Asia and the Middle East, crowned by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, opened in early 2010 as the world’s tallest. The Burj and others like it, Ascher says, “represent a new extension of the skyscraper as an urban form.” This new class may not all push to new heights like the Burj, but they will certainly be multifunctional cities-within-cities, where 21st century citizens need only stroll to an adjacent floor to go grocery shopping, see a movie, and pick up the kids from soccer practice. At least, that is the idea.

A massive team of designers, architects, engineers, and builders is required to plan, develop, design and construct the behemoths. A solid foundation is key to structure, as tall buildings must battle multiple physical forces, particularly vertical and wind loads, that, according to Ascher, “really drive skyscraper design.” The higher a building is built, the greater the wind pressure, and the horizontal (wind) load that increases with height can multiply by twice as much as the vertical (gravity) load. But even strong foundations and structure can’t stop a building from swaying in the wind or during earthquakes, nor should they. Buildings are designed to be slightly flexible, just not to the point of breaking: this is where dampers come in. Dampers act as a pendulum at the tops of skyscrapers “to shift weight around to counteract the forces of the wind against a building.” The Comcast Center in Philadelphia has a giant water tank on the top of the building acting as its damper; the water oscillates to offset the buildings movement. Skyscraper facades, or skins, have also rapidly changed; today, most skyscrapers are clad in glass, which allows for more light and more useable square footage – but also more exposure to the outdoor elements from noise pollution to weather conditions.

Once the skyscraper is built, though, how is it managed? Power, air and water must be distributed throughout the building, utilizing mechanical floors and various other infrastructure efficiently. Considering the ubiquity of cell phones and wireless signals, buildings must also allow for signal continuity and enhancement, particularly for those important moments when rescue crews – like firefighters – need to communicate to each other. Life safety, in fact, is an important aspect of a skyscraper’s operations, and Ascher notes systems for prevention, rescue, and shoring up the building’s structure. For example, intumescent paint covers a building’s steel beams, puffing up when heated into a layer of foam to protect the steel from heating too quickly and losing strength. After safety, maintenance is central to building operations, and Ascher explores various mechanisms for window cleaning, waste removal, and facade and structural repairs. Skyscrapers’ systems are increasingly efficient, incorporating more self-sustaining and “green” systems, like black and grey water recycling. Black water is what comes from used sinks and toilets, and it can be treated and used to water green roofs, for example. Greening, both adding natural features to a building as well as making it more sustainable and environmentally friendly, will likely continue to be prominent in the future, along with a rise in mixed-use functions and, and of course, height.

No matter how tall or how green they become, skyscrapers exist within complex layers of society, culture, and politics; topics that Ascher skirts. I would have hoped that Ascher, the former vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation and someone who lists The Death and Life of Great American Cities as a favorite book on architecture, would have dedicated more of her attention to the socio-cultural complexities of skyscrapers, from occupants’ health to the balance between safety and surveillance. I would have preferred she explore the implications of a phrase like “segregate users” (in terms of entrances and use), for example, rather than explaining the intricacies of communications technology. Her assertion that skyscraper design is “about money” is undermined by the absence of a discussion of who benefits from the construction and use of a skyscraper, what its economic impacts are, or how the abundance of the form affects the city as a whole. Ascher succeeds in breaking down the typology to what it takes to get it made in technological and physical terms, but reducing a skyscraper to an exclusive object of engineering misses an opportunity to explore the relationship between architectural forms and the social context of their use.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Mercedes Kraus is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. She co-founded and publishes Womanzine and has worked to engage the public in the built environment at both Van Alen Institute and the Institute for Urban Design. She loves pizza, outer space, and .gifs of both.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


BKrad February 2, 2012

Perfectly written review. Kraus gives us key pieces of information (topic, scope, point of view, etc.) and encourages us to question our own reasons for reading or not reading Ascher’s book. I think I’ll pass — like the reviewer, I’d be much more interested in the book if it included more commentary on the the socio-cultural implications and effects of skyscrapers.

Robert Becker February 3, 2012

This is a beautiful book! The writing is clear and the images very nicely done.