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Urban Development: The Battle for the World's Skyline

By Ulrike Knöfel, Frank Hornig and

A building frenzy is raging in Asia, Russia and on the Persian Gulf. And cities like London and New York don't have the money to compete. Will Western urban landscapes soon look outdated?

For an entire century, New York was the city of skyscrapers, the epitome of the vertical city. It just kept growing into the sky, faster and faster. It was an exhilarating adventure in stone, steel and glass -- and seemingly unsurpassable.

In "Delirious New York," his legendary 1978 book about the giant city of skyscrapers and its magic, the young Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas raved about what he called the "colonization of the sky."

Even the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center have not diminished the enthusiasm the now world-famous architect has for the skyscraper as a model of success. Despite the disaster, says Koolhaas, the skyscraper is still "about the only type of building that has survived the leap into the 21st century."

Koolhaas is apparently right. The tower has survived as both a form of architecture and a status symbol. The impressiveness of a city's skyline is seen as a reflection of its prosperity. Skyscrapers serve as a physical expression of an economic upswing, and bear witness to an economy's level of adrenalin.

Go East!

From a Western perspective, at least, this is precisely the problem. Economically booming megacities -- such as Beijing, Shanghai and Dubai -- where extravagant skyscrapers are shooting up all over, mean that cities like New York are beginning to look old and outdated, despite attempts to modernize. In Europe, the eastern part is beginning to look more modern than the western part. Cities like Istanbul and Moscow are more dynamic than London, Paris or Milan.

There have never been this many skyscrapers on the drawing boards, with most of them planned for the world's new boom towns. The West is eying this development with jealousy, all the more intense for its inability to compete. The massive downturn in the American credit market has caused the cancellation or postponement of many major architectural and urban-planning projects.

The battle for the best skyline, which has been underway for more than 100 years, is entering a new round. And it already seems to be clear who the winners will be: the Middle East and the Far East. Kazakhstan and Qatar could soon be aesthetically more dominant than Europe or the United States. It is an architectural clash of civilizations. One of the most ironic aspects of this development is that, in many cases, it is the West's leading architects who are driving this transition. Working for newly enriched governments and real estate tycoons, they are now being given free reign to do what would now be inconceivable in their home countries.

An angular building in the shape of a colossal triumphal arch? One designed by Koolhaas was recently completed in Beijing to serve as the headquarters of China Central Television.

A landscape of tall, asymmetrical buildings reminiscent of icebergs? One designed by American architect Steven Holl now stands in the Chinese city of Chengdu.

A pyramid for Moscow that climbs 450 meters (1,476 feet)? Both are the work of prominent London architect Lord Norman Foster, who is also designing the Crystal Island, the Moscow development that will include it. According to Foster, it is the "world's most ambitious construction project."

The All-powerful 'Wow Effect'

The megalomania of this boomtown euphoria demands more than just tall buildings. Nowadays, spectacular shapes and glittering surfaces are in demand, eccentricities that are noticeable even from great distances. The "wow effect" is everything; it translates into structures mimicking lilies, harps, trophies, tents and other unconventional shapes.

Hamburg architect Volkwin Marg, who runs a thriving business in China with his partner Meinhard von Gerkan, isn't fond of this tendency toward representational building. For Marg, these "iconic buildings" lack social significance.

Peter Schweger, another architect from Hamburg, even describes the current trend as "absurd, atrocious blossoms of sculptural architecture." He has also noticed an impact on Western architectural aesthetics, where "buildings are starting to be designed like commercial products that can be aggressively marketed." Schweger describes his own skyscraper designs, such as the reflective Twin Towers he designed for Moscow, as rational.

The investor and the other architect collaborating in the Twin Towers project are Russian, while most of the construction workers are Chinese. At 500 meters (1,640 feet), the larger of the two towers -- with its so-called "panorama needle" -- will go down in history as one of the tallest buildings in Europe.

But not for long.

A Matter of Standards

Schweger has just signed a contract to design a new business park in Moscow. The development will consist of 400,000 square meters (4.3 million square feet) of office space. Compared with its surroundings, though, this almost seems modest. As Schweger puts it, the amount of new construction underway in the Russian capital "is almost difficult to fathom."

Schweger is critical of Russian building standards. "Many buildings are 10 years behind the Western standard technologically," he says. "The developers have no interest in questions of energy efficiency."

There are other good reasons to criticize today's hectic global building trend -- aesthetic, environmental and ethical reasons. But few investors or architects are interested. Instead, they prefer to immortalize themselves and watch their towers grow.

Calling it "too brutal," Schweger says he's not interested in China. Instead, he focusing his design efforts on a collection of skyscrapers in Dubai, which are part of a development somewhat cheesily named "Dubai Pearl."

Building Up

The emirate of Dubai is the promised land for real estate speculators. It is said that half of all construction cranes in the world are in Dubai. But is architectural history really being written there?

Dubai consists of two peninsulas on its western side and an older section on the eastern side, with a kilometer-long line of skyscrapers in between. The skyscrapers look somehow familiar -- and not accidentally so. Many of the building's architectural elements -- including the bell tower from St. Mark's Square in Venice and the silver arches of New York's Chrysler Building -- are borrowed.

Giant billboards line the highways cutting through the desert. They advertise the names of urban visions to come, names like Arabian Ranches, Emirates Hills, Springs, Meadows, The Old Town -- all in English. Even the names seem borrowed from America.

"Almost everything here is paid for with oil money," says a man employed by the ruler of Dubai, "but not our own." The emirate has little more than a few puddles of oil left, and only 4 percent of its current economic output stems from the oil business. Instead, it has created a real estate bonanza that is attracting billions in investment money that in the past would have gone to New York. The area's slew of real estate fairs -- with names like "Cityscape Dubai," "Cityscape Abu Dhabi" and "The Property Shoppe" -- attest to how eager investors are to invest here.

Building Down

The situation in the West is radically different. In the United States, the current guiding principle appears to be: The more glamorous the utopian vision, the more potential investors are determined to back away from the project.

Until recently, borrowing money -- and even huge sums of money -- was relatively easy. "If I or someone else needed money," says Donald Trump, America's most prominent real estate czar, "all it took was a quick call to the bank, and they'd send the cash over in a car. There was a huge amount of money floating around."

This is how it was -- until the financial crisis hit. The crisis itself was triggered in 2007 in the United States by an overheated market for mortgage loans that private citizens had taken out to buy houses and condominiums. Since then, the banks have been far more tight-fisted. Ironically, it is more or less the real estate industry's own fault that it has now been so difficult to borrow money. The boom is over.

A high-profile casualty of the credit crisis is a complex in Las Vegas called the Cosmopolitan Resort Casino. The shells of the two 180-meter (590-foot) skyscrapers are already up. For the lobby, developer Ian Bruce Eichner had ordered nine-meter (30-foot) robots that would play the song "Disco Inferno" on oversized guitars.

The project is now headed for foreclosure, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. One of the investors, Deutsche Bank, is at risk of losing about $1 billion (€645 million).

Another example is in Los Angeles, where construction on the Grand Avenue Project has been delayed several times. The collection of hotel, apartment and retail towers was intended to revitalize downtown Los Angeles at a cost of $3 billion (€1.9 billion). The complex was designed by Frank O. Gehry, another top name in the US architecture scene known for buildings clad in stylishly shimmering materials.

The work, initially scheduled to begin last December, has now been postponed until next February. The developers, Related Companies, blamed the delays on the real estate crisis. Soon one of the investors -- Calpers, which is California's largest pension fund -- withdrew from the project. Now the developers hope their new primary shareholder, the royal family of Dubai, will take a more patient approach.

Article...

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