From crystal towers to solid skyscrapers

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In 1921, a young Mies van der Rohe quietly sparked an architectural revolution with his design for the world’s first glass-walled skyscraper. Responding to a competition soliciting ideas for a triangular plot of land near Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse Station, he depicted a shimmering form towering over its hulking masonry neighbors.

Mies van der Rohe’s rendering of the proposed Friedrichstrasse office building

Although never built, within decades the design had become the rough template for high-rise buildings from Jakarta to Johannesburg. Despite challenges from various corners — urbanists arguing that the typology breeds generic cityscapes, postmodernists proclaiming that less is a bore — the crystal-tower model continues to dominate. If there’s a skyscraper rising near you today, chances are it owes much to Mies’s Weimar-era vision.

A solid skyscraper in Mexico City

Architect Benjamín Romano believes that this era is drawing to a close. “Mies taught us in the ’50s to love glass boxes,” he said. “We were all in love with his work. It was fantastic. But he did not think of the environmental effects of that decision, because he said, ‘Well, we put in mechanical [systems] and we’re all happy.’”

Seagram Building

Fast-forward almost seventy years and building energy use has become a key culprit in climate change: it’s responsible for around half of all CO2 emissions, by some estimates. As a result, Romano believes that a shift from mechanical to passive building systems — and therefore toward more-opaque buildings — is inevitable.

“The AIA promises that by the year 2030 they will lower the carbon impact to zero,” he said. “It’s a very difficult task, but certainly we’re tough. Yes, we respect Mies van der Rohe a lot. But let’s go back to Wright, to Le Corbusier, to Saarinen — those great architects who could do solid buildings with nice penetrations for light, for wind.”

His design for Mexico City’s Torre Reforma has won acclaim for doing just that.

Torre Reforma

Like Mies’s Friedrichstrasse proposal, the 57-story skyscraper, which opened last year, is triangular in plan. But instead of wrapping the tower in glass, Romano sheathed two of its three sides in concrete.

Torre Reforma’s opaque façades prevent unwanted solar energy from entering the building, reducing the need for air conditioning without sacrificing occupant comfort. While this is an important victory from an emissions standpoint, it’s only one of the broad-ranging benefits the material selection brought to the project.

Interior view showing natural light entering from the building’s glass-fronted side

Swapping out glass for hefty concrete on two sides eliminated the need for load-bearing interior columns, permitting highly sought-after open floor plans while slashing material costs. Strategically placed gaps in the solid walls dissipate seismic energy during an earthquake (a very real threat in Mexico City), allowing the structure to bend without cracking.

View from interior of Torre Reforma

View from interior of Torre Reforma

Locally sourced design

When developing the design, Romano drew inspiration from the local vernacular as well as international masterworks. “Mexican architecture is very tectonic, very solid. It’s not like the Manhattan high-rises,” he said.

Teotihuacan pyramids outside Mexico City

During the country’s pre-Hispanic and colonial periods, buildings were often constructed in heavy stone. Over the centuries, this style flourished for a simple reason: it’s a good fit for the local environment, particularly with regard to seismicity.

Oaxaca cathedral

Oaxaca cathedral

For Romano, this tight interweaving of land, climate, and culture — the natural and social history that makes each city unique — is a key reason for designers to think beyond standard interpretations of the International Style. “You can see a glass tower, maybe, in Alaska, maybe here [in Mexico City], maybe in many, many different places. That is a big mistake,” he said.

Replicating Torre Reforma (or any other building) around the world isn’t the solution, of course. Instead, Romano believes, designers need to make the sensitive translation of global precedents for local environments the new normal.

 

Arup provided multidisciplinary design services for Torre Reforma.

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