Volume 18 • Issue 40 | February 17 - 23, 2006

Art

“Green Towers for New York: From Visionary to Vernacular”
The Skyscraper Museum
39 Battery Place
(212-968-1961, www.skyscraper.org)

Michael Ficeto / Hearst Corp.

Full-view of the new Hearst Tower, one of 15 designs now on display in The Skyscraper Museum’s exhibit “Green Towers for New York: From Visionary to Vernacular.”

Skyscrapers that would please a treehugger

By Steven Snyder

Skyscrapers, for many, are objects of awe and inspiration, far more important as symbols of power than symbols of practicality. And downtown, at the city’s Skyscraper Museum, tourists regularly tour the gallery in search of the biggest and boldest examples of this unique architectural art form. For them the story is told in the pictures and the models – by the outer shell of these towering monuments.

All of which makes the museum’s current exhibit, “Green Towers for New York: From Visionary to Vernacular,” a remarkable installation. Rather than celebrate the past and the traditional forms of the skyscraper, “Green Towers” highlights instead the intricate inner workings of a new generation of 15 designs – buildings that prove skyscrapers are now more concerned than ever before with confronting the issues of energy, employee happiness and the environment.

On a recent visit to the museum, the educational value of the exhibit was unmistakable.

“Oh, that’s so ugly!” gasped a woman touring the museum with her two friends as she gazed at the model for the new Hearst Tower. But after perusing a few other models, she returned to the Hearst project yet again, this time reading the adjoining description of the design’s “green” traits: A “diagrid” steel frame that will save 2,000 tons of steel, motion sensors that will turn off unused lights, the use of outside air for heating and cooling to reduce energy usage by 22 percent, and a system that collects rainwater, later using it to replenish air conditioning systems and surrounding landscaping and to fuel a three-story sculptured waterfall.

“Huh, that’s pretty impressive,” she said, scratching her chin and discussing the design with her companions. For at least one visitor, the exhibit had succeeded in redefining her notion of what a skyscraper should be, and what green architecture is capable of.

“It seems counter-intuitive that you would think of green and skyscrapers together, but it shouldn’t be that way,” said Carol Willis, museum director and adjunct instructor at Columbia University. “If not a tipping point, we’ve reached a critical mass that this can not just be done, but done economically.”

From the exhibit’s introductory display – a wall of definitions breaking down the various terms and systems common to green architecture – it becomes clear that “Green Towers” is designed not only to introduce visitors to groundbreaking designs but also a new way of thinking about traditional architectural techniques. And many of these terms are essential to understanding the importance of the most progressive projects on display. “Rainwater harvesting” is the capturing and re-using of natural water supplies; “Low-e glass” is low-emissivity glass which allows in solar energy while preventing the escape of heat; “Spectrally selective glazing” is a glaze on glass that allows natural light in, but not the heat caused by solar rays.

The most important of all these terms might be “LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) ratings,” which were developed by the U.S. Green Building Council in order to create standards for environmentally-conscious designs. Hearst Tower, with its many green systems and recycled materials, is expected to be the first New York City office building with a gold LEED rating.

Wills said that while these ratings have given architects and engineers a benchmark to work towards, they may be more valuable as a catalyst for the development of a wider, green-friendly industry. In particular, as more projects have embraced green technology, new networks of vendors have emerged that are capable of mass-producing environmentally-friendly materials at cheaper prices, confident that growing markets for those goods exist.

“The exhibit makes the point that pioneers come in different professions,” Willis said. “The key here is developers – to invest $400 to $500 million, or $1 billion dollars on a project like this …innovation is a very difficult thing to do in a billion dollar project.”

Yet with an entire wave of projects on display, Willis said, a new generation of architects and engineers is getting the chance to experiment and innovate with the conventions of the skyscraper. She points to the Conde Nast Building in Times Square, which opened in 1999, as the real breakthrough – the project that proved to the industry the possibility of designing environmentally-conscious skyscrapers that were also economically viable.

And she said the benefits of the 15 green projects on display at the museum, from the Hearst Tower to the Bank of America Tower and The New York Times building, may help companies improve their bottom line. In fact, as corporations continue to build green headquarters, they are investing in the notion that green concepts improve employee productivity.

“It might be smart in the long-term to save energy,” Willis said. “But to increase productivity – to get people to stay five minutes later, stay awake with fresh air and stay comfortable – all these things make the workplace aesthetically and physically more productive.”

In addition to detailed models, video simulations and thorough diagrams of each project’s environmental attributes give visitors an inside view of “Green Towers’” 15 progressive designs. Also, six public lectures remain in a planned eight-part series that goes hand-in-hand with the exhibit. The next lecture, “FXFOWLE: Building a Green Paradise” is open to the public and scheduled for Tuesday night at the Donnell Library Center. Contact the museum for more information.


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