Down the Skyscraper

SUBHEAD: the modern skyscraper—a phallic challenge to the heavens—is an object study in failed ambition.  

By Dmitry Orlov on 15 April 2012 for Club Orlov -  

Image above: Rendering of 1,398 foot tall proposed Gazprom tower in the Russia's Primorsky District, far on the outskirts, on the Gulf on Finland. From (

It was Andrew Lawrence, the inventor of the skyscraper index, who pointed out that the building of the world’s tallest buildings is a good proxy for dating the onset of major economic downturns. His index has stood the test of time; the few times when it made an incorrect prediction can be adequately explained by exceptional circumstances, such as the onset of world wars. It is now being put to the test again, and we ignore its advice at our own peril.

In “Skyscrapers and Business Cycles” Mark Thornton writes:
“The ability of the index to predict economic collapse is surprising. For example, the Panic of 1907 was presaged by the building of the Singer Building (completed in 1908) and the Metropolitan Life Building (completed in 1909). The skyscraper index also accurately predicted the Great Depression with the completion of 40 Wall Tower in 1929, the Chrysler Building in 1930, and the Empire State Building in 1931.”
“The Petronas Towers were completed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1997 setting a new record for the world’s tallest building at 1,483 feet [452m] beating the old record by 33 feet [10m] (the two towers were only 88 stories high compared with the 110 story giants built in the early 1970s). It marked the beginning of the extreme drop in Malaysia’s stock market, rapid depreciation of its currency, and wide-spread social unrest. Financial and economic problems spread to economies throughout the region, a phenomenon known as the “Asian Contagion.”
Thornton then goes on to elaborate why this might be so, based on economic theory:
“...the construction of the world’s tallest buildings [is] a salient marker of the twentieth-century’s business cycle; the reoccurring pattern of entrepreneurial error that takes place in the boom phase that is later revealed during the bust phase.”
“The world’s tallest buildings are generally built when there is a substantial and sustained divergence between the actual interest rate and the natural rate of interest, where the actual rate is below the natural rate as a result of government intervention. When the rate of interest increases, the financial effects all reduce the value of existing structures and the demand to build tall structures and when combined with depressed economic activity, the desire to build at all.”
In short, people are born stupid, and this results in a periodic divergence between one artificial parameter not observable in nature and some other artificial parameter not observable in nature. And then people lose the desire to build. If you aren't pleased with explanations of this sort, then here is an alternative one, using just words, without any of the statistical/mathematical hocus-pocus fetishized by the economics profession. Skyscrapers occur during the terminal stage in the hypertrophy of financial and other control mechanisms. They are optimized for a single function: sucking resources out of the surrounding, low-rise economy, which is actually tied to the natural world in some way, through agriculture or resource extraction or the use of physical human labor. The appearance of very large skyscrapers signals the onset of a new kind of economic vampirism, in which the parasite outgrows the host, and then begins to starve.

Although it is easy to assume that the life blood being sucked out by the vampires is money, it is actually hope. In his novel Empire “V” (“V” stands for “vampire”) Viktor Pelevin describes an entire vampiric ecosystem: the imperial vampires feed not on money but on a metaphysical substance called bablos. Bablos is generated when people, multitudes of them, work for money in pursuit of their hopes and dreams. Bablos is harvested when these hopes and dreams are then shattered. The vampires' bag of tricks includes abstract disciplines such as Discourse and Glamor, which they use to optimize the metaphysical expropriation of the products of human greed and envy. Bablos is administered as part of a special ritual, during which bushels of worn-out currency are burned in a fireplace, but this is only done to symbolize that the money has served its purpose as a vehicle for harvesting hope via greed.

It is hardly unexpected that high belfries would be inhabited by large bats. Skyscrapers crop up when the economic vampires decisively gain the upper hand and feel exuberant about their ability to endlessly expand their numbers and their reach. But the moment at which they are at their strongest is precisely when their quarry—the base of natural resources made available by human labor—is, correspondingly, at its weakest, and can no longer support the ever-increasing load of parasites. The result is a downturn, or a crash, or a collapse.

The ascent to the top of a skyscraper is normally an exhilaratingly rapid ride in a high-speed lift, but, in an emergency, or a downturn/crash/collapse, the descent can be nothing of the sort. As John Michael Greer writes in The Long Descent:
“ we've climbed from step to step on the ladder of progress, we've kicked out each rung under us as we've moved to the next. This is fine so long as the ladder keeps on going up forever. If you reach the top of the ladder unexpectedly, though, you're likely to end up teetering on a single rung with no other means of support—and if, for one reason or another, you can't stay on that one rung, it's a long way down. That's the situation we're in right now, with the rung of high-tech, high-cost, and high-maintenance technology cracking beneath us.” [p. 168]
Lofty and proud, often endowed with a literal pinnacle of human ingenuity and industrial might, a skyscraper has but two futures: as a smoldering pit produced by a controlled demolition, or as a rusting, teetering derelict, shed of its plate glass and overgrown with vine, serving as a bird rookery, with only an occasional visitor scaling its lofty heights, swatting away the birds, to scrape up some guano, perhaps pocketing a few eggs along the way. This is the career path of the skyscraper: from the lofty seat of the captains of industry to a mighty bird-shit factory in the sky; or is it bat-shit? Let's just call it “sky-scrapings.”

The prospect of collapse is built right into the very concept of the skyscraper. The best case scenario of a controlled demolition requires explosive charges and electronic sensors to be placed in key areas all along its steel frame. The explosions must be triggered in a specific sequence, precise to the millisecond and dynamically adjusted by a computer so as to steer the accumulating avalanche of rubble into the footprint of the skyscraper's basement, to be excavated using heavy machinery once the entire mass stops burning and cools down. Without such precise and active control, things are guaranteed to go sideways because errors multiply rather than cancel. 

The idea that a skyscraper can collapse down into its own footprint by itself has been disproved by every generation of little children who played with stacking up blocks and knocking them down: the blocks don't land on top of each other in an neat little pile; they scatter all over the living room floor. The worst case scenario is that the entire structure will eventually start to lean a bit, then a bit more, and eventually topple, forming a trench forced with twisted steel. Where the skyscrapers are packed close together, as they are in the many “downtowns” where skyscrapers are to be found, there is a chance of a domino effect, with one skyscraper knocking down others in a chain reaction.

What better metaphor is there for our entire collapse-prone, highly temporary living arrangement than a skyscraper? An update to the ancient Greek myth of Icarus who flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax holding together his wings, causing him to plummet into the sea and drown, the modern skyscraper—a phallic challenge to the heavens—is an object study in failed ambition. Perhaps most significantly, no other type of building intended for human use goes so quickly from comfortable and posh to potentially lethal. Having worked in many of them over the years, I have been forced to watch, and even to participate in, situations that have convinced me that I don't want to spend any significant amount of time either inside or near any skyscrapers.

While working at 100 State Street in Boston, I once witnessed an emergency involving a window washer. One of the two cables holding up the platform that travels up and down the side of the building, allowing the window washers to do their job, snapped. The platform then hung vertically, held by a single cable, with the window washer barely holding on.

The various fashion victims who inhabited that floor of the tower (it was in an advertising agency) crowded next to the window and signaled their shock with theatrical gasps and pantomimes of horror. The fire department was called, and the following routine played itself out. First, the entire building was placed under lock-down: nobody could enter or exit the building.

Second, a security perimeter was established around it; traffic was stopped and cars parked within the perimeter were towed away. Third, firemen used axes to smash the plate glass window next to the window washer from inside, sending a cascade of glass shards tumbling down to the now empty street below. It took a surprising amount of force to bash through the glass. It sounded like gunfire when it finally broke away in large, irregular-shaped pieces, which, after smashing into the pavement below (I went down to check) looked like coarse sand. Finally, two more firemen standing inside the building grabbed the window washer and pulled him in.

On another occasion, I was working across the street from 1 Broadway in Kendall Square, an MIT-owned building in Cambridge, when that building suffered a transformer explosion in its basement. “Workers described suffocating smoke that smelled like burnt rubber and was so thick in places it was hard to see even a few inches.” wrote the Boston Globe.

Since lights went out in the entire area, our building was evacuated as well, and I went over to observe. I saw hundreds of people emerge from the building over a period of many minutes, at least a hundred of them bearing the telltale smoke inhalation soot marks under their noses. Some collapsed, some bent over retching, some just stood there trying to catch their breath.

What they had inhaled was burned plastic from office carpeting, furniture and partitions (loaded with dioxins) and burned transformer oil (loaded with polychlorinated biphenyls). In a short period of time they had absorbed a load of toxic chemicals which, lodged in their lungs, will last them the rest of their life, hastening its end. Mercifully, this building had only 17 floors; had it been a scraper, more people—perhaps everyone in the building—would have been forced to breathe smoke for a longer period of time.

You see, skyscrapers are not really like other buildings. They are more like space capsules hanging in the sky, closer to ships and planes than to buildings. But ships have life rafts and lifeboats and planes have oxygen masks in case of decompression and inflatable chutes and life vests in case of a water landing, and buildings have fire escapes and windows reachable by the fire department's ladder trucks, while skyscrapers have... stairwells. These stairwells are some of the most frightening places in which you might find yourself: featureless, claustrophobic, and endless. Often these stairwells are not accessible from the elevator halls directly, but require going through areas secured by electronic access cards, which require electricity to work: if a power cut finds you in the elevator hall, that's where you will stay.

In an emergency, you and your co-workers, two-thirds of whom (in the US) are obese or have bad knees or a bad heart or are wheelchair-bound, are expected to giddily trot down tens of flights of stairs. Since such processions are only as fast as their slowest participants, they progress very slowly. If there is a fire, the stairwells can quickly fill with smoke. Panics, stampedes and jams are not uncommon; beyond a certain density, people form a solid plug of bodies, and then nobody can move. Efforts to simulate the behavior of crowds exiting a skyscraper using fluid dynamics, to try to find a better way, have run into a problem: in such situations, the crowd does not behave as a fluid should. It forms clumps. The state of the art is to simply try to hold people back until the stairwell clears.

What might trigger such an evacuation? There could be many reasons, but the two common ones are a fire and a power outage. A fire automatically triggers a power outage, to avoid the possibility of further fires started by electrical equipment that has been soaked by the sprinklers. Some skyscrapers are equipped with diesel power generators, which can provide emergency power, even in case of a fire, but then only to emergency systems.

If the idea of slowly trudging down an endless stairwell while inhaling toxic smoke does not appeal to you, here are a couple of options. The first is to buy a “Personal Escape Device” (the base model is $500 down plus $50 a month with a 10-year commitment, according to the web site.) You will also need an axe to smash out the window, since in a skyscraper none of the windows open; good luck smuggling one past security.

The other option is for the active and adventurous vampire bat: learn BASE jumping, and keep a chute and a wing-suit (and, of course, an axe) with you at all times. This may seem dangerous, but, given the nature of this sport, the list of known fatalities is actually fairly short. No self-respecting skyscraper-dwelling vampire bat should be without a bat-suit. Good luck!

But where is the skyscraper index pointing at the moment? One project worth watching is the Gazprom tower being planned in Lakhta-Center in St. Petersburg. This is the second attempt to get this project off the ground; the previous attempt was called Okhta-Center, and was sited in Krasnogvardeisky District, where I happened to have grown up. There, the residents proved far too combative for Gazprom's PR machine to handle. The public meetings went very badly, and Gazprom opted for a change of venue. The new site, in Primorsky District, is far on the outskirts, on the Gulf on Finland. Its centerpiece a 96-floor, 470m office tower, going up in a city where there are, at present, exactly zero skyscrapers.

In fact, the existing height restriction in the zone of the planned construction site is 27m. The soil there is soft and boggy, land is still relatively cheap, and so building tall structures there is strictly for the foolish. Nevertheless the planning phase should be completed this year, and the project is to be completed by 2018. There is still hope that the unfolding economic debacle in the Eurozone, which is Gazprom's major export customer, will prompt Gazprom to rethink this vanity project. If the project does proceed, then the skyscraper index will come to point squarely at Gazprom, and at the Russian Federation, in an accusatory fashion.
Image above: Rendering of 1,776 foot tall Freedom Tower (one World Trade Center) tower under construction in crowded downtown Manhattan. From (
The other project worth watching is the so-called Freedom Tower, a.k.a. One World Trade Center, going up in lower Manhattan, on the site of the destroyed twin towers of the World Trade Center. It will be a symbol of your freedom to work an office job until you get laid off. It is going to be 541m tall, have 104 floors (plus 5 more underground), and will dwarf every other skyscraper in Manhattan. It is scheduled to reach full height this summer, and to open for business sometime next year.

Given the unhappy history of the site, the project will include a massive blast wall. Security at this location is bound to be very tight; perhaps too tight for you to smuggle in your wing-suit, chute and axe.
Nervous watchers of the skyscraper index may wish to take this opportunity to consider strategies for geographic diversification: away from Manhattan, away from the United States, away from Western financial institutions. As for the rest of us, let us work to diversify away from all of them. Let us stop pinning our hopes and dreams on a paper currency which the vampire bats will use to light their fireplaces once we are done slaving for it.

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