Living Among the Clouds

By Andrej Mrevlje |

“The future of urban development takes on a new twist when the president lives among the clouds,” reads the subhead of an article that the Smithsonian published just yesterday.

“How high?” one might ask, considering the fact that Trump Tower brokers are now offering their empty locations with a new amenity — that is, a lease that’s under Secret Service protection. According to a report from Mashable, “the hot new thing at Trump Towers in an email the agency sent out less than a week after Trump’s election.”

But aside from this — what one might call collateral damage of Trump’s presidency-to-be, in which he won’t miss any opportunity to increase his income — there are more substantial issues brought out by the fact that the president-elect lives among the clouds.

No doubt about it — the presidency will change. Let’s turn back to the Smithsonian, which noted that Donald Trump will not be the only president with a huge private residence: “George Washington had Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson had Monticello. Now President-elect Donald Trump has his eponymous Manhattan skyscraper, Trump Tower. Our first and third presidents saw their plantations as both productive and symbolic of American identity that was rooted in the land itself. President-elect Trump looks out from his tower onto a dense, dynamic cityscape that represents American capitalism.”


So we are going from two presidents who loved rural pastorals to the the urban-loving Trump. For the puritan Smithsonian, this change is not necessarily a bad thing. “Trump Tower is loaded with polished metal and stone and clad in reflective glass,” says Kevin D. Murphy, the piece’s author. “Will it stand just for the questionable taste of the one percent, or could it stimulate more creative, sustainable approaches to urban development?

Murphy is thinking about the fact that Melania and Barron Trump will continue to reside in Manhattan, and how, as a result, “the president-elect is at least bringing attention to the urban tower as a residential building type. And some architects and urbanists believe that the skyscraper offers one important solution to climate issues.”

It’s an interesting discussion that brings forward environmental issues related to the notion that older skyscrapers erected before World War I were less harmful to the environment than the others built later on. But there are new design challenges that demonstrate how new skyscrapers have the potential not only to generate their own power, but to contribute to the power supply of cities.

However, there’s a common assumption that skyscrapers are here to stay. Not only here, but all over the world, since out of  the 90 1,000-foot-plus skyscrapers in the world — most of which have been built since 2000 — only four are in the U.S.

Nicole Davidson-Cole writes in the Conversation,Slick, glassy skyscrapers cast their shadows over the streets and spaces of cities all over the world. These behemoths are notoriously inefficient: glass exteriors trap the sun’s rays during summer and haemorrhage heat throughout the winter, requiring year-round air conditioning and climate control. Dark interiors necessitate vast arrays of bright lighting, while hundreds of computers whirr 24 hours, consuming even more electricity.

Davidson-Cole categorised the existing skyscrapers by their styles and when they were made, suggesting some solution.

My favorite in what I hope is the first in a series of discussions on skyscrapers is an interview with Adrienne Brown on her forthcoming book, The Black Skyscraper:

My project is really around the invention of the skyscraper. For me it’s not only about the invention of a building type, though that’s certainly important, but also the invention of a new language or descriptive language to describe height, density. The skyscraper is really a symptom of an era. It came of age in the late-nineteenth century with urbanization, mass immigration to the U.S., and industrialization. The skyscraper is a product of all of these forces and movements, but it’s also contributed to these discourses at the same time.

Brown brings writers from 1880 to 1930 to life — people who were trying to make sense of skyscrapers when they were new. They imagined skyscrapers, in some instances, turning everyone black. They described a view from the top of the skyscraper in which the people below looked like ants — or dots, or specks. Like dark ephemera.

This, combined with the fact that there were women working in these skyscrapers and black men running the elevators in the skyscrapers, inspired Brown to give her book its title. “You have these racialized and gendered jobs within the skyscraper that are about the maintenance work that can get obscured by the flashiness and the fanciness of the skyscraper,” Brown says in the interview. She also has some really lucid observations on the phallic nature of these buildings that reach towards the sky. All in all, The Black Skyscraper is a book that I can hardly wait to read, since it brings into the forefront the skylines that these behemoths create, changing not only the way we live, but the way we think. Brown brings us back to the point when all this started, gives us the tools we need — language and grammar that enables us to think critically about these creatures.

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