Skyscraper symposium–thanks and conclusions?

Many thanks to all who turned out Saturday for the annual APTWGLC symposium, this year focusing on historic skyscrapers. And particular thanks to Rachel Will of WJE for organizing, and to Don Friedman of Old Structures NY and Meghan Elliott of PreservationWorks, Minneapolis gamely agreeing to debate the origins of the skyscraper in partisan territory,

It was a good afternoon, and the mix of historic and contemporary skyscraper practice was well done. Shankar Nair of EXP gave maybe the best capsule history of super tall construction in the last fifty years I’ve ever heard, concluding (incidentally) that there’s no structural reason we couldn’t build a 35,000 foot tall skyscraper today if we could find the trillions of dollars it would cost. (And, crucially, if no one minded the half hour vertical commute…). Aaron Mazeika of SOM also presented current work they’re doing involving parametric design that goes beyond shapes and starts to optimize not only for structural performance (old hat) but also for constructability. And Ed Gerns of WJE talked about contemporary skyscraper preservation, including the requisite shots of facade specialists rappelling down various domes and curtain walls, making me think I got into the wrong end of the profession.

A highlight was hearing Mark Sexton talk about their work on the restoration of Mies’ 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, and what a unique challenge gets presented by the super-precise minimalism of postwar buildings. His firm has now worked on three icons around Chicago–the apartments, Crown Hall, and the Farnsworth House–and he talked about how these projects have all involved combining some fairly rigorous technical fixes with some serious design work. Mies’ aesthetic involved absolutely flat planes and sometimes impossibly consistent coloring and patterning, for example, and the simple replacement of travertine in 860-880’s plaza ended up involving no small amount of gymnastics. A great project and a good story.

As for the debate itself, I’m not sure we reached any conclusions–the crowd, perhaps hyped up for that evening’s Hawks game, voted overwhelmingly for the hometown as the “home” of the skyscraper. New York and Minneapolis both had their cases well made, though, and Meghan Elliott did a particularly good job of explaining why “first” and “important” aren’t always the same thing–the Plymouth Building in Minneapolis emerged as a particularly vital concrete foil to the steel-framed buildings going up in Chicago, for instance. Enjoyed the debate, and the happily long Q&A afterwards. And the Hawks did win…

One more day in the big city today, doing a rainy walking tour. Other good news this weekend is that the book is in stores, officially up on Amazon and other Internet sellers, and off to a good start. Nice to have it out in the real world!

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