Live in the clouds: the skyscrapers taking over cities
With twisting sides and original shapes, architects are building towers to create the best homes – and make the most of the views, says Liz Rowlinson
The French engineer Gustave Eiffel is believed to have said the reason he decided to live in his eponymous tower in Paris was that it was the one place in city where he didn’t have to look at it. He seemed to share the general distaste for the avantgarde 1889 structure that shocked conservative France.
Nearly 130 years on, tall towers are changing the skylines of the world’s cities. By their very nature, they tend to inspire either extreme devotion or hatred in those who live among them. Look beyond London’s Shard, “Cheesegrater” or “Walkie Talkie” buildings if you like your towers with more curves. A music video by Beyoncé is said to have inspired the “sensual flow” and fluid shape of Melbourne’s Premier Tower, while a marble sculpture of the human body let to Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso, a residential tower in Malmo, Sweden, and the world’s first twisted skyscraper, which was completed in 2005.
There are now twisting towers from Shanghai to Miami, but if these unconventional shapes draw the eye for miles around, how does their design make people want to live in them?
While architects can afford to be more flamboyant with commercial towers, the designers of residential structures in urban areas have a different set of considerations and constraints, says David Walker, the architect behind The Dumont. It is one of three towers by developer St James on the Thames’s Albert Embankment.
“Designing something that sits in the middle of the desert where the context is so minimal, you have to invent shapes,” he says, alluding to towers in Dubai such as the Burj Khalifa, whose tapering spire is said to be inspired by the Great Mosque of Samarra.
“Meanwhile, in the grid system of New York, where I worked for many years, and where tower living has long been a part of urban life, anything goes. An imposing context such as central London provides much less flexibility. The Albert Embankment site was especially particular. Sitting on a curve of the River Thames, [the Dumont] offered unparalleled views [of the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye].”
There are three architects working on St James’s master plan, which includes 550 homes as well as retail and office space. How are they all maximising this same view differently?
The Merano, three conjoined towers of 14, 21 and 28 storeys that form another part of the Albert Embankment project, was designed by Graham Stirk of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. “He tackled the unique trait of a south London plot looking west, by designing the apartments with bedrooms facing east with the morning sun (with winter gardens), and the living accommodation facing west onto the river, which gets the afternoon sun,” says Sean Ellis, chairman of St James. Only resale properties are available at The Merano.
In contrast, next door at The
Corniche, by Foster + Partners and also developed by St James, balconies are rotated in different directions in a much curvier design. Prices of available apartments start from £3.3million.
Clearly, London can learn a few things from across the pond when it comes to living among the clouds in a skyscraper. Walker picks out New York’s 432 Park Avenue as a recent example, one of the many successors of the original “beautifully proportioned rectangular boxes” of the two glassand-steel towers of Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the Forties.
The tallest residential tower in the world, 432 Park Avenue, in midtown Manhattan, is a 1,396ft skyscraper designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects that topped out in 2015. A starkly simple, super-skinny stick, it is, of course, loathed and called “the toothpick” by some and feted as “timeless” by others. Designed with a nod to New York’s street plan, the grid work of 10ft by 10ft windows has two-storey voids every 12 floors to allow wind to pass through for stability, as well as for aesthetics.
Look down from one of the 20-odd highest storeys (there are 96 floors) and toy car-like yellow cabs crawl along Madison Avenue, while past downtown, the Statue of Liberty looks like a little doll. For the super-rich residents, each of the windows in the 106 apartments is framed by a window seat and an iconic view. One penthouse sold for $95million (£72 million), and the cheapest apartment for sale is a one-bedroom flat listed at $5.5million with City Realty.
New York’s latest trophy address also has a tiny square footprint at just one fifteenth the height of the tower. The skyscraper, at 111 West 57th Street, is on Midtown’s so-called “Billionaires’ Row”, across the street from Carnegie Hall. It promises to be the world’s skinniest highrise, with a width-toheight ratio of 1:23. The 1,421ft building, due for completion in 2019, has been designed by SHoP Architects, incorporating Steinway Hall, a concert venue where the eponymous pianos were played, built in 1925.
One side of the tower is flat and vertical, and the other a series of stepped setbacks that thin out to give the impression the tower disappears into the sky like a “Stairway to Heaven”. The first seven of 55 flats, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Park, have just gone on sale with three to four bedrooms and prices from $18million to $56million, through Douglas Elliman and Knight Frank.
Meanwhile in London, a similar design feature in the Atlas Building’s 40-storey tower, due for completion next year, has created nine architectural blades – or setbacks – to provide private outdoor spaces for residents. Prices start from £1.037million for a two-bedroom apartment.
Footprints that twist or change shape as they rise are also in vogue. Dubai has, of course, been there and done it already with the 83-storey twisty tower of Ocean Heights in the marina that topped out in 2009. In Cyprus’s new 600-berth superyacht marina in the seaside resort of Ayia Napa, there will be a pair of towers with 190 luxury apartments designed to give their owners the best views. From top to bottom, the towers twist more than 40 degrees, so those on the top floors face east, towards the crystal-clear waters of Nissi Beach and wild Cape Greco at the tip of the island. Staggered antisun panels on the wraparound verandas accentuate the twisting façade. Prices start at €1.1million (£965,000) through Savills.
A few miles west, in the port of Limassol, the skyline is becoming punctuated with new towers, a trio of which are in a waterfront development called Trilogy, by developer Cybarco. These are three designs “of the same family”.
“The triangular floor plates were developed to minimise overlooking [other apartments], provide a wider opening at the front of the [base] plaza and to capture both sea and city views from all apartments,” says Hakim Khennouchi, of WKK Architects.
“Buyers are very keen to have dualaspect apartments, and just looking flat onto an open sea is not desirable either.”
Large sliding doors provide a seamless transition between inside and outside to make the most of the al fresco living, with deep verandas. While one tower has sharp edges and a “beak” sky terrace with a pool deck, another has curves. Prices start at €990,000 for a three-bedroom apartment.
“We are not trying to be landmark buildings, admired from the outside,” Khennouchi says, “but to make owners feel like they are on holiday all of the time.”
Look down from the highest floors and toy car-like yellow cabs crawl along Madison Avenue
SIDE BY SIDE The penthouse at the Corniche on the Thames in London, above; the curved buildings, left, are one of three development at Albert Embankment on the Thames
ON THE MAP The Atlas building in east London, below
STRAIGHT UP Great views from a bathroom at 432 Park Avenue in New York, right and above left
A FAMILY AFFAIR The Trilogy in Limassol by Cybarco. Prices start from €990,000 for a three-bedroom apartment