Why Are Modern High Rises More Curvy?

June 7, 2015
Turning Torso, Malmo, Sweeden. By Santiago Calatrava
Turning Torso, Malmo, Sweeden. By Santiago Calatrava

Some recently proposed skyscraper designs seem to feature more twists, turns, and curves than historic buildings. Does this represent a natural progression in design, adopting more naturalistic designs to maximize efficiency, or is it just that modern materials and design techniques permit more fanciful designs? I believe in the latter conclusion.

Arguments can be made to show that improved building materials and analysis techniques open the doors to more extravagant designs. However there are so many good examples predating the most recent material advancements and computer modeling, see Gaudi, Candela, Guastavino, Fuller. I will grant material advancement the ability to go tall, beginning with steel strengths that permitted Jenny‘s steel framed Home Insurance building in Chicago (first steel high rise). High strength flow able concrete has allowed that material to take prominence now in high rises like the Burj Kahlifa. Glass manufacturing improvements make a big contribution since many of the twisting designs are actually backed by straight structure.

Marina City, Chicago. By Bertrand Goldberg

Marina City, Chicago. By Bertrand Goldberg

Computer modeling allows architects to draw almost anything and quickly without. In that sense a wild design, that the builder was likely to shoot down based on construction cost, would be a huge time and budget risk to the architect. Now, it’s relatively low cost for a few computer modelers to generate complex forms digitally. Advanced modeling programs that let you detail steel completely and wire directly to computer controlled fabrication facilities removes a lot of the complexity and risk from production.

But I think the change to more curvy designs has most to do with architectural styles and tastes. The first tall buildings emulated ornate neo-classical styles, but then people got to thinking that a 30-story Parthenon looked ridiculous and cost a lot. Sullivan‘s Chicago School style simplified high rise design to: base, repeated middle, and ornamented top.

Casa Mila, Barcelona, Spain. By Antoni Gaudi

Casa Mila, Barcelona, Spain. By Antoni Gaudi

Throughout the ’20s architects began taking more liberties and you got wonderful Art Deco designs like the Crysler building. We migh have gotten to the curves by the mid-30s, but the depression and wars intervened. Postwar, Mies Van der Rohe led the International Modern style movement which eschewed all ornamentation and made extensive use of glass curtain wall. This held sway for a long time. Other architectural styles have come and gone but Mies’ ideas are still very highly regarded by most architecture schools.

30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin), London. By Norman Foster

30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin), London. By Norman Foster

The architects bucking the trend with curvy buildings still mostly play within the Miesian rules, but they add some flair. In most cases these curving designs are not structurally honest improvements. In many cases, such as Calatrava‘s defunct design for the Chicago Spire, the structural support is largely rectilinear, but the facade twists independently. Similarly, Aqua Tower by Studio Gang gives the effect of curvy undulation, but the main structure is your standard concrete box. The undulating concrete balconies creatively cantilever off the squared column line. It turns out that structural engineers and buildings still prefer to work in straight lines when possible. The most clever high rise engineers find ways to add the curves as ornament.

I’m interested in your opinions on why we see more curvy buildings. Is it technical advancement or just changing styles? Please post your thoughts below.

3 Comments
  • I agree that some of it is artistry, but I also thought the circular shape helped reduced wind forces depending on how it is designed. Especially with the very tall sky scrapers being constructed these days.

  • This ‘tendency’ (in fact, I hope it will not become a real tendency), is the result of letting “free hands” to whatever the wild imagination of some architects may cast, regardless of costs, real needs, safety, etc.etc. I live and work for seismic zones and countries, where these crazy shows are out of question. The improved and better capacities in computers and software ( . . .and engineers?), mentioned in the article, may be well used in so many more useful matters, where they are really needed.

  • Curvy and twisty buildings are being done as artistic expressions to make a statement and draw attention or make an impression but this is being done at significant increased cost due to complexity of construction and structural premium paid in trying to defy gravity. A more conventional and cost effective design could provide the same functionality and still look beautiful.
    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but I wonder whether this extravagance is appropriate and wise considering the world wide health problems , deteriorating physical infrastructure , economic problems , conflicts and poverty being experienced in many countries including those where expensive curvy twisty buildings are being built.

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