‘We must break the limits of previous generations’

The creator of the world's first rotating skyscraper talks to spiked about changing the Dubai skyline and challenging post-9/11 gloom.

Alastair Donald

Topics Politics

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Construction may be grinding to a halt in Britain, but cranes still dominate the skyline in Dubai. The Burj Dubai, stretching more than 636 metres into the sky, has recently become the tallest manmade structure on Earth – and it isn’t even finished yet. The latest Dubai-based project to capture the world’s attention comes from David Fisher, the Israeli-born and now Florence-based architect who believes that his ‘dynamic architecture’ project will revolutionise the building of skyscrapers in the twenty-first century.

Scheduled for completion in 2010, each floor of Fisher’s 80-storey Dynamic Tower rotates independently at different speeds. Every floor rotates once every one to three hours, creating an ever-changing profile on the Dubai skyline. Arguing that ‘today’s life is dynamic, so the space we are living in should be dynamic as well, adjustable to our needs that change continuously’ (1), Fisher has designed a skyscraper whose shape is constantly evolving; it is the world’s first ‘building in motion’, he says.

His project has elicited widespread coverage in both the architectural and mainstream press. With rumours that a developer in Dubai has now commissioned the building of the elusive ‘mile-high tower’, some have even ventured to herald a new age of skyscraper design that promises to rival the astonishing rise of twentieth-century American cities (2).

Other commentators, however, have given a less-than-enthusiastic welcome to Dubai’s building frenzy, including Fisher’s Dynamic Tower. They claim Fisher’s work is merely a fad (3) or is excessively bold (4). Some mix cynicism towards building technologies with a disdain for the development-obsessed mentality of ‘skyscraper crazy’ Dubai – a place where a ‘culture of greed and excess’ leads to ‘pretty bizarre schemes’ (5). One critic asked: does the Dynamic Tower amount to ‘rotating pies in the sky’? (6)

Fisher’s schedule is packed. Not content with making his mark on the rapidly evolving skyline of Dubai, he is planning to adapt his tower for sites in Moscow, London and New York. During his recent visit to London, I took the chance to meet up with him to talk about his project and the reaction to it, and to explore his notion of ‘dynamic architecture’.

Revolutionary tower

Over coffee in a quiet corner of a central London hotel, we view the film made for the launch of the Dynamic Tower (7) (see YouTube clip below). The film’s flickering images of the Pyramids of Giza, Brunelleschi’s Cathedral of Florence and the Eiffel Tower, all accompanied by theme music from 2001: A Space Odyssey, serve to dramatise Fisher’s belief that the Dynamic Tower marks a new, possibly historic departure in architecture.

At times, the publicity machine overly hams it up; Fisher apparently took inspiration from the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who said ‘Do not wait for the future to come to you… face the future’ (8). Yet it is undeniably refreshing to hear an architect, or indeed anyone, talk confidently about taking a step forward for humanity.

So what does Fisher think of the sometimes underwhelming response to his Dynamic Tower project, which, in his own words, ‘seeks to exceed the limits of previous generations’? He says that, for the most part, the immense media coverage – there have been over 500 articles about his tower in the German press alone – has been overwhelmingly positive. Some observers have argued that the technical problems of building a moving skyscraper will be insurmountable, but Fisher is confident that they are ‘eminently solvable’.

The changing faces of the Dynamic Tower

During our chat, he frequently lauds the approach to engineering of Florentine heavyweights such as Leonardo da Vinci. Indeed, in a previous capacity, Fisher designed the ‘Leonardo da Vinci Smart Bathroom’; prior to his Dynamic Tower, it was the invention he was most noted for. The ‘Smart Bathroom’ was a prefab, ready-made bathroom for use in high-end hotels and homes.

As it happens, bathroom services provided arguably the biggest technical challenge for Fisher’s new project, too. Because only the central core of the Dynamic Tower will be non-moving and connected to the ground, with each floor rotating 360 degrees around the core every couple of hours, this means that all the toilets will move, too – and the question of how to extend pipes from the building’s toilets to the sewage system was a tough one indeed. Fisher says they have overcome the problem, using some of the technology that has been developed for the ‘toilet issue’ on long-haul flights.

Leaving to one side the technical naysayers, Fisher’s project is quite awe-inspiring in scope. He says he was inspired to design the Dynamic Tower while visiting a friend’s panoramic top-floor apartment in Manhattan. There, Fisher had a view of both the Hudson River and the East River simultaneously, and he says he wanted more people to have a similar experience. He has previously said that he loves the idea of being able to see the sun rise and set in the same room, where every room becomes, over the course of a few hours, a room with a different view.

The construction of the tower is unlike anything that has gone before. The only part of the tower built on site will be the central core; this core is sturdy enough to hold each of the floors in place, and it will contain the building’s lifts, which will transport the inhabitants of the Dynamic Tower and their cars to the floor where they live. The floors of the building are all pre-fabbed. They are made piece by piece in a factory in Italy, and are then transported to Dubai and placed on to the central core using a vast lift system (see the video below). This means that each storey can be completed in around six days, whereas in the normal ‘ground-up’ method of building skyscrapers the creation of each new floor usually takes around six weeks.

It’s all very impressive stuff. Fisher tells me that no experiments should be off limits. He says he wants to reinvigorate the inventor spirit of Edison, where failure was not something to be avoided but rather embraced as a means of eliminating problems and moving forward.

And yet, despite Fisher’s apparent determination, it cannot have escaped his attention that there aren’t too many people who share his outlook today. How does he account for the apparent dearth in architectural ambition, where limits are seen as things to be ‘respected’ rather than ‘exceeded’, and where some people see tall buildings as an affront to nature or sustainability? He says some architects have become ‘lazy’. I think there is more to it than that. What makes Fisher’s worldview stand out today is that it goes against the grain of a contemporary cultural assault on skyscrapers and ‘thinking big’.

The rise and fall of the skyscraper

The skyscraper is renowned for its association with the forces of modernity and progress. For example, like many of their predecessors, the developers of the new Burj Dubai building emphasise that their aim is not just to construct the world’s tallest building but to embody ‘the world’s highest aspirations’ (9). Yet it is these aspirations that have changed dramatically in recent decades.

When the skyscraper emerged over a century ago in Chicago, and later in New York, there was much more to building high than the practical benefits of accommodation and the economic advantages of saving space by building upwards. These buildings also revealed something about the state of development and the state of mind in society more broadly.

It was the dynamic of capitalism that underpinned the innovations that made skyscrapers possible, such as the steel frames and elevators that freed walls from load-bearing duties and allowed the occupation of space higher up in the sky. Importantly, building high was also part of the expression of ‘Americanism’ – it captured the values of modernity that were to influence the political, economic, intellectual and artistic cultures of Europe and beyond (10).

Later, in the postwar era, the skyscraper seemed to be usurped by the more functional – and sometimes stylised – ‘tower’. While these ‘modernisation’ programmes were of considerable practical benefit to many previous slum-dwellers (and others), there is no doubting that as the postwar boom ground to a halt so mankind’s towers came to be seen as symbols of the dangers of progress rather than of its benefits.

When in New York in 2001 the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were attacked as a symbol of Western modernity, the positive symbolism of the skyscraper was actually long past its sell-by date. At Ground Zero, Daniel Libeskind’s new 1776ft Freedom Tower is, in many ways, the cultural antithesis of the skyscraper; it is a memorial to the now dominant theme of Western risk aversion and vulnerability rather than to the cocky breaking of limits preferred by Fisher.

In his film, Fisher argues that with the Dynamic Tower ‘new limits are now opened’. This emphasis on discovery rather than precaution is one of the most interesting and refreshing aspects of his project. Indeed, Fisher tells me that some individuals have been brought on to his team precisely because of their refusal to buckle under to the risk-averse outlook that dominates post-9/11 architecture.

Initially, this outlook made it difficult for Fisher to recruit the right people. Eventually, however, he found some modern-day heretics. There is the veteran engineer Leslie E Robertson who in the 1960s worked as chief engineer on the World Trade Center and who, much to Fisher’s surprise, enthusiastically signed up to the team for the Dynamic Tower. Robertson even smiled back at his critics at a New York press conference by defiantly announcing ‘we can build anything’.

Yet if this combative spirit makes Fisher’s project attractive to some, it is also likely to be one of the factors encouraging much of the criticism.

The high rise goes East

In 2003, for the first time, Asia (and some of Latin America) became home to more towers than North America. Yet to Western eyes, the dense, high-rise cityscapes of Sao Paulo, Seoul and Shanghai were less a welcome new development as a cause for dystopian despair about the supposed problems of excessive urbanisation. Sao Paulo, for example, is frequently painted as a nightmare metropolis where the super-rich fly by helicopter from one tower to the next in order to avoid the mass of humanity in the crime-ridden hell below (11).

In Dubai, the tower as a seven-star hotel compound for the rich serves to magnify the gap between rich and poor; the workers who build these compounds and service their inhabitants are confined to encampments on the edge of the city. Increasingly today, Dubai is criticised as a playpen for architects, where the deep pockets of oil-rich developers drive eccentric building projects around the world. In the New Left Review, Mike Davis writes of the ‘hubris of Dubailand’ in which artificial islands, underwater hotels, indoor ski slopes that defy the desert climate, and seven-star hotels represent ‘apocalyptic luxuries’. ‘Speer meets Disney on the shores of Araby’, he says (12).

The skyscraper has become a sign of architectural apocalypse – ‘It makes me ill’, said Eugene Kohn of Kohn Pedersen Fox (13). Many call for caution and the reining in of ambitions, and argue that ‘the great shame of it is that British architects and engineers, for generations the humble designers of buildings of dignity and grace, are the ones perpetrating these eyesores on the oil-rich desert empires of the Middle East’ (14). In short, humility should take precedence over Fisher’s and other architects’ desire to ‘break the limits’ and ‘build anything’.

The Dynamic Tower’s own publicity shots, which show the owner of a £30million penthouse parking a Ferrari in his eightieth-floor ‘carport’, have incurred the wrath of many. Yet Fisher robustly defends Dubai. He tells me it is a space where challenging projects can find backing and where architects can afford to pursue ambitions that are not possible elsewhere.

How a resident in the Dynamic Tower might store the Ferrari

It is true, as it is across the world, that the rich benefit most from these projects in Dubai; that, unfortunately, is the nature of capitalism, whose inequalities will not be addressed by reining in development or architecture. Fisher reflects that the rich and powerful have for a long time provided opportunities for architects. He cites the Tuscan hilltown of San Gimignano, where in an earlier era height symbolised wealth, and medieval tycoons competed against each other to build upwards – sometimes as a means to defend their wealth against the hordes. (Ironically, the towers of San Gimignano are widely praised by contemporary ‘urban renaissance’ architects, many of whom look disdainfully on the modern version of San Gimignano: the ‘hubris’ of Dubai.)

At the same time, there are some double standards in the attacks on Dubai. The ‘spectacularisation’ of the cityscape in Dubai through the aggressive development of tourism hotspots or cultural facilities is not too far removed from the regeneration strategies employed in many UK cities, where art galleries, boutique hotels and casinos are often central to regeneration efforts. The difference, of course, is that the projects in Dubai are more mind-blowingly ambitious than the building of a super-casino in Manchester.

High and compact?

Forced on to the defensive by the anti-risk climate in architecture, designers of skyscrapers often struggle to justify themselves. Some, such as Rem Koolhaas, have thrown in the towel, declaring we must ‘kill the skyscraper’ for its failure to maintain the culture of urban congestion associated with early twentieth-century New York (15). Others accept that the unruly skyscraper must be tamed; in the UK, under the new more prosaic label of ‘tall buildings’, architects accept guidance from English Heritage (16) on how to ensure that they are helping to foster a culture of ‘urban renaissance’.

Mostly, however, those who continue to ‘build high’ justify their projects in terms of environmentalism rather than what their buildings can offer to human beings. Building up, rather than out, justifies the green-leaning Architecture Super Tower (17). Indeed, today the question ‘How tall can you go?’ is inevitably coupled with ‘How compact can you get?’ (18), giving rise to an inevitably convoluted debate over the energy implications of new buildings and the question of what size ‘footprint’ they will leave on the planet and our climate.

Sir John Sorrell, chairman of the UK Commission of Architecture and the Built Environment, which advises the UK government, recently criticised Mies van der Rohe’s famous Seagram Building in New York – and he did so on the basis that these kinds of glass towers are no longer acceptable due to their high energy requirements (19).

These days, energy conservation trumps user needs and certainly any discussion on architectural merits. So when Fisher lauds the aesthetic beauty of his tower, and suggests that the user can manipulate the space for his own benefit, it seems like something worth cheering. When he argues that the interfloor wind turbines in the Dynamic Tower can help humanity benefit from nature, it at least offers a different take to the relentless discussion about reducing energy use for the benefit of ‘the planet’.

To boldly go?

Fisher promotes his work as part of the quest of mankind ‘to exceed the limits of previous generations’. But when he moves from the domain of developing practical solutions to making a cultural justification for his work, he develops a troubling willingness to resort to environmental justifications.

He says that his ‘buildings will follow the rhythms of nature’. When I suggest that this downplays the fact that, fundamentally, the building is user-centred, he disagrees. Building the Dynamic Tower has been a highly advanced exercise in engineering, which has involved gathering components from four continents, combining them in Italy, and assembling them in Dubai; is this not a classic example of improving our dominion and control over every aspect of nature? Is architecture not an exercise directed, in many ways, against nature, where we take nature’s products and transform them into gravity-defying wonders of the modern world? Fisher stays firm; architecture should fundamentally respect nature, he tells me.

So will the Dynamic Tower prove that architectural progress is still possible while respecting the environmental limits set by sustainability regulations? I’m not sure.

Firstly, those who have criticised the revolving floors of the Dynamic Tower as ‘fuel-thirsty additions’ show that no matter how far designers go to develop energy-efficient solutions, the environmentalist ire will always be directed against human activity. Secondly, who decides when human activity crosses the line and becomes ‘unsustainable’? Inevitably, in our era of eco-aware, risk-averse architecture, the designer must cede an element of control of his project to others, and this can only lead to a framework of conservatism and a willingness to compromise that denies the opportunity to give full reign to experimentation.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the skyscraper, more than any other building, has a certain arrogance about it – one that derives from an overt sense of setting itself against what nature intended us to achieve (20). To build high buildings with an attitude of ‘humility’ before nature is ultimately humiliating for mankind. Such top-down, sometimes state-enforced ‘humility’ has done a great deal to prevent ambitious projects such as the Dynamic Tower from being realised in recent years. It is time to create dynamic architecture for humanity; let us hope that Fisher’s tower is a step in that direction.

Alastair Donald is a member of ManTowNHuman. ManTowNHuman are sponsoring the Battle of Ideas Satellite Event Innovation in Architecture Late-Nite Review.

Watch David Fisher unveil a film showing what his rotating skyscraper will look like:

Previously on spiked

Anna Travis discussed the backlash against modernism. Josie Appleton argued that New York should rebuild to the skies after 9/11, while Vicky Richardson thought the ‘Freedom Tower’ was a monument to victimhood. James Woudhuysen wondered why construction is so backward. Or read more at spiked issue: Architecture and planning.

(1) Dynamic Architecture – Press Release

(2) The taller towers of tomorrow, Guardian Arts Blog, 16 April 2008

(3) Bored by the view? Why not take your flat for a spin?, Guardian, 26 June 2008

(4) Dubai’s Moving Skyscraper ‘Dynamic Tower’ Planned For 2010

(5) The rotating tower block is dreadful – but Brits are to blame, Building, 26 June 2008

(6) Dubai Puts a New Spin On Skyscrapers, Wall Street Journal, 12 April 2007

(7) Dynamic Architecture

(8) Dynamic Architecture – Press Release

(9) Burj Dubai

(10) Scenes of the world to come – Jean Louis-Cohen, 1995, Paris

(11) High above Sao Paulo’s choked streets, the rich cruise a new highway, Guardian, 20 June 2008

(12) Fear and money in Dubai, New Left Review, September-October 2006

(13) Dubai Puts a New Spin On Skyscrapers, Wall Street Journal, 12 April 2007

(14) The rotating tower block is dreadful – but Brits are to blame, Building, 26 June 2008

(15) Rem Koolhaas – Content – Taschen, 2004 Germany

(16) Revised Joint EH/CABE Guidance on Tall Buildings, English Heritage

(17) Popular Arcitecture Supertower

(18) Professor Michael Batty, Editorial, Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 2008, vol 35, pages 1-2

(19) Time to leave the comfort zone, BBC News, 20 May 2008

(20) Enemies of Progress; the Dangers of Sustainability, by Austin Williams, Imprint-Academic, UK

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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