February 16, 2021

The Good/Bad of Supertalls~Shangri-La Tower & 432 Park Avenue NYC~David Grigg Responds

This week I wrote about Vancouver’s Shangri-La  Tower which at 201 meters is the tallest tower in Vancouver. A “supertall” tower is classified as any tower over 300 meters high. With additional height comes additional costs when something goes wrong. In the case of the Shangri-La tower there is a defect in the windows which means they may shatter.

The cost for replacement is in the 60 million dollar range, and a trial of over three months is scheduled this Fall in court to figure out who is going to pay for what. In the interim, the two stratas in the building are pretty unhappy, and the limbo of such a huge bill may cloud any real estate sale or purchase.

I also outlined what has transpired with New York City’s 423 meter supertall tower at  432 Park Avenue, which got extra floors to maximize the view. This was done by taking advantage of a loophole to build  mechanical room floors in the sky. Those  are not counted as part of  floor space ratio.

The 432 Park Avenue tower sways, whistles wind, spits and groans. An assessment found that “73 percent of mechanical, electrical and plumbing components observed failed to conform with the developers’ drawings, and that almost a quarter “presented actual life safety issues.”

One of our readers, engineer and planner David Grigg has written succinctly about Vancouver’s supertall and starchitect phenomenon:

“I am very much looking forward to the day when developers and Starchitects adopt a more humble approach to design by readopting the principles of form following function and sustainability.

Vancouver is now becoming prone to silly designs, such as the two proposed tree like buildings proposed by the Heatherwick Studio at Alberni and Bidwell Streets, and Bjarke Ingels’  vertical caterpillar like building on Howe Street. Just because we can make these buildings structurally able to withstand earthquakes it doesn’t mean we should slavishly follow the ego driven icons of those in the Gulf States.

Take a look at the windows of 432 Park Avenue. How can a building facade that appears to be 90% glass ever pretend to respect the limit to earth’s energy resources?

Bjarke  Ingels’  Vancouver House at 1482 Howe Street  was granted extra height because it was to be an iconic gateway structure. But conditional on first class architecture, sustainable design and a compatible form with the skyline.

The sustainable design was to include district heating. Not there yet. And the truncated flat roof is anything but compatible with the skyline.

I think he did well to design the form to take into account the proximity of the Granville ramp but it did result in a structural penalty and a massive stabilizing foundation which resulted in a lot of excavated and dumped fill in the ocean and mega concrete induced greenhouse gases over and above a more convention design. As I say, just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

That includes silly designs like the New York 432 Park Avenue building.”

The short YouTube video below has the New York Times architectural critic Paul Goldberg talking about the good and the bad of starchitect culture. It’s worth a listen.


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  1. Towers in Vancouver are either “sterile” or, if divergent from the green-glass template, they are “silly”. Why o why can’t they just be perfect, they way only I think they should be?

    Sometimes it’s real hard to take architectural criticism seriously.

  2. Yes. it’s hard to take criticism. More so when an architect from the outside calls the existing stock of towers sterile and boring. But, there is validity to that criticism. Take a walk along the south side of False Creek and look to the Downtown. Is it the mass of white, grey, and green towers that attract your eye or the mountain backdrop? Why is Paris considered the most beautiful city in the world, given the relentless 6 story facades, but Doha or Dubai with pop-up “architectural” gems not? Maybe, just maybe, it’s something more than individual buildings that make a place liveable. Maybe it’s about the public spaces and enabling the community to come together. Yes, there is room for significant public buildings that stand the test of time. They can certainly add to a community’s pride -Bilbao Art Gallery being an example. But, I stand by my critique of very tall buildings that are functionally dystopian and fly in the face of any notion of sustaining a future for our planet.

    1. Not to mention the fact these starchitect-designed phallic symbols rob Vancouver of the best of what it has to offer, the view of the incomparable mountains floating above the sea. Take a look at what Vancouver House has done to the skyline from Fairview.

  3. Shangri-La is far from a supertall.
    It is not 301m tall, it is 201m -it needs 50% more height to be a supertall. Even Toronto does not have a supertall (yet – it’s being built now).

    Concerns about high priced maintenance, etc. of tall or ego driven buildings still apply, of course. A structural engineer friend of mine commented that Vancouver House would be a very expensive building to maintain. Personally, I think office building developers who retain ownership would be better able to manage and pay for such costs versus residential stratas managed by volunteers.
    It doesn’t help, as mentioned, that the City has created a barrier to height through ‘excellent / expensive / starchitect’ design, rather than a boring, structurally stable and easy to maintain design.

  4. PS – There’s also a lesson there that buildings that push the limits should remain squarely in the realm of the uber-rich – as they are the ones who can theoretically afford the consequences when things go wrong. That may also apply to new technologies.
    If the lower floors of a starchitect building contains social housing, the cost impact of repairs to those units would disproportionately exceed a smaller standalone or more conventional building (even off-site). i.e. keep it simple.

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