Inside/Outside: Thoughts on the interaction between view and space

View on Chicago, published in House with Doors and Windows, 2014

House with Doors and Windows, 2014
Concept by Michiel Huijben
With text contributions of Diana Duta, John Holten, Jacob Dwyer,
Michiel Huijben, Paoletta Holst, Maja Popović, Raf Rooijmans and Boba Stanić
Graphic design by Loes Verstappen
Supported by Link and Extrapool

The view

It must have been somewhere in May 2012 when friends of my parents took me out for a drink in one of the most fancy skyscrapers of Chicago: the John Hancock Center. With a hundred floors and a height of about 350 meters it was then the second tallest skyscraper of the city. Although it resembled a typical touristic action, I was excited to see the city from above. A servant in suit welcomed us and accompanied us to the elevator. We were going to the highest floor where the sky bar was located. I remember the elevator having a brown-yellow colored interior, matching with my new sandals. Everybody in the elevator was silent and while I watched the floor numbers skipping on the control panel, I noticed a small brand: Otis Elevator Company. A small bell rang; the elevator opened its doors and another servant led us to our table. We sat in the middle of the room and while Erik named the different wines on the menu, I started to look around. With the color patterned carpet on the floor and sweet jazzy music playing at the background, everything seemed in a kind of soft focus sphere which remembered me of the late 80’s as displayed in movies. The room was dimly lit, and painted in the same brown-yellow colors as the elevator. Small round tables, with a small table lamp on top of it, leather armchairs. Erik ordered a bottle of wine and olives, while Nelleke asked me about my first experience with Chicago. In between the conversation I noticed there was a strange mixed public: four old ladies in the corner, dressed up as if they went to a baroque concert; a young Italian couple in front of us taking pictures of each other; a group of young friends making a noisy conversation and a few businessmen, informally enjoying their drinks. The sky bar seemed to attract all kinds of people willing to pay ‘high rise’ prices for a view in return.

I walked to the window. The view was amazing. The whole city stretched out in front of me, as if I was in the very center of the world. All the roads seemed to have chosen the Hancock Center as logical focus point of their destination. In the distance the sun burnt its last beams on the earth’s surface. The city was on fire as it was back in 1871 when the Great Fire of Chicago destroyed a large part of the city center. I imagined the city in flames, burning to ashes; the hopeless and powerless people. The Great Fire is considered to be one of the largest disasters of nineteenth century history in the US. The strong winds spread the fire and due to the fact that more than two/third of the buildings in Chicago at the time of the fire were made entirely out of wood, the city burned easily. Paradoxically it was the Great Fire that accumulated the enormous construction activities, which made Chicago into the sophisticated skyscraper city it is today. In other words, because of the Great Fire and the need for a fast reconstruction of the destroyed area, the developments in building techniques took a flight. At the same time developers took advantage of the situation, encouraging ground speculation and the raise of ground prices, which in turn, led to the wish for higher buildings.

Explorations in thin air

One of the important inventions leading to a modern high-rise architecture can be seen as the coming together of two professions: architecture and engineering. Up till the second half of the 19th century engineers were mainly occupied with the design and construction of utility buildings, for example bridges, railways stations, sluices, and industrial buildings; the kind of building which was seen as less important compared to ‘real’ architecture, which dealt with the design of residential and monumental buildings. During the second half of the 19th century, engineering and industrially manufactured materials gained more importance and recognition due to its promotion via several world exhibitions. The cast iron skeleton and later the metal frame, proved economically beneficial because of its prefabricated elements and its capability to assume light weighted structures in any shape. Another invention in the cause of architectural history can be dated back to 1824, when Joseph Aspdin, a British cement manufacturer, obtained the patent on Portland cement, a cement mixture that became dominant in the production of concrete. Together with the metal frame, reinforced concrete enabled a new way of constructing. Independent of standard load-bearing constructions, such as the facade, new forms of architecture could be explored. Eventually, the invention of Eliasha Otis is probably the most ingenuous encouragement in the undertaking of modern high-rise construction. In 1854 Otis, founder of the Otis Elevator Company, invented the safety elevator, using a special mechanism to lock the elevator car in place, in case the hoisting ropes would fail. Before the invention of the safety elevator all floors above the second were considered unfit for commercial purposes, and all those above the fifth, uninhabitable. For centuries, people had built no higher than their legs could carry them, until Otis’ elevator made explorations in thin air a constructive ambition.

While metal frame, reinforced concrete, and the safety elevator made the construction of high-rise architecture, and therefore the exploration of the view possible, Rem Koolhaas articulates in his Delirious New York (1978) “it also established a direct relationship between repetition and architectural quality: the greater the number of floors stacked around the shaft, the more spontaneously they congeal into a single form. The elevator generated the first aesthetic based on the absence of articulation”. So the higher the building rises in the sky, the less necessary it is to design a detailed facade and the more anonymous its appearance becomes, or, in other words, the less people can relate to what is going on inside. Inside neighbors have their businesses above and beneath each other, only connected by the elevator shaft. While the horizontal street allows you to relate to and interact with different building types and to the city in its broadest sense, the elevator shaft doesn’t allow any communication with others floors: in the tower, seen as a vertical city, public space is reduced to the elevator car. Hence in cities like New York and Chicago the absence of public space in the vertical city would lead to the most unexpected combinations of pursuits stacked together in a tower, functioning above or next to each other, without any coherent relation.

The mirror effect

The first skyscraper architects were in their explorations of new architectural forms still very much concerned with aesthetics and visual appearance. As the first automobiles were transformations of the horse carriage, the first skyscrapers were typically related to the architecture of the renaissance palazzo or the gothic cathedral, creating a strange case in the architectural style debate during the second half of the 19th century. The only way the skyscraper, at that time, distinguished itself from other building types, was by the number of floors it counted, leading to peculiar elongated palazzos and cathedrals. Because of the need for specific building solutions and techniques, the skyscraper gradually became an independent building type, embraced by the modernists because it enabled them to express the ultimate modernist conditions of light, space and air. In contrast to the traditional heavy mass masonry of the first eclectic skyscrapers, the modernists designed their towers with open-framed structures and broad sheets of glass, emphasizing thinness and lightness. The abundance of glazed surfaces described the modernist fascination for the psychological relationship between open and enclosed spaces. This was as well the case for residential architecture as for corporate tower architecture. Nevertheless, the modernist fascination for interaction between inside and outside would eventually create a contradiction: while before the 1950s modernist buildings used to be transparent, in the 1970s buildings were more and more constructed with reflecting or blinded glass. Instead of consolidating the interaction between inside and outside, reflecting or blinded glass architecture would dramatically change the relation between building and direct environment.

The absence of interaction between the building and its environment, between inside and outside, deprives us the possibility to relate to it. The building refers to itself alone and its reflection questions us, and the environment back. For American corporations, followed by corporations al over the world, the expression of power, efficiency, believe in advanced technology, and modernist aesthetics, could pre-eminently be achieved in reflecting glass skyscrapers. Hence the skyscraper became a tall, highly advanced mirror in the city, reflecting not only its surroundings, but also the sky to which it symbolically stretched out. Consequently the skyscraper became the manifest of corporate and spatial power; in other words: the visualization of corporate capitalism. Not only would corporate capitalism therefore shape and dominate external space in terms of its appearance in the city; it would also enhance the introversion of internal space by giving it the function of control room. Free of prying eyes one could confidently observe the city from the top floors, looking down on live below and leaving all undesirable circumstances behind. The penthouse would therefore become the most desirable living space for top officials and directors, who distinguished themselves not only in terms of a distance towards ‘normal’ life below, but also in terms of the symbolic meaning of being ‘on top of the world’.

The implosion of utopia

It seems that the vertical city enhanced a social hierarchy and a spatial injustice. By hiding its internal functions and oppressing its surroundings, the mirrored skyscraper divided the city, made it anonymous and detached from everyday life. Public space became dominated by the control and power of corporate capitalism, reflecting the very nature of what is called the postmodern condition of the city. A condition, which is best described as a highly fragmented and decentralized space, based on the absence of recognition. What happened between the glorious invention of the safety elevator and the emergence of a detached urban space? Begun with the assembling of ambitious inventions the requirements for the skyscraper were set. However, the definitive break with the horizontal city was effected by capitalism and land speculation. When capitalism started to embrace its own practice as a kind of freedom, it projected this freedom on the skyscraper as the visualization of its own accomplishments. The project of the skyscraper was from the beginning utopian in pursuing designs of fantasies projected in infinite space. Because capitalism itself strives for growth and the achievement of seemingly impossible projects, it managed over decades to actually construct these fantasies. Capitalism realized the 19th century skyscraper utopia. A fulfilled utopia can no longer be a utopia but implicates an implosion of its own predictions. Hence the inevitable implosion of the utopian skyscraper; the implosion of modern thoughts, and the emergence of a the postmodern urban space.

Evening made its appearance and thousands of lights gave perspective to the in darkness wrapped skyscrapers. Pensive I moved away from the window and went back to the table. Like in a movie I saw the group of young friends celebrating someones birthday. They were standing around the table, clapping and singing with party hats and bells. I didn’t hear them. I feld like being in a dream, there was no sound around me, just images, fragments of reality and a hindmost city life. A view, I realised, is the most wonderful and dangerous instrument of projecting thoughts on space. It unfolds an overwhelming reality but at the same time you know this reality is an entanglement of what you see and what you think. Moreover the city had opened itself like a map, not like a satellite map to be found on Google Maps, but a reality map with a diversity of layers from which I could depict randomly stories related to history, architecture or philosophy. To be lifted to the summit of the Hancock Building meant to be lifted out of the cities grasp, out of nervous traffic rush of the streets; and yet remain in the middle of it. It feels powerful to have this overview, to have the pleasure of seeing the whole and being exalted from live below. In Michel de Certeau’s words: it’s hard to be down when you’re up.