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Skyscrapers are fantastic, up there with dinosaurs and outer space in the way they tantalize our minds. As impressive as they are, there is also something quaint about the aspiration to build something tall; it is, after all, the first thing that occurs to a kid when she sits down with a pile of blocks.

Things aren’t quite so simple for skyscraper designer these days. In a new book, “Performative Skyscraper: Tall Building Design Now,” Los Angeles architect Scott Johnson explains how the tools available to designers shape the kinds of buildings they’re able to produce. And as the tools become more sophisticated, the buildings that spring from them become more sophisticated, too.

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Shanghai Tower
Shanghai TowerGensler

“A skyscraper now has to perform in a whole lot of ways because we have the ability to measure everything,” Johnson says. “Pick [a kind] of glass and measure how energy efficient it is, pick a shading device and measure how it shades glass.”

In that sense, skyscrapers have to “perform” in the same way you need to do your job well at work. They can also perform in an artistic sense, creating dramatic impressions on the skyline and even interacting with the surrounding urban environment.

“Skyscrapers can perform because they are computer based and digitally designed. They can perform like an artist, extraordinary and extravagant things in ways they couldn’t before,” Johnson says.

He explains that using parametric design principles and digital platforms, designers can experiment with ambitious new forms. “We can bend anything we want. Maybe we want a building to lean into the sun or lean into the shade. We’re seeing kinds of virtuosic forms on the skyline.” He points to the entangled shape of the CCTV building in Beijing, the swooping structure of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and the shimmering facade of 8 Spruce St. in Lower Manhattan. These buildings, Johnson says, “Aren’t things you’d invent with a triangle and a T-square. Those are forms that only naturally grow out of a facility with a computer.”

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(He had a less enthusiastic take on the latest skyscraper development in Boston, the Millennium Tower, which he described as merely “the amenitization of a tall residential building.”)

Altogether, it’s hard to tell if skyscrapers have been let loose or constrained by digital tools, which is how most of us feel about technology’s place in our lives. Skyscrapers today can achieve staggering heights and awe-inspiring forms; at the same time, they have to deal with algorithms nit-picking the way they respond to sunlight.

CCTV building in Beijing.
CCTV building in Beijing.Wikimedia

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.