THE GHERKIN IS THE BEST IN THE UK - BUT STILL NOT AS GOOD AS IT SHOULD BE
As he takes up his position in the US as executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, Antony Wood talks to Ruth Slavid about the factors that make a successful tall building and how they are manifested in some of the world's best examples of tall-building design.
Tall buildings have plenty of detractors, so it is not surprising to hear somebody voice the opinion that '95 per cent of them are utter crap in terms of pieces of architectural design'. What is more surprising is to discover that this criticism comes from Antony Wood, an architect who leads the Tall Buildings Teaching and Research Group at the University of Nottingham, and who moves in September to the USA to take up the post of executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH).
But CTBUH need not worry about Wood's forcefully expressed opinions. It will not be nurturing a viper at its breast or welcoming a Trojan horse. Wood has a real enthusiasm for tall buildings - he just doesn't think that many of them are good enough. And that is one of the issues that he hopes to address at the helm of CTBUH.
Wood's enthusiasm for tall buildings was nurtured by the peripatetic nature of his early career. After an architecture degree at Nottingham he worked overseas for a total of 10 years both before and after his diploma, for which he studied partly in Australia and partly back in Nottingham. His travels took him to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Jakarta - cities dominated by tall buildings. 'I became aware of the differences between cities, what works more about architecture and tall buildings, and in particular about the homogenisation of world culture.'
This is what makes him so critical of the vast majority of tall buildings. 'I want to develop proposals that are site-specific, that relate to their site in the same way as two-to-three-storey buildings, ' he says. 'They take their references from the site and its specific conditions.' In contrast, he says, most architects 'design a tall building like you design a sculpture. They just say fiI am big, I am beautiful, I am high. Look at mefl.' Landmark skyscraper designs, such as Mies' Seagram building in New York, add to the problem, Wood believes. Because it has been accepted as an icon, it is repeated, in less skilful hands, time after time. 'The rectilinear air-conditioned box does nothing for our cities, ' Wood says. 'But it is such a great financial animal. Too many of our developers are just financially driven.'
So what are the alternatives? What does Wood like?
'The best tall building to date, ' he says, 'but not for its aesthetic, is Foster's Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt. It has great credentials for its sustainability and for the quality of its internal space.' Whereas most commercial developers want 70 to 80 per cent of saleable or lettable office space, driving out most amenity, at Commerzbank the client has accepted an approach that provides the occupants with far more benefits. In particular there is a series of gardens at different levels, putting city dwellers in touch with greenery. So, says Wood, 'I rate it for sustainability and quality of internal space. That's better than anything.'
Another building that wins Wood's approval is Ken Yeang's MBF tower in Penang, Malaysia, a predominantly residential tower that also makes lavish use of greenery. 'It is one of the best residential towers, ' he says. 'I think most of his work is brilliant, but his best nobody has been brave enough to build. I love the permeability of the towers and the use of holes and gardens.'
And what about closer to home? 'I think the Gherkin is the best tall building in the UK, ' Wood says, 'but it still is not as good as it should be. If it was a true environmental tower, why is it the same through 360 degrees?' It should, of course, make reference to orientation in terms of sun-shading and environmental strategy.
At a conference a few years ago, an architect gave a terrifying demonstration of the way that a typical high-rise development in Hong Kong can be put together. Work out a plan of an apartment, put two left and two right-handed plans together around a hall, extrude that up for 40 storeys or so, and then cluster the towers together in a grouping of six or eight. Hey presto, a new community! This is the antithesis of what Wood advocates. 'I am interested in tall buildings which are not vertical extrusions of a single plan, ' he says. Because their height makes them visible from so far away, a tall building 'potentially has a relationship with 1,000 sites in the city.' Other projects that excite him include Christian de Portzamparc's LVMH tower in New York and Calatrava's 'turning torso' in Malmö.
Wood has addressed these issues with his students in Nottingham, where he has been a lecturer in architecture since 2001. For several years in succession, he has set them projects to design alternative towers on real London sites (see page 26). His teaching and research group there includes contributions from Ken Shuttleworth, Ken Yeang, Neven Sidor of Grimshaw, Fred Pilbrow of KPF, Chris McCarthy of environmental engineer Battle McCarthy and Simon Lay, director of WSP Fire. Research topics range from the computer-integrated design and manufacture of facades to looking at the possibility of using sky bridges as a means of escape in Hong Kong.
Although Wood is still only 36, he is evidently ready for a new challenge. No stranger to the CTBUH, for which he was already vice-chairman for research, he takes up his new position next month. Based in Chicago, the job will be combined with an associate professorship at Illinois Institute of Technology. 'It is a fantastic opportunity, ' Wood says. 'The work I have been doing with tall buildings sat slightly incongruously with Nottingham.'
Chicago is clearly a far more natural home for Wood, and he has high hopes for an organisation that has already changed its focus from being largely US-based to being a far more international body. 'I want to make it more architectural, ' he said. 'The traditional route was in engineering.' He sees the organisation as being a marvellous coming together of expertise, fostering cross-communication on key tall-building issues. If you are an enthusiast for tall buildings who believes that there is still much to be done to make them better, it is hard to imagine a better place to work.