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The jury's out

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review - Skyscrapers By Andres Lepik. Prestel, 2004. 160pp. £22.99

The skyscraper is a building type, but unlike other types about which books are written - hotels, say, or offices - it is a type of form rather than a type of use.

And as a form, the type is essentially onedimensional. If skyscrapers are interesting - and they certainly arouse strong feelings when people want to build them - it is just because they are tall.

Skyscrapers sets out a history of the skyscraper through a catalogue of examples, from this building type's beginning in 19th-century Chicago and New York to present-day projects across the world, particularly in the Middle East and Far East. The buildings are presented chronologically in two- or four-page spreads, with fine photographs and, in many cases, useful floor plans. A brief but informative history sets the development of the form in the context of more general architectural trends.

Like Judith DuprÚ's similar Skyscrapers, the book has a curiously unreflective approach to its subject matter. The catalogue format has the effect of presenting the buildings as a series of more or less similar objects, which could in most cases be anywhere. Perhaps that is where their true interest lies. The apotheosis of the skyscraper to date, on the evidence of this book, could be the Chrysler Building (pictured), essentially a classy piece of styling rather than architecture. The role and meaning of these towers in the cityscape - in terms both of skyline views and the urban order - pass largely unexamined.

The choice of projects is revealing about the relationship between the skyscraper as building type and the art of architecture. Many of the world's great skyscrapers were not designed by great architects. The Empire State Building, a case in point, remains impressive, but the record of the past 50 years (more than half the 50 examples) goes, with honourable exceptions, from bad to worse.

Foster's towers are great - the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank comes closest, of all the projects in the book, to being both a great skyscraper and a great piece of architecture - but there aren't many like that. So to leaven the recent diet of meretricious commercial stodge, the catalogue includes gems that are miniatures by comparison with the everrising trend, such as the Economist Building, Lloyd's and Ken Yeang's Menara Mesiniaga.

These projects suggest possible futures for the skyscraper, but are not big enough to qualify themselves.

Skyscrapers have loomed large in visions of possible futures for over 100 years now - utopian visions put forward by architects (Sant'Elia, Corb, Frank Lloyd Wright ), dystopian visions put forward by everyone else (Metropolis, Blade Runner). References to Babel and to man's hubris have been a feature of the narrative throughout that period - inevitably so, in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Hugh Casson wrote in 1962: 'If you are going to build high, then the least you can do for your fellow citizens is to see that your building is a good one as well as a high one.' This advice is as good now as then.

Few think the skyline a playground for self-expression. The jury is out on whether the dystopians were right, but I'm not optimistic. There is a trend in England for large commercial commissions to go to better architects than would have been the case a few decades ago. This is a trend that other countries would do well to emulate.

Peter Stewart is an architect and director of the design review programme at CABE

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