Mark Lamster | Essays

Andrés Duany’s Asian Problem

Sze Tsung Leong, Putuo District, Shanghai, 2005

Only ten years ago, in the wake of 9/11, there were many voices telling us that we had come to the end of the skyscraper era: that no one would want to work or live in tall buildings with the threat of terror ever-present, and that the Internet would so decentralize our lives that cities (and tall buildings) would be obsolete. As I write in a feature, Castles in the Air, for Scientific American's special issue on cities, this has not turned out to be true. We live in the greatest skyscraper age of all time. Over the last decade, we have built more skyscrapers than at any time in history, and the buildings themselves are taller than ever. As Carol Willis, the founding director of New York's Skyscraper Museum put it, “There were a lot of foolish predictions or claims that skyscrapers killed people. Terrorists killed people. It wasn’t the buildings that were evil or dangerous.” 

We think differently about skyscrapers than we did ten years ago. While there are plenty of supertall prestige projects out there that will never recoup their investment or approach any reasonable definition of sustainability, there is a growing consensus among architects and planners that the skyscraper is a desirable urban typology. In the words of Norman Foster, “there are clear environmental benefits in high density, and in reducing urban sprawl by bringing spaces for living and working together within a single, compact footprint.”

There are some, however, who disagree with this assessment, and chief among them is new urbanism champion Andrés Duany. "There’s an argument for density. There’s an argument for diverse neighborhood structure that supports transit and that is self-sustaining. But there’s not an argument for tall buildings that need elevators,” he told me.

Duany's opinions are the subject of a separate piece on the Scientific American website. As that story indicates, when our conversation turned to the skyscraper boom in Asia, Duany, who was antagonistic to begin with, became even more angry. To follow are his unabridged remarks on this subject, which were excerpted in the Sci-Am piece:
You can make the Asians do anything. They can drink their own piss. You tell them do it and they do. There is no comparison between an Asian situation and an American situation. They will do anything they are told. We will not. They will do anything they are told. I've been to their apartments. Their little pieces of shit. They’re coming from hovels, but what can you say about that?....It’s a fantastic cruelty that’s being perpetrated on the people. It’s a fraud and a cruelty. They’re destroying their neighborhoods for real estate speculation. It’s a spectacular cruelty. It absolutely breaks my heart. I've seen the people in their little cubicles in the high rises. Google the suicides of the Malaysians. And then go visit them in their little cubicles in the sky. Saddest thing I've ever seen.

Make of the comments what you will.

For what it's worth, I spoke with Tom Campanella, who is almost certainly the leading American expert on Chinese Urbanism (and the author of Concrete Dragon: China's Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World) about the actual substance of Duany's comments. While there's no question that there's a lot of crappy skyscraper building going on in Asia, and large numbers of people live in odious conditions, according to Campanella tall buildings are "absolutely essential" in order to accommodate the massive migration of people from China's rural areas to its cities—"easily the largest migration in human history."

For all the gloom, he suggests there's actually much to be encouraged about in Asian urbanism. Unlike much of the West (and America in particular), there is no "deep-rooted anti-urbanism" on a cultural level, nor is there anything that might be analagous to the "white flight" problem. For better or worse, or maybe better and worse, Asian cities and skyscrapers will be defining each other for many years to come. 


Comments [14]

Listen people, he's been to their apartments. TO THEIR APARTMENTS. He knows what he's talking about.

Class act, this guy.

Sounds like sour grapes to this loser. He probably lost out on a big contract. His Wiki bio says it all. F**k him.

Duany making inflammatory over the top statements? My monocle has popped!

Duany is a looser gelous racist idiot.
May come the day that the chinese will make drink their piss to him too.


I read Duany's Wiki page. I don't see the problem.


I've known many of the Starchitects. Spending just a little time with them, I've heard every one of them say terrible things. You probably have too. I've also known Duany for a long time (as I think you know, I was one of the earliest town architects at Seaside). I'd guess he was in a bad mood that day, when he said something that can easily be interpreted as racist. He's not racist.

I don't know much about Asian towers. I do know there's a large group of fashionable architects who work with global capitalism and the World Bank to build glass towers wherever investment bankers land their private jets.

They're part of what's making New York City look way too much like Houston on Hudson, not to mention Hong Kong, Dubai and Shanghai. A former Manhattan planning director who went on to the Related Companies wants New York to look more like Hong Kong. We should tear down our low-rise neighborhoods (like the one you live in), he says, and put large towers everywhere on the Hong Kong model. That would be even worse than the neo-Ville-Radieuse, towers-in-parking lots we built in the 1960s.

In your SA story, you talk about the B of A tower on 42nd Street. I've go to say that it is not sustainable. Its glass skin required an enormous amount of energy to make, and the glass wall does not have the R value of a thicker, less expensive wall. It's also a multi-layer invention that uses chemicals in the inner layers to overcome acting like glass (a bad thing), and these chemicals have a short shelf life. So in the not too distant future, this high embodied energy wall will have to be thrown away. The building nevertheless gets a platinum rating, because LEED is an additive point system that does not subtract points for things like energy-wasting curtain walls.

Someone who's been outspoken about all this is Ken Shuttleworth, a former partner at Norman Foster & Partners who was in charge of some of the important towers.

Second, as a born and bred New Yorker, I like towers more than many, but here's a pretty good discussion of some of their problems by Michael Mehaffy in the New Urban News: http://newurbannetwork.com/news-opinion/blogs/michael-mehaffy/14138/more-low-down-tall-buildings

How 'bout those Yankees!

john massengale

A link to photos of Hong Kong towers:

john massengale

"Made to drink your own piss" is obviously a (macho, granted) metaphor (Oh! Where does the press the find such prissy virgins to do their reporting?). By chance, I have seen piss drunk to prove something or other about health. It wont hurt you, but it is presumably unpleasant when forced to do so. The point being made--obvious if we weren't so jittery-- is that the Chinese in current China can be counted on follow orders, rather than being driven by the market like Americans; so a comparison is irrelevant. And the larger point is that they are being forced to live in high-rise apartments that do no serve them well, and depress them by destroying the social networks. The consultants who are complicit in demolishing the old neighborhoods to put people in such buildings are worse than those of the 60's Model Cities fiasco or the Soviet Block equivalents, because this time they know the consequences. They are flat-out criminals, in my opinion.
It is so typical of the degenerate architectural press that the focus of the article is on which architect prefers what.
Andres Duany

Andres: Slinging around baseless insults at me and journalists generally does not make you macho, nor is it an effective means of answering for your offensive, unprofessional, and ignorant remarks.

John: I really don't think that "fashionable architects" building glass towers pose catastrophic threat to NY, and certainly not to my neighborhood. I don't think it's productive for architects to make enemies of "global capital" or "investment bankers."

The sustainability features of BoA are substantial, and as noted in the story (and as you have consistently ignored), one of its primary benefits is the density it gives to the site, which is on top of a major transit hub.

Mark Lamster

John: I really don't think that "fashionable architects" building glass towers pose catastrophic threat to NY, and certainly not to my neighborhood. I don't think it's productive for architects to make enemies of "global capital" or "investment bankers."

The sustainability features of BoA are substantial, and as noted in the story (and as you have consistently ignored), one of its primary benefits is the density it gives to the site, which is on top of a major transit hub.


Andres is obviously capable of speaking for himself, so I'll say no more there.

On a lot of the rest ... we are strongly disagreeing. I stand by what I said above, and add this:

Look at the photo you used above. What a terrible place! I think that's more important than trying to show up someone you seem to have an ideological disagreement with by using personal attack. Expect those towers to show up in the next Bourne movie, representing Communist oppression and inhumanity.

"Catastrophic?" Of course not. But the promotion by influential architects like the former Manhattan planning director of terrible models like Hong Kong is damaging. Some of the glass towers have been good, of course, but most have not, and we have far too many of them.

For the reasons I have stated, the BoA building is unsustainable.. Did you look up what Foster's former partner Shuttleworth said?

And to quote Warren Buffett, "There is a class war going on, and my class is winning." Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his cronies go around raping cities as well as hotel maids. The idea that what Paris needs is glass Starchitect towers is global capitalism at work. Just as planners told cities 50 years ago that they needed in-city interstates or they would die, now the super rich are convincing cities around the world that they need Starchitect towers to attract global capitalism - or die. This is not just my crackpot theory, many at Columbia and the New School are saying the same thing.

john massengale

PS: My office is at the corner of Fulton and Nassau, so several times a week I go out the front door to be confronted by the boring and unsustainable "Freedom Tower."

Remember how Muschamps said "Thank God we kept the New Urbanists out" (of the Ground Zero competition)? But look what we got. Ground Zero is Houston on the Hudson. If that is the best we can do, it is close to catastrophic.

And if we do not come to our senses and start building genuinely sustainable buildings, the result for our children and grandchildren could well be catastrophic.
john massengale

john: there are so many red herrings (ground zero) and straw men (dsk?), in your comments i hardly know where to begin, but i know this is not an argument i am going to win with you, no matter what the evidence or logic.

duany, if we are to excuse his offensive remarks (which i don't), argues that there is no argument for tall buildings with elevators. that is the crux of the article. it is, i believe, profoundly wrong. perhaps i am biased, having grown up in an elevator building, but i think the overwhelming body of evidence suggests otherwise.

whether there is exploitation in the world of tall building is another matter. what model of building china will require in the future is a complex and difficult question, but also tangential, as is the rather dreary development of ground zero--a problem for which "starchitects" are hardly to blame.

the end of this, for me.

Mark Lamster

We continue to disagree. When read from top to bottom, it seems to me that you are saying "Don't make ad hominem remarks about me, make them about Duany." It comes across as a purely ideological position similar to the world of politics today, in which discussions by or about Palin or Perry often have little to do with any rational discussion of policy or reason.

This would be a stronger discussion for me if we dealt with issues rather than personality. Unless one goes from the general to the specific, most discussions go nowhere. Witness the political discussion today.

The glass skin of the Bank of America building is unsustainable: it is impossible to show otherwise. More subjectively, but probably something the majority of non-architects would agree on, the design and composition of the glass envelope is boring. That makes for boring urbanism, but my primary problems with the tower are architectural, not urbanistic (the reverse of my problems with the Apple HQ).

There are places around the globe that might well have severe disjunctions caused by the price of oil as the supply diminishes and the demand increases. I don't think that will be New York's problem. New York has the capital and the expertise to develop alternative energy solutions for its towers. But alternative solutions will be necessary to prevent future failures. You used the word "catastrophic" before ascribing it to me, but one very reasonable position is that there will be catastrophic failures in the future. Look at Tom Friedman's latest book.

You seem to be defending Starchitects. I'm not sure why, because my impression from your other articles is that you are not much of a supporter of the position.

One of the many odd things about the Late Modern architecture world is that architects (note, I'm not saying that you did) talk about buildings with unsustainable skins built for problematic financial institutions like the Bank of America as "progressive." I don't know how. Starchitects have played out Philip Johnson's joke about architecture being the world's second oldest profession, clearly not only working for the highest bidder but helping them achieve their goals through good design press.

It was at the New School that I first saw a lecture linking financial institutions like the World Bank (yes there is a DSK connection) to the successul sale of towers in places like Paris that are clearly diminished by them. Similar connections are made in the SLUM publication that was passed out during urban design week. The explanation is still inchoate, but it is part and parcel of the recent rather confused demonstrations on Wall Street, protests against the World Bank, and yes, Global Capitalism, which has been raping the American middle class.

If you're interested in discussing something as specific as glass skin technology or as vague as the form of global development today, let me know. So much straying into ad hominem remarks and exaggerated generalizations like "straw men" makes it hard to talk about issues of greater substance and importance.

john massengale

From the Guardian:

Hal Foster: 'If the Shard is a symbol of anything it's a symbol of finance capitalism' - video

Hal Foster, professor of art at Princeton and author of The Art-Architecture Complex, discusses the politics of London's Shard, which will be the EU's tallest building when completed in 2012

john massengale

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