From glass palaces to dizzying towers: How tech revolutionizes architecture

CNN  — 

The New York architect Ioannis Oikonomou describes himself as an “urban story teller.” His tallest tale, unveiled this month, is the Big Bend, a click-bait proposal for a paper-clip thin residential skyscraper.

Climbing 2,000 ft from a tiny plot on New York’s 57th Street, it arches around before dropping back to an equally modest plot further along the street.

The Big Bend may be no more than a game, and yet we almost expect new skyscrapers to adopt extreme forms.

Anything goes, it seems, in a world of computer-aided design, high-tech materials, pre-fabrication, high land values, the unblushing egos of developers and the seemingly insatiable aspiration of buyers with spare millions to lavish on state-of-the-art offices and razzmatazz apartments looking down from great heights on less successful competitors and neighbors.

Even so, how on earth would residents of the Big Bend reach their apartments? Elevators are not known to climb up and around sky-high arches, are they?

In fact, they do this most days of the year, tilting to stay upright like the gondolas of a Ferris wheel, inside the 630-foot Gateway Arch designed by Eero Saarinen that has defined the image of St Louis, Missouri since 1965.

Gateway Arch in Missouri

Without such technology, Saarinen’s arch – a public viewing platform – would have been pointless. Without an up-to-date version of the same technology, Oikonomou’s Big Bend would be little more than an April Fool’s joke rather than an idea that might yet tickle the fancy of developers in Asia, if not in Manhattan.

The sky is the limit

In fact, without the safety elevator – first devised and exhibited to the New York public by Elisha Otis in 1853 – there would be no skyscrapers or Gateway Arch.

Yes, there had been lifts before Otis. Hand-cranked and worked by ropes, the Romans used them. But with Otis’s safety lift, the sky was truly the limit.

Elisha Graves Otis shows his first elevator in the Crystal Palace, New York City, 1853.

Two years after Elisha Otis demonstrated his invention, dropping himself safely from a great height in front of gasping audiences, Britain’s Henry Bessemer invented the convertor that bears his name.

This patented method for burning off the impurities in iron on an industrial scale gave us the quality and quantity of steel that, along with Otis’s lifts, enabled buildings to climb to unprecedented heights.

When concrete was reinforced with twisted steel bars – an invention more or less perfected in 1884 by Ernest Ransome, an English engineer – massive new buildings spanning huge areas began to sprout within and without towns and cities.

Within a century reinforced concrete used in the making of car factories and fast roads was to change not just our buildings, but in tandem with Henry Ford’s mass production assembly lines, our landscapes and the very way we live.

Building higher, wider and deeper

It was Ford and his son, Edsel, who commissioned the world’s first mile-long building, the Willow Run plant in Michigan, for the mass production of Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers, a tribute by the architect Albert Kahn to the potential of reinforced concrete.

Willow Run automobile assembly plant in Michigan (1942)

Neither Kahn’s factories nor skyscrapers nor vaulting Victorian train sheds, however, would have made sense without the development of plate glass by Chance Brothers of Birmingham, England.

In his design of the revolutionary pre-fabricated Crystal Palace, which opened in 1851, the inventor and gardener Joseph Paxton used 300,000 sheets of mass-produced plate glass sent to London by train from Birmingham. This unprecedented building did much to sire the high-tech architecture of Richard Rogers and Norman Foster.

Crystal Palace, the exhibition hall designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and reconstructed at Sydenham in south London. (1880)

Other inventions, among them electric lighting and air-conditioning made it possible to build ever higher, wider and deeper into the 20th century.

With computer-aided design added to the equation, architects and their clients were free, for better or worse, to let rip with buildings in pretty much any shape and form imaginable.

Guggenheim, Bilbao

Without computers, we wouldn’t have Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, a design of the late 1990s that challenged fellow architects to dream up dramatic new shapes for cities in search of a new image.

New forms of structure

Most recently, the development of new materials – various polymers and carbon fibers, most notably – combined with robotic design and construction, have allowed architects and engineers to invent wholly new forms of structure, like the robotically woven Elytra Filament Pavilion inspired by the fibrous structure of beetle’s forewings, which appeared to build itself last year in the garden courtyard of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Elytra Filamen Pavilion in London

Intriguingly, as the possibilities of digital and robotic design and construction processes open up along with 3D printing, architects and engineers are learning from nature as much as they are from technology. The future lies in a marriage of the two.

Read: Are we one step closer to being able to use the world’s strongest material?

Imagine a robotic spider weaving a building from a plot in central Manhattan that would make the Big Bend – or any new skyscraper for that matter – look quite ordinary.