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The Shameless Skyscraper

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Before anything’s even been said in this BBC news report, the title “Flatpack Skyscrapers” makes this building sound like something cheap and mass-produced, and definitely not something handmade and of quality and classy like, say, William Morris wallpaper. We’re not even past the title and already we’ve encountered the reaction to the very same Industrial Revolution that was supposed to make useful things less expensive and more available. 

Despite the report being bandwidth-hungry for no good reason, it somehow manages to describe the work of a certain Mr. Zhang who’s making headlines because he and his team can erect buildings faster than anyone else on the planet. I say “erect” because most of the work is done offsite and, once the foundations are in place, site work is limited to assembling the pieces at a rate of about three floors per day. Mr. Zhang’s integrated system for building design and construction has many advantages.

  • It’s faster than conventional design and construction and so the benefits of the building are available earlier.
  • It’s less expensive. The shorter time until the building is providing a return-on-investment means that total financing costs are less. This should also, in theory, free up more capital to provide more buildings.
  • It’s safer to build than conventional construction. Prefabricating parts of the building complete with services offsite should, again in theory, be safer and allow for higher quality.
sky city one construction method

Now, for many, being cheaper, faster and safer isn’t good enough. This article, for example, raises doubts about the theory with regards to safety, timing, funding, and need. The main objection seems to be that it will be in the middle of farmland.


Even if renders could be trusted to reliably depict future realities, the argument seems to be that skyscrapers are ok in Manhattan where the economics of land necessitates tall buildings. This doesn’t mean those tall buildings are any more necessary – a question that’s being raised now the new slew of superslender supertalls is casting superlong shadows across Central Park.


The “need” argument seems to be a form of veiled prejudice. Shanghai isn’t Manhattan either but it doesn’t attract this prejudice because it looks like more like a city than say, Dubai, another attractor of the same prejudice.


The potential problem of cashflow needed to maintain Sky City One is mentioned, as is the problem of supplying it with food everyday. These things do need thinking about and I hope someone has.

But what if that farmland stayed farmland and some of Sky City One’s residents farmed it? We don’t know – we’ve never actually given it a try. It could just be a viable way to live on this planet. Why shouldn’t those green spaces be productive farmland instead of the traditional lawns and parkland? The supposed reason for the existence of tall buildings was land pressure in cities such as Chicago and New York meant people had to work closer together in this new thing called office work. Food was missing from the equation. Perhaps, just perhaps, it might be a good idea to sort out food and shelter at the same time, and then see how office work can fit in?

The Western press has been predictably negative regarding this project. The usual social angst about non-millionaires living in tall buildings is mentioned. The fact that windows will be non-operable is mentioned even though this is standard for buildings that height for it lessens wind resistance. Me, I’m actually not too keen on some of the apartment plans.


This next image implies they’re thinking about mixing uses on each floor. Horizontal mixing of use in vertical buildings could be a good idea.

deep plan

After all, our horizontally organised cities have always had some sort of vertical mixed use.


No, the biggest crime of this building and the one I suspect is really driving the negativity and criticism is summed up in the statement “Its blocky glass and steel form may be unlikely to win any architectural beauty awards”. Sky City One’s crime is to not do the twisty, growy thing like Gensler’s latest for Shanghai.


Or the bright and shiny future thing like Foster’s vertical city proposal for offshore Tokyo.


Or do the symbolic climbing, striving, aspiring thing like skyscrapers have done since way back when.

Instead, Sky City One is what it is and no more or less than the processes that made it. It is totally free of metaphorical and allegorical baggage. It has an existential beauty




  • When I read this post there was something about it that irked me, but I couldn’t really put my finger on it. I recently read a newspaper article that somehow managed to put it in perspective. The article itself ( isn’t very useful here, because it’s in Estonian.

    Industrial revolution seems to be viewed either as the triumph of human ingenuity (“making useful things less expensive and more available”) or as debasement of production (“something cheap and mass-produced, not something handmade and of quality”). Between these two there is a third story that is usually ignored– people learned to make use of the energy that has been stored in fossil fuels over millions of years. This doesn’t change the story much, but unfortunately it turns out these resources are not infinite, more and more it seems that we are reaching the limits of how much there is to use.

    Essentially, we cannot increase the net energy available for consumption any more, but the world population is still growing by around 200’000 people a day, hence there is less and less energy per person to go around. This means that the more we rely on technologies that trade off human labor for external energy to provide the standard of living, harder it is going to be to actually achieve this standard for everyone.

    While your analysis of the criticism of this project is eyeopening, the Industrial Revolution shouldn’t be considered something that just makes things more easily available.

    • David, thanks for raising that point about the Industrial Revolution – seeing it in terms of energy usage is a useful way of thinking about it. .The conclusion is inescapable, as you say. It’s also a better way of thinking about it. Sure, the Industrial Revolution did make useful things less expensive and more available because it harnessed the embodied energy of fossil fuels. We’ve since found out the huge planetary cost this has had.

      The Arts & Craft reaction to the Industrial Revolution didn’t do anything to improve things either. I know I keep picking on William Morris but I suspect he was either a snob or excellent at a marketing high value-added product – perhaps a bit of both. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in history when people made their own wallpaper out of necessity, but when everybody can suddenly afford wallpaper … some have to be seen to be better than others. Morris’ objections to the industrial revolution were social at worse, commercial at best. (He’s been proven a liar as well, for claiming use of natural dyes despite spectrograph analysis finding arsenic-based dyes to get that oak-leaf green the Victorians so loved.)

      But in terms of the problem at hand regarding the coming available-energy-per-capita crunch, it seems to me that devising buildings with a low embodied energy is the way to go. Lower energy input per building is probably going to mean more sheds designed to have an extended life cycle. Building more permanently for indefinite re-use isn’t going to lower energy input per cubic metre of volume provided if population increase means those buildings will never be repurposed.

      Thanks for sharing those thoughts David. They stop us getting too excited about cost-lessening modern production methods and also the cost-adding cult of craft. When you take into account the energy used and the energy wasted, their respective net values work out not that much different from each other.