Whilst Portman’s signature sci-fi atriums have been mentioned again and again in his obituaries, it was his use of glass elevators that had captured the imagination of a generation of designers. Today, the panoramic elevator that shuttles through the atrium roof to a dramatic revelation of the urban skyline is often associated with seedy casinos and dismissed by most as a tacky kitsch of a bygone era. For its short existence as something of architectural significance, the glass elevator briefly brought the otherwise hidden and humble vertical transport machinery out of their concrete shafts into the limelight.
Those who are involved in tall buildings would know that elevators are not exactly humble, they are expensive pieces of machinery. An average speed 21-person single deck is easily 3 million Danish Kroner a pop. A double-decker would land you around 5 million Danish Kroner. These elevators are comparable to luxury cars in terms of price and function. The question is why would you only drive in a tunnel when you have a Bentley? Why are elevators tucked away in the central shafts of tall buildings?
In the fanatic pursuit of more daylight and more view, coupling with the contemporary stylistic embrace for an ever crisper and slicker built form, it has become unfashionable and even prohibitive to indulge in a scenic elevator ride at the expense of a small vertical portion of the facade. Elevators have been condemned to eternal obscurity in enclosed concrete shafts so thick that they can support a skyscraper just on their own…think Minoru Yamasaki’s Rainier Tower in Seattle.
We seem to have entirely forgotten that whooshing up and down a tall building could be an enjoyable experience. As tall buildings get taller and grander, elevators are equipped with more SS (speed and screen): speed to reduce travel time and screens (in addition to your smartphones) to reduce social awkwardness (you are rarely alone in a high-rise elevator).
“Anyone can build a building and put rooms in it”, declared John Portman. “But we should put human beings at the head of our thought processes. You want to hopefully spark their enthusiasm. Like riding a glass elevator: Everyone talks on a glass elevator. You get on a closed-in elevator, everyone looks down at their shoes. A glass elevator lets people’s spirits expand. Architecture should be a symphony.”
We have rationalized and streamlined the elevating experience so much that we seem to have lost our inner child along the way. In John Portman’s glass elevator, you want it to be slow enough so that you can appreciate the visual experience akin to Eames’ Power of Ten, one that progresses from the glimpse of everyday life on the ground to the gaze into the distant horizon at the top. Importantly, you also want it to be just fast enough so that you can feel the tingle of butterflies in your stomach. One fine day when the sun is shining through, you might find yourself doing the unthinkable: striking a conversation with a total stranger in an elevator.
For the magic glass elevators to work, as mentioned previously, they will have to form part of the high-rise façade. This implies a de-centralized core that sacrifices some daylight and view. As irreconcilable as it may sound with our almost religiously adhered sustainability principles, a de-centralized core provides superior spatial and social quality (an essay in its own right). If executed carefully, it can even provide more daylight than a traditional central core layout.
Designing the high-rise core is an exhaustive multidisciplinary process that requires niche knowledge, and it becomes particularly tedious when dealing with office or mixed-used tall buildings. It is understandable that most architects prefer the core to be in the middle where it is out of sight and out of mind. This preference is in turn reinforced by developers and engineers who tend to embrace the tried and tested to minimize risk.
As for the architects, if you are willing to take a plunge and de-centralize your core, chances are, on top of the social and spatial benefits you reap, you are likely to be rewarded with a higher net-to-gross area ratio, something that would ring your developer client ding ding.
So next time, when you are drawing your anonymous object that is meant to represent a central core, spare a moment to think about what life in tall buildings could have been.