Errors in Cornell’s 2016 Fine Arts Library Variance Request

Links to all my articles and blog posts concerning the Fine Arts Library proposal can be found here.

Tim DeRuyscher of GHD’s fire & life safety services testified as Cornell’s fire-safety Code consultant

In a prior blog post, I described false testimony provided to the State Hearing Board by Cornell’s Code consultant as part of a 2016 Variance Hearing related to non-conforming aspects of the proposed Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall. As I described in an “update” to that post, Cornell actually brought this false testimony to the attention of the State of New York Division of Building Standards and Codes; the State, in turn, determined that the “transcript, Findings of Fact and Determination and it’s conditions do not mention nor rely on the language used in Exhibit A to describe the occupancy (publicly accessible vs. card access controlled entry) of the Fine Arts Library facility” and that therefore “no action is needed.”

I found it interesting that Cornell took it upon itself to ask forgiveness for this minor sin, while completely ignoring the more egregious false and misleading statements made at that same Variance Hearing. I therefore sent the following email to the Division of Building Standards and Codes on April 25, 2017, outlining these more serious transgressions:

Dear Mr. Collier,

RE: Petition No. 2016-0269

Hugh Bahar of Cornell has asked you to reconsider the 2016 Variance granted to Cornell’s Fine Arts Library proposal (Petition No. 2016-0269), in light of false testimony provided by Cornell’s fire-safety consultant, Tim DeRuyscher of GHD Consulting Services. I would like to bring to your attention several other instances of false or misleading testimony provided by DeRuyscher at that same Hearing. Unlike the instance you have just considered, the examples I provide below are extremely important, and have a direct impact on the Findings of Fact that form the basis of the Variance decision.  In light of this pattern of false testimony that affects the Findings of Fact, I believe it is appropriate for you to consider rescinding the granting of this Variance request.

Finding of Fact No. 1. “The petition pertains to the renovation to the existing Rand Hall Fine Arts Library, Type 2B, three story academic building, A3 second and third story occupancy, F1 first floor, Type 2b, four story Library space in Rand Hall, thus creating non-conforming space. Refer to previous variance 2015-0432.”

DeRuyscher statements at hearing relevant to Finding of Fact No. 1:

“The prior two variances [2013 and 2015] dealt specifically with the ability of this building to be treated as a separate building.”

“…this building currently, and as designed, is using Type 2B non-protected structural steel, concrete construction.”

“We wanted to make sure that the previously granted determinations in 2013 and the one in 2015 are not nullified, voided or having any kind of problems treating this building as a separate building.”

“..this project is a renovation of an existing building…”

Problems with Finding of Fact No. 1:

First, the Variances granted in 2013 and 2015 that are cited by DeRuyscher are not germane to this current project, since they both requested relief from the 2010 NYS Building Code, a Code that is applicable neither to the current proposal nor to the 2016 request for relief. DeRuyscher acknowledges this implicitly by asking that those prior determinations not be “nullified, voided or having any kind of problems treating this building as a separate building.” In other words, he seems to be requesting relief from the requirements for a fire wall to separate Rand Hall from Milstein-Sibley Hall in this latest Variance request (from 2016), and this request is reiterated, albeit ambiguously, in the Finding of Fact (“Refer to previous variance 2015-0432”). This is important in understanding why DeRuyscher’s statements about the results of the Performance Compliance Method are false (more on that later).

Second, DeRuyscher’s assertion that these two prior variances “dealt specifically with the ability of this building to be treated as a separate building” is false: the 2013 Variance permitted the height and area of the Fine Arts Library to exceed Code limits for the combined Rand-Milstein-Sibley Hall building, but neither requested, nor was granted, the right to consider Rand Hall as a separate building.

Third, the building is not Type IIB construction, as alleged by Cornell and reiterated in the Finding of Fact, but is Type VB construction. This construction type was confirmed by the Hearing Board in their Findings under the original 2013 Variance for this project. The Board wrote at that time: “Due to the connection with Sibley Hall, the aggregate building is downgraded to a Type VB construction. The three buildings are considered one building under the Code.”

It is not possible to use the 2015 Variance as a basis for considering Rand Hall a separate building with Type IIB construction, as this Variance was granted under the 2010 NYS Building Code, which is no longer applicable. Had the project been built under the 2010 Code, then the 2015 Variance would, of course, be “grandfathered”; but since the project has not been built—a building permit has not even been issued (and the project has not even entered the construction document phase)—any variance request must be made with respect to the current, 2015 NYS Code. For that reason, Cornell has requested that relief from the requirements for a fire wall—no longer valid on the basis of the 2015 Variance—be granted (reaffirmed) as part of the 2016 Variance request.

Fourth, this project is characterized as a “renovation” by DeRuyscher and that characterization is reiterated in the Finding of Fact (“The petition pertains to the renovation to the existing Rand Hall Fine Arts Library…”). This characterization is false. In fact, the proposal is both a Level 3 Alteration and an addition to the existing building, as defined in the 2015 NYS Existing Building Code. The Code defines an alteration as any “construction or renovation to an existing structure other than a repair or addition.” An addition is therefore not an alteration, but rather is defined separately as an “extension or increase in floor area, number of stories, or height of a building or structure.” This mischaracterization is crucial in understanding why DeRuyscher’s testimony about the Performance Compliance Method is entirely false (more about that later).

Findings of Fact No. 2 and No. 3.

Finding of Fact No. 2. “The existing Building Code, Chapter 14, allows for a compliance method evaluation to access code compliance. When a code compliance method review has been performed, the design professional has provided proof that the structure meets the requirements, then that section is deemed compliant. As provided, GHD has provided such a review.”

Finding of Fact No. 3. “The Board finds that the assessment of the Chapter 14 review offered by the architect GHD, along with the alternatives provided with smoke control and elevator size and distance of travel pertaining thereto; the Board finds the Authority Having Jurisdiction/Fire Department supports the granting of the petition.”

DeRuyscher statements at hearing relevant to Findings of Fact No. 2 and No. 3:

“The second page of Exhibit D shows that we do indeed have positive results down at the bottom [based on the Performance Compliance Method], which in fact is quite high for a lot of the ratings. We have plus 14 for fire safety, 1.3 for means of egress. And general safety I think is the last one, is 3.3. So we’re all positive above zero. Zero or above. That by itself is the basis for code compliance.”

Problems with Findings of Fact No. 2 and No. 3:

First, the Performance Compliance Method cannot even be used for this project, since the Fine Arts Library building proposal contains an addition and, under the Chapter 14 Performance Compliance regulations, additions to existing buildings must “comply with the requirements of the International Building Code… The combined height and area of the existing building and the new addition shall not exceed the height and area allowed by Chapter 5 of the International Building Code…” In other words, all of the so-called scores that consultant DeRuyscher calculated under Chapter 14 (Performance Compliance Methods) of the 2015 NYS Existing Building Code are irrelevant. This is because under Chapter 5 of the Code for new construction, invoked under the Performance Compliance rules, an A-3 occupancy in Type VB construction cannot be built above the 2nd story; and the maximum floor area cannot exceed about 21,420 square feet. Both of these values are not met in the proposal, so the Performance Compliance Method fails. It is important to note that the Construction Type for this method must be VB, since this is the actual construction type of the building.

Second, the values used by Deruyscher in his calculations are incorrect, since they are based on the assumption that the construction type for the building is Type IIB. However, as demonstrated above, the two prior Variances granted in 2013 and 2015 are no longer applicable to this project, since they were based on relief requested from the 2010 NYS Building Code. The 2013 Variance Findings confirmed that the construction type for the combined buildings is VB, and not IIB.

It is highly inappropriate, and a form of circular reasoning, to use values in the Performance Compliance Method based on having applied for a 2016 Code variance that would effectively make Rand Hall a separate building with a IIB construction type, since the results of the Performance Compliance calculations are supposed to support that Variance, not to presuppose that it already has been granted. It would be like claiming that a 50-calorie cookie is really the same as (equivalent to) a 100-calorie cookie by applying for a “cookie variance” that allows you to label the 100-calorie cookie as a 50-calorie cookie, and then citing the lower number based on the variance to “prove” its equivalency. As I have shown in my Performance Compliance Method calculator [scroll down to bottom of webpage], the Performance Compliance Method fails when the correct construction type is used. But even if the Method “worked,” it would not apply to this proposal, since the proposal contains an addition, and the addition exceeds the height and area allowed by Chapter 5 of the International Building Code.

Finding of Fact No. 4. “The City of Ithaca has determined that the alteration constitutes the addition of a fourth floor or story, triggering the requirement for the elevator car to accommodate an ambulance stretcher.”

DeRuyscher statements at hearing relevant to Finding of Fact No. 4:

“So therefore the 2A versus 2B construction we don’t consider an issue, because effectively we met the requirements using the compliance performance method.”

“We are 2B construction, but in reality we’re a lot closer to Type 2A construction. But we can’t call it Type 2A because we don’t have every single member traditionally done.”

Problems with Finding of Fact No. 4:

First, the Findings of Fact make no mention of any evidence supporting the request for relief from the requirement to use Type IIA, rather than Type IIB, construction for a 4-story sprinklered building with an A-3 occupancy.

Second, as already shown, the Performance Compliance Method cannot be invoked to justify reductions in fire safety since the proposal has an addition which does not conform to Chapter 5 of the Code for new construction.

Third, Deruyscher’s contention that “we’re a lot closer to Type 2A construction” is false: the entire floor area for all the library stacks is made of, and supported by, non-fireproofed steel elements, including floor beams for the stacks, cables to suspend them, and transfer girders above them—none of which have any fire-resistive ratings. In other words, this proposal [is] not even close to being Type 2A construction, but is correctly classified as Type IIB construction [if Rand Hall were considered as a separate building; otherwise, the correct construction type would be VB].

Thank you for your consideration of this important matter. A more detailed description of these and other errors in the Variance applications can be found here.

“Hat’s off” for the Fine Arts Library at Cornell

It’s possible that cost cutting exercises now underway may eliminate the “hat” (an entire floor level containing book stacks and a seminar room) that was proposed for the roof level of the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library at Cornell. Because many of the fire-safety building code issues that continue to plague this scheme hinge on the number of stories and floors, on the definition of mezzanines, and on the use of an atrium designation for the open volume, it might prove useful at this point to assess the implications of this possible change.

First, the distinction between stories and floors is important because an atrium space can only have 3 floors open to it; any other floor must be separated from the atrium volume by some form of protection. Even if the newly configured volume (without the hat) only has 3 stories, it still has at least 4 floors, as can be seen in the sections below. (There are actually 4 stories and 5 floors, as explained below.)

Schematic sections showing the number of stories and floors in a Fine Arts Library without a “hat.”

I am assuming that the mezzanine level shown in the section actually counts as a mezzanine; the AAP Dean recently mentioned that these floor levels might be made larger to carry more books in compensation for the loss of books in the “hat.” If the mezzanine level exceeds 50% of the room or space below it, then it no longer counts as a mezzanine and therefore would add one additional story to the atrium space.

There is a proposed exit access stair on the east side of the building—not shown in the sections, but shown in the bottom right corner of the renderings below—that links the 1st and 2nd stories and is open to the atrium; for that reason, the atrium actually contains four stories and five floors. In any case, the newly configured space violates Section 1006.3 of the 2015 NY State Building Code, which requires that the “path of egress travel to an exit shall not pass through more than one adjacent story.” In fact, the exit access from the highest level of the building passes through the 3rd story, the 2nd story, and then through the 1st story, before finding an exit. In addition, there are five floors open to the atrium, while only 3 open floors are permitted. I’m counting not only floor #1, which is open to the atrium because of the open exit access stair, but also the raised stack portion of the 2nd story, which counts as an additional floor (see the section).

The image below shows the architect’s rendering of the lowest stack level, hovering about 4 feet above the lower part of the 2nd story. Because the floor under this stack level can be used in various ways, and is a potential storage area for combustible material, it needs to be counted as a floor, even if it does not count as a story.

Architect’s rendering of proposed Fine Arts Library atrium space.

What is not shown in the architect’s rendering are two potential uses (abuses) of this space, both of which require that the floor under the hanging stack level be designated as a “floor.” The first possible use of the space is for storage of books or other items, as shown in my altered rendering below.

I’ve added some boxes of books below the hanging stack level to demonstrate that this floor level is really a “floor” and needs to be so designated.

Second, the architect’s provocative inclusion of rolling carts can only have one intention. As shown in my animated video below, students will invariably use the carts as recreational devices to navigate under the hanging stack level.

Links to all my articles and blog posts about the Fine Arts Library can be found here.

Psychedelic Shack

I’ve been recording cover versions of songs that were, in some way, influential in my musical development. Beginning with Surfer Girl from 1963, I’ve picked a different recording artist for each succeeding year, and now find myself in 1970, the year I started the B. Arch program at Cornell University, and the year that Psychedelic Shack became a hit for the Temptations.

Strangely, 1970 was also the year that Peter Eisenman’s “House II” was completed in Hardwick, Vermont. That this house shows up as the “psychedelic shack” in my music video has something to do with current research I am conducting into the question of architectural “function” and, specifically, the suggestion by some architectural theorists that one of the functions of architecture is to express the spirit of the age. Since this idea of a Zeitgeist has always struck me as rather peculiar, I took this opportunity to expose its fraudulent nature by juxtaposing two antagonistic sensibilities from the same time and the same place: on the one hand, Eisenman’s hyper-conceptual tightly-scripted architecture and, on the other hand, the rhetorically psychedelic and “anti-establishment” work from contemporary architects like Archigram (whose “Walking City” appears briefly in the video). The Temptations, of course, is not a “psychedelic” group, so their recording of Psychedelic Shack, written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, can be taken more as a commentary on late 1960s hippie culture than as an example of it. Even so, the song lyrics adequately capture the cultural ambiance:

They got a cat there shoutin’ the blues, talkin’ ’bout payin’ some dues
People walkin’ round reciting poetry, yeah
Screaming guitars and a thousand colored lights
People, I’m telling you this place is really out of sight

Contrast these lyrics with the description of House II by Eisenman (Iman Ansari, “Interview: Peter Eisenman,” The Architectural Review, April 26, 2013 accessed here):

So I achieved what I wanted to achieve, which was to lessen the difference between the built form and the model. I was always trying to say ‘built model’ as the conceptual reality of architecture. So when you see these houses and you visit them you realize that they were very didactic and very important exercises — each one had a different thematic — but they were concerned not with meaning in the social sense of the word or the cultural sense, but in the ‘architectural meaning,’ what meaning they had and what role they played in the critical culture of architecture as it evolved over time. So while the work was interested in syntax and grammar, it was interested to see what the analogical relationships were between language and architecture.

Some notes on the recording and video production:

Music arranged and produced by Jonathan Ochshorn.
Recorded with Logic Pro 9 software.
Vocals: Jonathan Ochshorn.
Real instruments: Jonathan Ochshorn (electric guitar, harmonica).
Software instruments played live on midi keyboard: Jonathan Ochshorn (drums, bass, organ, piano).
Recorded at home in Ithaca, NY, April, 2017.

Video shot by Jonathan Ochshorn with a refurbished iPod Touch in selfie mode, and edited with Final Cut Express.
Still images were mostly found on the internet and edited using Adobe Photoshop, except that one photo is of me at Cornell in 1970 (appearing on a backwards clock while the Temptations are singing “There ain’t no such thing as time”).
Video was shot and edited at home in Ithaca, NY, April, 2017.

Revisiting Form and Forces

I just presented a paper at the 2017 National Architectural Engineering Institute (AEI) Conference in Oklahoma City. The paper critiques graphical statics as a contemporary pedagogical tool. You can read it here.

While in Oklahoma City, I also went to see the final game played by the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, where Russell Westbrook was honored in a pregame ceremony by Oscar Robertson. Not everyone is up to speed on NBA trivia; to learn more, read this NY Times article.

Cornell Fine Arts Library proposal to prevent public access

[Updated below] I sent the following email (dated March 30, 2017) to Cornell’s project manager for the Fine Arts Library proposal, in order to find out whether the proposed library card-access control is seriously intended to be implemented. I’ll update this post if I get an answer.

Cornell’s libraries are supposed to be open to the public. According to the Cornell library website: “Any person may visit the libraries and use materials, databases and resources on-site.”

In opposition to this policy, the proposed Fine Arts Library (FAL) will not be a public facility and instead will be card-access controlled. At the 2016 Variance Hearing before the State of New York Capital Region Syracuse Board of Review (Petition 2016-0269), Cornell’s Code consultant stated: “Other factors include that this facility is not necessarily public. I couldn’t just walk in there. It’s card access controlled for students… It’s almost like an indirect or a direct supervision correctional facility. Not that that’s what this place is, just as a side note.” (Emphasis added.)

The provision for card-access control in the FAL proposal is intended to limit the number of people who might use or visit the proposed library in order to justify “relief” from Code-mandated fire-safety requirements, in particular, atrium smoke control measures.

Could you let me know if Cornell provided false information to the Hearing Board in order to justify their request for a Code variance, or if the FAL is really intending to violate longstanding Cornell library policy regarding visitor access?

I’ve written a detailed analysis of this latest FAL proposal and Cornell’s Code variance requests here.

[Updated March 31, 2017]

I received this email reply on Friday, March 31, 2017, not from the FAL project manager to whom my email was addressed, but from Anne Kenney (University Librarian) and Kornelia Tancheva (Associate University Librarian), both of whom are leaving Cornell.

The various Cornell Libraries, including the Fine Arts Library, are open to the public during all their business hours. In support of the land-grant mission of the University, any person can visit the libraries and use materials and services on site.  No library unit can be card-controlled during its normal hours of operation. Any form of restricted access is allowed only after normal hours.   We are not sure what the consultant had in mind, but the Library’s position on this is and has been very clear. Since today is the last day of work for both Kornelia and me, we are copying Xin Li, who will work with Ezra on the Fine Arts Library project.

I responded as follows:

Thank you for confirming that Cornell provided false testimony to the State of New York Capital Region Syracuse Board of Review (Petition 2016-0269 for the proposed Rand Hall Fine Arts Library). You state that you “are not sure what the consultant had in mind.” As I wrote in the email that you responded to: “The provision for card-access control in the FAL proposal is intended to limit the number of people who might use or visit the proposed library in order to justify ‘relief’ from Code-mandated fire-safety requirements, in particular, atrium smoke control measures.” That is what Cornell, through its consultant, had in mind.

Of course, the question I asked in my email was entirely rhetorical, since the answer is self-evident. Furthermore, this is hardly the first false statement made in support of the library project. I hope that your successors will no longer remain complicit in this Trumpian universe where “fake news” is used to support dangerous anti-regulation policies. My detailed critiques of the proposal can be found here.

[Updated April 24, 2017: a flurry of emails to correct the record]

I was just copied on an email from the NYS Division of Building Standards & Codes to Cornell’s project manager. Apparently, Cornell had written to the DBS&C to correct the record, admitting the error in their testimony, and asking for confirmation that the Code variance that they had obtained was still valid. Here’s the body of the NYS response, dated April 24, 2017:

Regarding your letter of April 17, 2017, no further action with respect to a revision of Exhibit A is required. Your letter correction will added to the variance petition Exhibits as an amendment.

The transcript, Findings of Fact and Determination and it’s conditions do not mention nor rely on the language used in Exhibit A to describe the occupancy (publicly accessible vs. card access controlled entry) of the Fine Arts Library facility.

I trust this meets with your request for confirmation that no action is needed. If you have questions feel free to call me at 518 473 8947.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Neil Michael Collier RA CEO
Division of Building Standards & Codes
New York Department of State

Shortly thereafter, I received a copy of this puzzling email from the City of Ithaca Fire Chief (puzzling because it’s not clear whether his understanding is that the occupant load will be restricted, or will not be restricted):

It was my understanding that regardless of key access or public access, the occupant load would not be restricted beyond limits established by the BCNYS/FCNYS for the area and exiting of any A3 occupancy.

Tom Parsons
Fire Chief
City of Ithaca

I followed up on all this with an April 25, 2017, email to the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes; read about it here.

Cornell’s proposed Fine Arts Library at 100% design development

Cornell’s 100% design development (DD) drawings for the proposed Fine Art’s Library have been completed. The scheme continues to have serious fire-safety deficiencies, continues to be non-compliant with the New York State Building Code, and continues to be problematic for non-Code reasons as well: it destroys a flexible “low-value” industrial-type building that was extremely useful for the department of architecture and replaces it with a spectacularly useless mausoleum for the display of books. You can read more of my articles and blog posts about this project here.

Today, one day before the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, I offer two more reading options: first, a detailed analysis of the latest 100% DD drawings (and Cornell’s Code variances) and second, a Cornell Chronicle parody covering the same material.

This photo accompanies my Cornell Chronicle parody.

A Fulbright journal: Five months in Tianjin

I kept an electronic photo-journal for five months while living in Tianjin, China, as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar. During my time there during the fall 2016 semester, I taught two courses in the School of Architecture at Tianjin University, and also lectured in several other cities in China. You can read my journal in one of two formats: either as a black and white paperback book (click here to order a copy), or as a full-color pdf, embedded below. It takes a short time for the pdf viewer to load; click on the “fullscreen” button in the middle of the horizontal menu bar to enlarge the content.

[March 26, 2017 update] I’ve uploaded some random videos: Scenes from China.

Tunnel of Love, Live in Hamburg

On the way to our Fulbright semester in China, we stopped in Germany and drove in a loop from Berlin to Weimar to Cologne to Hamburg, and then back to Berlin. While in Hamburg, we checked out the amazing Elbe Tunnel and I could not resist the temptation to record a live version of my song, Tunnel of Love, on my iPod Touch, while walking under the Elbe River. So here it is: I added some basic instrumentation and background vocals when we returned to Ithaca six months later.

Mezzanine problems in Cornell’s proposed Fine Arts Library

Links to all my writings and blog posts about Cornell’s proposed Fine Arts Library can be found here.

The Fine Arts Library proposed for Rand Hall at Cornell University has two stories, each with a mezzanine floor, for a total of four levels all linked by a single continuous vertical opening. Vertical openings in buildings are—with some important exceptions—prohibited by Building Codes because they present a serious fire and smoke hazard if not properly designed or protected by a continuous and fire-rated shaft enclosure. The most common exception to the general prohibition of vertical openings states that any two stories may have a vertical opening between them. This much is clear. However, when mezzanines are introduced, things get more complicated and additional exceptions to the general prohibition against vertical openings must be analyzed.

The 2003 and 2007 versions of the New York State Building Codes—the first that were based on the International Building Code (IBC)—state in Section 505.1 that: “A mezzanine… shall be considered a portion of the floor below.” This is important because the exception allowing two-story vertical openings (in Section 707.2 of the 2010 NY State Code or Section 712.1.9 of the 2015 NY State Code, for example) specifically allows such openings to connect two stories, but only as long as they also are separated from other floor openings. Because mezzanines were previously defined as being part of the floor below, they were not considered as separate floors, and therefore didn’t count as additional floor openings under the terms of this exception. In other words, the four interconnected floors in the Fine Arts Library proposal might have been acceptable under these older Codes (assuming that all other requirements governing maximum mezzanine size were satisfied). However, in all subsequent versions of the New York State Building Code, including those from 2010 through 2015, a single word in Section 505.1 (or 505.2 in later versions) was changed, so that a mezzanine is now considered a portion—not of the floor below—but of the story below.

With this seemingly innocent change—from floor to story—the exception in Section 707.2 of the 2010 Code (or Section 712.1.9 of the 2015 Code) allowing floor openings connecting no more than two stories as long as they are also separated from other floor openings now has a very different meaning. With mezzanine floors no longer included as part of the floor below, but still considered as independent floors, the requirement that any vertical opening linking two stories be separated from any other floors is no longer satisfied if mezzanines are present. It is no longer possible to ignore the mezzanine floor levels by claiming that they are part of the floors below them.

There are only two other potentially viable options for designing “vertical openings” for a new Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall, per Section 712.1 in the 2015 NY State Building Code. The first such option—having a vertical opening between a mezzanine and the floor below—clearly doesn’t work for the Fine Arts Library proposal, since only a single mezzanine and floor can be linked together using this option. The only other viable strategy is to design the vertical opening as an atrium.

Schematic section through the Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall showing the two “stories” and two mezzanine floors proposed in both the schematic design and 50% design development drawings  with the noncompliant “vertical opening” shown in pink (diagram by J. Ochshorn)


The mathematics of the symbolic skyscraper

In Delirious New York1, Rem Koolhaas describes a crisis in symbolic expression allegedly caused by the development of the skyscraper. First, he questions whether something “filled, from top to bottom, by business” can even be considered as a monument with symbolic content, other than as an Automonument with an “empty” symbolism that “does not represent an abstract ideal, an institution of exceptional importance, a three-dimensional, readable articulation of a social hierarchy, a memorial…”

The idea that buildings for church and state are legitimately monumental (hence having symbolic meaning) but buildings for business are not is, on the face of it, absurd. The attacks on the World Trade Center Towers in 1993 and 2001 provide some evidence that these skyscrapers for business2 (i.e., “world trade”) were symbolic of economic activity and economic power, and that precisely this symbolism was a factor in their selection as targets of terrorism. But even ordinary business towers have meaning (hence, act as symbols): the “corporate officers and the army of clerks they employed determined the meaning and usage of the tall office building” according to Roberta Moudry in her introduction to The American Skyscraper.3 Aaron Betsky is even more emphatic, stating that “Of all the buildings human beings make, towers are the most symbolic” and specifying that they “stand for the wealth and power of the commissioning agency, whether it is a developer, a private entity such as a corporation, or a (quasi-) governmental agency” (in Asia and elsewhere) or “are symbols for the transformation of Manhattan into the haven of choice for the global one percent.”4 That Betsky’s towers include both commercial and residential types does not matter in this context. And, of course, one can always cite Louis Sullivan for paeans to the symbolic grandeur of the skyscraper for business: “that the problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities that the Lord Of Nature in His beneficence has ever offered to the proud spirit of man.”5

But aside from this assertion that the meaning of office towers is somehow second-class and unsuitable for monumentality or symbolism, Koolhaas makes a second claim that is equally absurd: that the height of skyscrapers makes it increasingly difficult to express internal functionality on outside surfaces, something allegedly required within the tradition of the “honest” facade in modern Western architectural culture. Koolhaas states that “mathematically, the interior volume of the three-dimensional objects increases in cubed leaps and the containing envelope only by squared increments: less and less surface has to represent more and more interior activity.”

Figure 1

But as is clear from Figure 1, the ratio of volume and surface remain unchanged as a building gets taller. The mathematical truth is that making a building higher does not change the relationship of volume to surface; only increasing plan dimensions does that (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Thus this alleged crisis (“Beyond a certain critical mass the relationship is stressed beyond the breaking point…”) has nothing to do with the skyscraper or the tower — i.e., with height — but only with the size of the block. And block dimensions in Manhattan were already fixed in size with the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811.


1. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, Oxford University Press (New York: 1978), p.81-82.

2. Yes, it’s true that some quasi-governmental organizations, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were tenants of the World Trade Center, but the bulk of space was rented to business: see “List of tenants in One World Trade Center,” Wikipedia (accessed 2/14/17)

3. Roberta Moudry, ed., “Introduction,” The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, New York, etc.: 2005), emphasis added

4. Aaron Betsky, “Symbolism of Skyscrapers: The Meaning of High-Rises Around the World,” (The Journal of the American Institute of Architecture), July 23, 2014 (accessed 2/14/17)

5. Louis Sullivan, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” Lippencott’s Monthly Magazine, March 1896, p.406 (text available here)