Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Heights by Kate Ascher - Book Review

Each time I approach Kate Ascher's new book The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper, I look at it with interest and find myself saying things like, “Oh! That's interesting,” or “Gosh, I've always wondered about that” while never wishing to read the book through or study it. This lushly illustrated oversize volume offers containing hundreds of computer generated drawings offers more detail than most people interested in architecture generally or skyscrapers in particular want or need to know without providing sufficient information or detail for the professional seeking to begin work on building one. Each time I pick it up, which is pretty often, I wonder who the audience for this fascinating assemblage might be. A few days ago, I lugged it along to the doc's office to read in the waiting room. I came across a page showing how tower cranes add modules to make themselves taller. Great stuff! Always wondered about that. I'd also like to see a page about how cranes on the top of buildings continue to rise above each new top floor. On the other hand, a section on “curtain wall systems” and the glass used to construct them made my eyes glaze over, including the two page insert showing how glass for skyscrapers is made. Meanwhile, a picture comparing the amount of space saved by building a 1.3 million square foot mixed use skyscraper over the same amount of suburban development area was most interesting. The skyscraper would use 60 percent of a city block, while the buildings would spread out over an equivalent suburban space of 21 New York City blocks. The excellent graphic makes clear the increased efficiency and attractiveness of going tall. And yet, questions remain...who's the audience?

Compartative Land Use
Skyscraper vs. Suburban Settin 

Kate Ascher, author of The Works, a critically acclaimed profile written in a similar style to The Heights, which details the infrastructure of New York City. It was described in one review as “both a reference guide and a geeky pleasure.” Ascher, who currently works for a real estate corporation, served as vice president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. She holds a B.A. from Brown University and M.A and Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. The book shows Archer's passion for urban planning, her love of the city and skyscrapers as ideas, and her meticulous attention to detail as evidenced in the organization and presentation of the book. 

Kate Ascher

The Heights is divided into five chapters, each one subdivided into several sections and read from the bottom up, like an elevator's button structure. Chapter headings are made to look like elevator floor buttons. Such creative design makes the book interesting right from the beginning. For instance, Section 2 – Building contains chapters on Design, Foundations, Structure, The Skin, and Construction. The chapter on Design contains chapters like “Selecting a Design,” “Zoning,” “Stacking,” and “Making It Memorable.” An interesting chapter on supporting a skyscraper contains useful information about such elements as fire, firefighting, and evacuation. The sidebar on why the Twin Towers collapsed is all too short. Details are piled upon details along with relevant pictures, almost all high quality architectural drawings presenting details illuminating the ideas presented. Extensive thought and planning has gone into the design and realization of this volume. However, the human element seems almost completely absent in this volume, except in the abstract. The word “furniture” doesn't appear in the book, although there's lots about air conditioning and plumbing. A section called “How Will We Live?” asks important questions to go along with a previous one examining how high such structures can be built and sustained and their importance in a green society. One interesting social development made obvious in this book is the move of economic vitality away from the U.S.  to Asia as measured from where the tallest buildings are being built.

Comparative Heights of Skyscrapers

Who, then, is the audience for The Heights? I thought first it might be a terrific Christmas present for the pre-adolescent who thinks architecture might provide a future. Well, it's probably a little too difficult to read and a mite too comprehensive. Maybe a technically oriented general reader would enjoy it. Yes, but it's a little too grounded in detailed trivia. I thought it might work for a course in mechanical drawing in a vocational-technical school. Could be just fine there. Another idea was to put it on coffee tables in homes that actually are in skyscrapers. Good thought, that, except there aren't any spectacular full color photos of the great buildings discussed here. So, while this is an interesting and even intriguing book, I don't know who to recommend it to. For me, it will remain a book to pick up from time-to-time to leaf through and find another interesting factoid I might use as a “Did you know...?” conversation piece, and lay back down.

Skyscraper Designs

The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper by Kate Ascher is published by The Penguin Press and retails for $35.00. It is available from Amazon and your local independent book store. I do NOT recommend purchasing this book in an e-book format as it relies heavily on the reader's being able to see full two-page spreads, which don't work well on any reader I'm aware of, including the iPad. I received my review copy from the publisher through TLC Book Tours.


  1. Thanks, Ted; it DOES look interesting, but with all I've got on my plate right now I think I'll pass on it for me. But it would make a good coffee table addition to the home of the preternaturally curious! I may get YOU one when I see it on the remainder shelf!

    Incidentally, wonderful report on Chernow's "G. Washington", which pushed me over the top into buying it!

  2. I see what you mean about all the fascinating facts in there - I certainly never thought about the efficiency of skyscrapers versus other types of buildings.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one for the tour!