Lonely life at the top

The Burj Khalifa, a mixed-use tower with apartments as well as offices and hotels, is the world's tallest building at 828m.
The Burj Khalifa, a mixed-use tower with apartments as well as offices and hotels, is the world's tallest building at 828m.PHOTO: REUTERS

Living at the top of residential towers means one can enjoy great views, but it can also lead to isolation, among other issues

LONDON • Manhattan's avenues stretch north like tracks through a forest, eventually disappearing into Harlem. Below me, Central Park is laid out like a picnic blanket, its largest trees rendered shrub-like. To the south, the Empire State Building pierces the city's canopy of stone and iron. This is the view from the world's highest home, as enjoyed virtually, using Google Earth.

Because to enjoy it in person would require knowing the unnamed owner of the 800 sq m penthouse at 432 Park Avenue - or buying it for more than the US$88 million (S$124 million) it sold for last year.

But there are alternatives for those with a head for heights and the money to match. Next year, the 426m-high Park Avenue tower will lose its title to 111 West 57th Street, rising two blocks to the west.

Meanwhile in India, the 442m Mumbai World One will push higher still, its Armani-designed penthouses on level 117 offering airliner views of the Arabian Sea.

Once, only offices reached so high. In 2000, there were 215 office towers worldwide above 200m high, but only three residential towers that high. Today, there are 255 residential towers above that height, with another 184 under construction.

Mixed-use towers, with apartments as well as offices and hotels, include the Burj Khalifa, still the world's tallest building at 828m.

What is life like up there? For decades, tower blocks typically comprised social or affordable housing in crowded cities or on new estates.

Today, the highest residential towers are luxury developments and many remain empty, weeks after selling. If skyscrapers broke ground as barometers of corporate hubris, increasingly they now stand for personal excess, applying gravity to the wealth divide.

Britain, traditionally a low-rise country, is part of the boom. Skyscraper clusters are casting shadows across London. In Manchester, the first 200m building outside the capital is due for completion next year.

Mr Jason Gabel, an urban planner at the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which keeps a global skyscraper database, says advances in building technology partly explain the trend. Lifts can now travel at more than 64kmh and climb for hundreds of metres, thanks to lightweight carbon fibre ropes.

Sophisticated dampening systems at the tops of towers mean slender buildings can rise higher, on smaller urban plots, without toppling in a storm.

For a growing number of city dwellers, day-to-day life can be a little different. The payoff for peace and endless views can be five-minute waits for the lift at rush hour - and sunburn. "You could get tanned in winter if you sat by the window: there's a bit of a greenhouse effect," says the owner of a 64th-floor apartment above Chicago.

Many residents around the world reported feeling uplifted by their elevated perspective, but there are hidden downsides: a Canadian study of heart attack victims showed survival rates dropped markedly on higher floors because they were harder for paramedics to reach.

"Stacking people on shelves is a very efficient method of human isolation," says Mr Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and renowned urban design consultant. A critic of residential towers even where they are fully occupied, he likens them to gated mansions in the sky.

Humans, he says, did not evolve to look up or down. "We have seen, in the past 20 years, a withdrawal from society into the private sphere. Towers are an easy way to achieve that."

Is this the experience of those who live above our rising cities? Trader Mike Palumbo, 50, lives in an eight-bedroom apartment on the 64th floor of Chicago's Water Tower Place. "I just love this view," he says.

Yet he is also scared of heights. "I'm okay with the windows, but if this was a ledge, I'd be freaking out right now."

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2017, with the headline 'Lonely life at the top'. Print Edition | Subscribe