The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper Paperback – Nov 5 2013
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About the Author
Kate Ascher is the author of The Works: Anatomy of a City. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and manages Happold Consulting’s U.S. practice. She lives in New York City.
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Ascher begins by telling us about the history of Skyscrapers and the design issues architects and engineers need to address before building them. Such important issues as zoning and the underlying ecomomic issues that drive construction are also covered. Although these details are important, what really makes "The Heights" such a pleasure to read is when Ascher starts detailing the steps required to raise a Skyscraper. Detailed illustrations accompany her descriptions of such interesting things as the installion of glass curtain walls and the pumping of concrete to building tops. Granted, elevator design and the functioning of air handling units is not everybody's cup of tea. But if you are the type of geek who thinks mechanical floors and high-rise fire protection systems are interesting, this is your book.
Keep in mind "The Heights" was written for the general public. If you find tall buildings to be inherently interesting but do not have a background in architecture, engineering or any of the trade crafts, this is the book for you. Due to the inherent complexity of these structures, I am sure that specialists will have bones to pick with Ascher's descriptions. Nevertheless, I challange these critics to find a better single volume on skyscraper construction for the general public. In the final analysis, "The Heights" is well written, beautifully illustrated and a real pleasure to read. Highly recommended.
For example Page 52 "Steel":
"The production of steel involves melting of iron ore and the addition of other elements, often called alloys. The mix of these alloys determines not only the hardness of the steel but other properties as well. For example the addition of chromium leaves a hard oxide on the surface of the steel, giving us what we know as "stainless steel"."
The only thing correct in this quote is the first phrase. "The production of steel involves melting of iron ore and the addition of other elements,"... Everything beyond that first comma is just plain wrong.
An alloy is a homogenous mixture of two or more metals or metallic elements or of metals and non metaloid elements. Steel itself is an alloy of mostly iron and carbon, the addition of chromium and molybdenum creates a higher stregnth steel alloy, not stainless steel which is an alloy of chromium, nickle and iron. The "hard oxide on the surface" is simply nonsense.
Had the passage above been written thus it would be more correct:
The production of steel involves the melting of iron and the addition of carbon to the metal. Alloys are created by the addition of other elements such as chromium, molybdenum, and vanadium, to give different properties such as hardness and yield strength. For instance the addition of at least 11% chromium gives us what we call "stainless steel".
Another example is the section on the production of float glass, which while explaining problems with other methods of plate glass production, never bothers to explain the float glass process itself. (Making float glass is remarkable and involves floating a ribbon of molten glass on a pool of liquified metal) The illustrations do little more than show a lot of hot areas resulting in a ribbon of plate glass, and do not show the pool of liquified metal.
These multiple errors bring into question the research and veracity of everything presented in the book. The lack of a bibliography indicates this is mostly an art book. Not a well researched work. The author has great credentials but it would seem is technically illiterate. The book as an okay overview of the history of skyscrapers and has wonderful illustrations showing the evolution of their form, but as you get into the text you will find the pretty pictures are the only thing of real substance.
I'd blame the author anyway. The underlying concept for this book is terrific, explaining the many components that go into modern construction, why they are needed and how they interact. But too often, the author goes off on tangents that are apparently needed to fill each page with pulp simply to accommodate the graphics. By the end, author Kate Ascher is telling us what urban activist "Jane Jacobs would think." How does she know?! Jane Jacobs has been dead for years. This dubious journalism has no place in a book where facts should be paramount to accompany the graphics. Instead, there is far too much filler. Better to have less text (therefore a lower price?) than to fill the book with typing that only diminishes the impact of the information contained within. Ms. Ascher needed a tougher editor; her text does not leave anyone begging for more.
In its favor, this book has wonderful graphics.
While the history section of the book was interesting, and filled closer to 50% of each of its 8 pages with text, after that a quick skim would allow the reader to jump to those topics that are less well known and/or of particular interest (mass dampers to counterbalance wind loads, for example). Since it would be easy to skip large sections, or to merely read the captions to the illustrations, the book could essentially be read in a single sitting. In that sense, the (lack of) depth, the many illustrations, and the clearly labeled topic of each 2-page spread would make this a good bathroom book, or maybe a book on the shelf at a vacation house--you'd be able to put it down at any point and wouldn't need to pick up where you left off, just page through it until the rain stops, the kids are back from the beach/lake, or until everyone wakes up for the day.
Given that Ascher is on the faculty of Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, I would've expected a more thorough and academic book. Though maybe that's what an actual student of the construction/building/architecture field would have provided--I'm curious how Ascher's degrees in government and political science qualify her to write a book on such a potentially fascinating topic: perhaps she should have focused on the economic and political factors that affect skyscraper construction rather than "Fire Prevention and Response" (p. 144-5)--wow, sprinklers, fire extinguishers, and high-pressure pumper trucks ALL play a role?!? Who would've thought. (But a more in-depth approach would've probably required her to do the actual research for the book, instead of Rob Vroman, who's credited on the title page. Given that the book is almost exclusively straight data, I'm not sure what Ascher contributed beyond some basic rewriting of Vroman's research.) Since this "data-dump" approach is indicative of the intellectual/reading level of the book, I'd fully recommend it for a middle school or junior high student who has left behind dinosaurs and locomotives and has become fascinated with buildings and their construction. But they'd likely get just as much out of some television series from A&E or The History Channel.
Beyond the excellent graphics, Ascher has a gift of being able to take quite complex topics and write them in a way that is accurate, but easily relatable to anyone.
As an engineer, I was very pleased to see that Ms. Asher pointed out that the design and construction of a skyscraper is very much a team effort. Too often architects end up with all of the glory, while the engineers are left in the shade.
Overall, The Heights was an excellent book about a fascinating topic. The graphics and explanations of the design, construction, and workings of the modern marvel of the skyscrapers are perfect. The Heights is not only technically accurate, but written in a way that anyone with an interest can understand from my three-year old son to his structural engineer father.