Saturday, March 12, 2016

Living Vertically

There are lots of things that thrill me about cities, but the one that never fails to amaze me is what I call “people living on top of each other.” Not in the figurative sense of crowds, but in the literal sense of people living in an apartment on top of someone else’s apartment on the floor below. I stand at ground level and look up at what’s going on in lighted windows: someone eating is completely unaware that someone just below him is watching TV. It just amazes me.
In New York City, I can look up at an apartment building and see SIXTY people living on top of SIXTY people who are living next door to another SIXTY people living on top of their SIXTY. It boggles the mind. Which leads to the other thing that awes me: at 8 a.m., all those people are usually changing places. They’re leaving homes for work or school or whatever, and they’re often doing it via public transit. It’s why I got into transit in the first place. Just think about it: all the people living on top of each other changing places in about a two-hour period.


So when I heard that the curator of the Skyscraper Museum exhibit, Ten Tops, was doing a curator’s walk-through, I went. (There are so many exciting things implied in that sentence: that a Skyscraper Museum even exists, that it’s a dynamic museum with changing exhibits, and that they offer a curator’s walk-through and expect people will come! This is New York!)

The exhibit focuses on the two dozen or so buildings that are 100 stories or higher. The Burj Khalifa building in Dubai has the highest occupied floor in the world. More than 900 households live there with the possibility of living on top of 87 floors of other people.

But the big thing I learned from the curator was about wind. The museum is filled with the models used in wind tunnel tests. I learned wind is why these buildings are all pointy or oddly shaped. Wind is a killer on a regular old rectangular building; you need angles to confuse and disrupt the wind.

One of the more inspiring buildings, the Shanghai World Financial Center starts out at the bottom as a square, but the architect used angles and arcs drawn off a circle to slowly transform it as it rose so that at the top, it’s six-sided. The very, very top was designed to have a circular hole (and they’d install a ferris wheel), but when the owners saw it, it looked like the rising sun of the Japanese flag so it was nixed. Now it’s a rectangular hole.

To understand how scary the wind is, the curator showed us photos of the “tuned mass damper” (TMD) in Taipei 101, which was the tallest building till Burj Khalifa. It has to withstand not only typhoons – up to 130 miles per hour – but also earthquakes. The structure likes to be flexible, but the people inside like it not to be so flexible. (I can see why.) So inside, there’s a giant 660-ton sphere, 18 feet in diameter – that’s the TMD – that hangs like a pendulum around the 90th floor. When the wind blows, it swings the opposite way and stabilizes the building. It can swing up to 59 inches!

[Pause while woman from Alaska-via-San-Francisco has small, sympathetic freak-out over this: swaying from wind and earthquakes is the worst thing I can imagine in the place where anyone would live. 59 inches – that’s almost five feet of sway! And that’s the stabilizer!]

I am staying in an apartment on the 8th floor. It is not so bad because the people on the ground still look like people, not ants. I can look out in the morning to see whether they’re wearing coats or not (although New Yorkers seem to wear parkas and scarves that would leave any Alaskan with heat stroke). I am not anticipating any earthquakes.

So while I’ve always marveled at looking at all the people living on top of each other, this is the first time I’ve actually been one of those people. Sitting here at my table, I’m not even aware of the seven households under me. I only see them from outside. I haven’t even checked how many might be living above me; I’ll have to look at the elevator buttons.
It’s a new perspective: to be what you’ve always just looked at. But that’s what this whole trip was meant to be about.


  1. You will love this podcast. "Producer Briana Breen brings us the story: Diane’s new neighbors across the way never shut their curtains, and that was the beginning of an intimate, but very one-sided relationship." Connie Q.-

  2. Thank you for this. Tonight, my cousin visited my apartment and walked over to the window and said, "With this view, you have to wear clothes." Oops....

  3. So, while you were in NY looking at an exhibit about Taipei 101, I was in Taipei (a few weeks later)looking at the actual Taipei 101 and trying not to feel dizzy.

    I have a photo. How do I add it?


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