By Tom Vanderbilt
September 1, 2008
Tom Vanderbilt is suspicious of plans for rotating skyscrapers in Dubai and Moscow, and of the mysterious architect behind them.
The revolving restaurant, that once-celebrated architectural form born from the rotating stages of auto shows, enjoyed a brief heyday in the West from the early 1960s to the end of the 1970s and then sputtered into a clichéd merry-go-round of overpriced cocktails atop second-tier hotels. But fascination with the gimmick never quite died—it merely moved East, to places like Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong, becoming a de rigueur symbol of newly burgeoning skylines and rising economic fortune. It seems appropriate, then, that Dubai, which has developed into a kind of World Expo of the architectural superlative—world’s tallest tower, world’s biggest mall and largest man-made island—should now be welcoming a curious new building typology: the “rotating skyscraper.”
As recently announced at a New York City press conference (though news of the project had circulated a year before), the “Dynamic Tower,” the brainchild of a Florence-based architect named David Fisher, features 80 floors, each of which can be set to its own rotational schedule, and is powered by wind turbines and solar panels. The effect is rather like one of those twisting wooden helix wind ornaments one sees at craft fairs—if, alas, they were made of steel and glass and rose some 1,380 feet into the sky. The promotional materials show the building quite visibly spiraling in the Dubai skyline, dazzling the emirati glitterati, though one suspects this is a bit hyperbolic; the architect says it will not move fast enough for its residents to sense motion.
Indeed, most of the spinning at the press conference seemed to be done by the public relations firm, which was forced to explain why Fisher had claimed to have earned a degree from Columbia University’s Prodeo Institute, which does not exist (Columbia itself also denied awarding him a degree). From the beginning, this project has had architectural wags smelling vaporware, a mirage in the Dubai heat. The story is admittedly strange: a “world renowned” architect that no one seems to have heard of, whose previous claim to fame (also obscure to most) was the “Smart Marble by Leonardo da Vinci,” a “preassembled bathroom system for luxury homes and hotels” (units for the Dynamic Tower will also be prefabricated); the architect who told one journalist, when the comparison was drawn, that he had never heard of Buckminster Fuller. Nonetheless, Fisher has been pitching the concept across the globe, and a second Dynamic Tower is planned for another city bursting with petrodollar decadence, Moscow.
Curiously, the Dynamic Tower was the second rotating skyscraper planned for Dubai. The first, announced a few years ago by the UK architectural firm of Glenn Howells, is a solar-powered, 30-story structure bearing a series of markings that match with notations on the ground, so the building becomes a “fully functioning timepiece.” Unlike Fisher’s building, the Howells project rotates en masse. At press time, groundbreaking on the Howells project, called 55˚ Time Dubai, was scheduled for August. Both structures, as did the revolving restaurants of yore—and as the proponents of (mostly unbuilt) “kinetic architecture” aspire to—upset two forces that in architecture have typically been stable: space and time. The singular view is replaced by a panoramic sweep, while time is no longer ordered as much by the position of the sun as by the position of the building, with residents oriented, like a clock hand, toward the panoramic “clock” of the city.
As the geographer Kevin Lynch once asked: “What time is this place?” Dubai, at the moment, is a city where time and place are very much in flux, and perhaps the Dynamic Tower is the culmination of what one psychologist once pegged as the appeal of the revolving restaurant: “You can achieve stability and still be going someplace.”
Dynamic Tower, ‘the first building in motion’
See also: Dynamic Architecture