L.A. Designer: Scott Johnson Explains Why New Skyscrapers Look The Way They Do

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Tokyo skyline with Cocoon Tower in View-Nemanja Dimitric
Tokyo skyline with Cocoon Tower in View; photo by Nemanja Dimitric (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This week we learned that tall buildings in Los Angeles  no longer need to have “flat tops,” the rooftop helipads, mandated for fire safety reasons since 1974, that resulted in few helicopter rescues and a downtown of mostly uninspired, stumpy towers. Ending that rule means the shackles are off for developers and designers wanting L.A. to join other world cities in the race to build the shapeliest skyscrapers.

As fashion maven Simon Doonan has observed about today’s fast-changing cityscapes:

“The wiggly and squiggly, jagged and jutting, the iconic architectural ‘marvels’ of today make all the original midcentury stuff look like a bunch of country cottages. From Dubai to Denver, the urban skylines of the world are now dotted with thrusting science-fiction fantasies, many of which resemble scaled-up versions of the various window dressing awards—lopsided obelisks and chrome projectiles—that I have received over the intervening years. Examples include the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, that lemon wedgie thingy in Barcelona, Frank Gehry’s melting Spruce Street tower in New York, and Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev fantasia in Azerbaijan.”

Turns out these towers are “wiggly and squiggly” thanks to advances in computer design technology that also enables towers to be veritable exercises in data-driven “performance” — from the energy-efficiency of the window wall to carefully calibrated environmental systems, social spaces and infrastructure.

This is all explained in a new book by architect Scott Johnson (founding principal of Los Angeles firm Johnson Fain), entitled Performative Skyscraper: Tall Building Now.

Johnson, who cut his teeth working on towers in the office of the late Philip Johnson (no relation), patriarch of American Modernist and then Postmodern architecture, is a designer of towers himself, but his book surveys — with apparent lack of competitive ego — designs by many of his fellow professionals, including Norman Foster, OMA, Ken Yeang, SOM, Adrian Smith, Sauerbruch Hutton, Morphosis and many more.

The book has an illuminating (if hard to read due to its tiny, close-packed typeface) introduction by architecture critic Joseph Giovannini. He writes “most high rises are built like factories out of repetitive, standardized parts in assembly-line fashion,” and asserts the book is a “retroactive manifesto describing a computer-driven, performance-based approach to the design of tall buildings,” alerting “architects to new tools with which to operate, to invent a gentler kinder, more inspired skyscraper environment.”

Johnson then goes on to analyze key tower projects in terms of their “performative ecologies, skins, parametrics, neighborhoods and cities.”

In an interview with DnA, Scott, above left, talked about what “performative” means, “gentler, kinder” skyscrapers, as well as one of his current projects, the retrofit of a Southland building by his onetime mentor Philip Johnson: the Crystal Cathedral.

Listen to the interview and read the full Q&A with Scott Johnson below.