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Libyan Writer Ghoma

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Sunday, 4 February, 2007

Glass High-rises in the Desert?

By: Ghoma

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea." Antoine de Saint Exupiry

        Ever since the tragedy of 9/11 and the melting of the Twin Towers of WTC, in a matter of minutes, like cheese, a debate has been going on, on how could this have happened and how to prevent it from happening again; in other words, how to stiffen the buildings and improve the materials from which they're made. Those horrifying and harrowing images, of people running from the raging inferno, throwing themselves from half-way up the sky, brought home to all to realize the structural vulnerabilities inherent in those sparkling crystals of technological tour de force. Since then questions abound not only on how to improve materials, methods and techniques but also to ask some basic and fundamental questions: Do we need to build that high, is there any other way to build better than the one we have been building with, and why humans tend to do things just because they can? Et cetera! And one more moral question: Is it ethically acceptable to build higher than technologically is possible to reach people when they're in need for assistance and rescue, as in the case of fire, for instance?

        A few reasons have prompted such thoughts to well up to the surface, among them, and the most immediate, are:

1- A tower under construction, in Dubai City, has caught fire, in an area of development where dozens of other skyscrapers are being built.

2- In most of Arab-stans, development , in essence is still synonymous with building, and the higher the more "advanced"!

3- There's a spurt of construction going on in as oil prices rose especially in the oil-producing states, including Libya!

4- Most of these states, while they may have the gumption to build higher and higher, there's a tremendous lack a truly homegrown, indigenous know-how, skills, as well as, a body of laws, codes, and regulations that would guide such developments.

        Reading about the repetition of almost the same scenes watched in the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York, happening again in a burning 37-story apartment building in Dubai City makes one wonder, if anyone was paying attention to what have had happened, and whether Government officials, investors, and others have learned anything at all, from other people's tragedies? Why an underdeveloped country, mostly in the desert, with few inhabitants and plenty of room to spare, embarks on such risky and potential lethal death traps, by building such high-rises, and to boot, in probably in steel and glass? This brings us to one of the fundamental contradictions, if not a conundrum, of development in all times. In order for development to occur a relative degrees of freedom and initiative are to be left to individuals and their associations. That been said, developers and financiers have different criteria to go by than what perhaps architects or engineers would like or advise them to consider. The bankers's and financiers's agendas, calculations, and aims may, indeed, contradict with the advice and recommendations of these and other experts. For modern corporations to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the image is the message! The building is the best ad the company has. If an expert would suggest to a board of directors or a CEO, for example, it's better, in the long-run, to stay away, for a host of good reasons, from subscribing to a culture of a gaud-ism, if not bawd-ism, of showmanship of building adventures, he/she wouldn't have a chance to be invited again! Experts may grumble and bitch about a lot of things, those who pull the strings are not listening, they're in the business of making business, even if such enterprises may cause human sufferings and loss of lives as long as the costs don't surpass the expected benefits. Here again the laws of dialects may work in the long-run, but in the short-one, humanity, in general, is caught in that Sisyphian paradox! Would anyone learn a thing or two even from a city like Las Vegas, showy and vulgar, but has kept its buildings at manageable heights, not higher by much than the low- to medium-rise levels?

        From the beginning of civilizations, humans had kept a precarious balance between nature's material availabilities and capabilities with their own abilities and capabilities, on tight rope. The maximum height was imposed by both the masonry limitations, scaffolding availability, and human fiat and breath to reach the top floors. For a good part of human history seven floors were the reachable norm. Until relatively recently in the game of progress, with the Industrial Revolution came a host of new materials and new ways of handling, using, and exploiting their potential capabilities. The Chicago's Fire in late 19th century, the San Francisco's Earthquake of the early 20th century, and industrialization had accelerated the search and demand for new building types, materials, and techniques of construction. Thus, materials such as, steel, concrete, glass, and inventions such as elevators, air-conditioning, coupled with new ways to articulate structure, inside partitions and outside envelops have given designers and technologists the ability to stack floors on top of each other up to the higher ranges of the heavens. Take, for example, New York City, where else! height went from the 284-foot Trinity church, built in 1846, through the 500-foot shafts of the early 1900's office buildings, to the 1300's-foot (with the spire 1713 ft) towers of the WTC in the 1960's, and to the presently under construction, Freedom Tower's 1776-foot high. However, these new capabilities, were not, in retrospect, matched by likewise concern for the safety of the occupants of these buildings as well, and the no-less-important ability to reach, from the outside, the upper floors fast enough to safe lives when fires and accidents do occur. The search went on for techniques and methods of fire-retardation, and a slew of these, indeed, have been invented and instituted; methods of enfolding steel in concrete, coating surfaces with non-combustible materials, installing sprinklers, sensors, and fire-alarms, etc. to have become part and parcel of construction. However, these methods and techniques were all ways and means intended more to slow a bit accidents when they do occur than to prevent completely catastrophes from happening with vengeance, in part, due to the fact these means consisted of techniques and technological means, which in their turn are prone to failures, and have their own shortcomings and limitations.

        The brave new world of new materials and techniques have also made buildings actual machines as Le Cobusier, at the beginning of the last century had defined the house, " a machine to live in". If you raise the hood, so to speak, you'll discover the insides of buildings are no different from machines or even living entities. Their cores are made up of bones (structure), guts (digestive tract and exhaust), mechanical rooms (heart and lungs), and interstitial floors (arterial and nerve systems); these are virtual jungles of intertwined, wires, pipes, ducts, sensors, etc. just as in a living body, and which make the building beat, breath, and radiate enough energy to keep its users comfortable enough to perform their tasks. These systems function as real circulatory, breathing, and digestive apparatuses, responsible in keeping the building alive breathing, beating, and exhausting. However, just as in any system, building systems are also, alas, subject to failure! And, modern systems and materials, like everything in nature, more so for those created by humans, are prone to fatigue, exhaustion, and failure. Furthermore, an ever faster pace of obsolescence -shortened life span- has become de rigeur part of their design processes. As a result they're inherently subject to all kinds of vulnerabilities, lower melting temperatures, lower irreversible deformations, and high interdependent reliabilities, etc.

        The industrialized countries have had enough time on their hands in pursuing development. The rate of change and progress went hand-in-hand with their abilities to handle some of the consequences of their actions. Through trial-and-error sometimes, the school of hard knocks other-times, or just hard work of pure scientific experimentations, they were able to update their norms and regulations in parallel with their zoning codes, not only to match the attractiveness and seductive lure of the new materials and ways of building, but also to come close enough to give at least the impression of being trusty worthy. For humans, reaching higher and higher, was an eternal yearning. But this reaching, higher and higher, was caught from the beginning in one of those puzzling riddles: higher floors while can be easily reached from the inside but not necessarily so from the outside as well! Caught in this dilemma, the advanced countries are still ways from solving the problem of how to reach those stranded on the upper floors in time to safe them from catastrophic fates. Fire engines and their ladders, chemical and otherwise solutions, higher pressure hoses, etc. are not designed to reach, from the outside, beyond perhaps the first 15-to-20 floors! What is to be done for those on higher floors: evacuation. All efforts are now centered on how fast the rescue workers can reach the stranded victims in time, before fire and/or smoke spread into the stairwells, which are supposed to be fire-resistant for perhaps more than an hour or two.

        When it comes to countries that are still at the crawling stage, it's tempting to want just to jump up and start running, as the olders do, but ain't that easy, Murphy says. Before one can run, one must be able to stand on his/her own feet and then learn how to walk. One step at the time! Adopting and learning methods and techniques, systems, materials of construction is one thing,; borrowing building codes and regulations that were fit for different societies and environments, is another. For the borrowed stuff wouldn't necessarily fit with the stage of development or the ability to interact and understand these miracles of modern science and technology. If one knows only how to drive a car, it wouldn't be appropriate nor advisable to buy an airplane before learning how to fly first. These countries, like the Gulf states and others, in addition to defying commonsense and nature's laws, are also deepening further their technological and economic dependencies even more and more, and exposing themselves to unnecessary risks by putting the lives of their citizen in, an not easily avoidable, risks. Why a country in the Middle East wants to build glass highrises and skyscrapers, when in fact have plenty of scrub lands to build them megalopolises until the end of time? Is it because monkey see, monkey do or to catch up with the Joneses of innovation freaks of North America, and overly crowded hutchings of southeast Asia?

        Desert conditions demand buildings which are the direct opposite of present wave of tower buildings. It's also a fact that high-rise towers are built from light, delicate, and transparent materials. The higher the building, the lighter and more aerodynamic must be. The exact opposite of what fits desert environment! Unless the aim is to "air-condition the desert" the arid-dry weather requires compact "heavy and static buildings," with the least exposed surfaces, thick walls, few openings, etc. with plenty of air circulation and shading devices. Thus, in a desert environment, building with light materials, or in glass, is one of the most absurd contradictions of the contemporary wold. Glass houses are good heat trappers. The glass house effects, similar to the effects obtained upon leaving a car locked under direct sun, say in Nevada or the Empty Quarter, it becomes a real burning hell! All that trapped heat, from the sun, in addition to the heat generated by humans, systems, and machines inside the building would have to be disposed off by mechanical means, which require burning thousands of gallons of fossil fuels. And here's the rub! To counter the effects of global warming, less burning of fossil fuels matched by more efficient ways of energy consumption, are required; to minimize the production of carbon oxides and other noxious pollutant substances that are wrecking havoc with the earth's atmosphere.

        Buildings, if they're not already, then should treated and dealt with, differently than what traditionally have been -a static piles of heavy and solid materials- but rather as no less than highly sophisticated products on par with machines and high-tech gadgets. Thus it behooves, a country to choose a level of sophistication that would be compatible with its level of development, and which it's comfortable with and can handle relatively with ease. Having excess cash is not enough nor wise reason to hire designers, contracts, builders, workers, regulations and what have you, to erect a monstrous tall shiny boxes, then when these helping hands leave, after the keys were delivered to the locals, who, have no clues to how the whole shindig works, what will happen? Choices as these made in the absence of skilled populace, mature codes, regulations, and an experienced corps of enforcers, would only compound the problems of running and maintaining such buildings and aggravates Ventures like these, in the absence of mature codes, regulations, and an experienced corps of enforces, would only complicates the problems of running and maintaining such buildings, and no less those of underdevelopment. Skyscrapers, in Arab states, not only environmentally wrong, economically questionable, but also technically almost impossible for these countries without putting themselves deeper at the mercy of their historical tormentors, the present and former colonial powers, as well tighten the noose held by direct suppliers of these services.

        From the snippets in the news, Libya, these days is embarking on another spurt of construction, not seen since the late '70's of the last century. Billions upon billions are to be spent on building, cities, housing complexes, and other services and amenities to 'reinvigorate' the economy, meet its long suppressed demands for everything -the folks keep hatching like rabbits! Up to now with few exceptions, in all the past building booms, plenty of plain and ugly concrete boxes had been built, but height was never an issue. Libya, like many others like her, fits into what author Lewis Carroll had meant when he wrote, "If you don't know where you're going any road will do." Not knowing the road ahead, itself a cause as well a consequence of, lack of wise and foresighted planning in general and city planning in particular, coupled with the wave of chaotic and haphazard building booms have left behind actual monstrous and humongous settlements, towns, and cities which lag in every category of livability's indices. Truth be said, in the virtual jungles of cinder block, concrete, and what have you, building heights were kept well under 12-15-storey high. Now, as rumors swirling around have it, the leash on building is loosening a bit again, and it wouldn't be long before some Joe-Schomo from Italy or the other side of the moon would sweet-talk the Bubba himself or one of his many clones, offsprings, to go and reach for the sky. Overnight, glass skyscrapers will be competing with the shanty towns and slums, as indeed is seen in many Third-world cities, also in Tripoli, Benghazi, etc.

        Development, in essence, is sui generis affair pertinent in every age to a specific society. There's no good general formula for all. There're only few features that appear to be a constant accompaniment to all those societies which had gone before through the crucible of the taking-off stage: perceptive foresightedness, imagination, hard work ethic, good education system, tightening of the belts and high degree of savings, a dare-do mentality in lockstep with measured progress, etc. For development starts the minute a society forms a wish, if not determination, to end the cycles of dependency and humiliations. To work hard to overcome all the obstacles and hurdles in its way. A society has to believe in itself, first, to go through the critical assessment of its culture and to sift through what's good to preserve and what's mere detritus to be jettisoned aside or into the trash can. And, as an old adage has it: first we build our houses, and then our houses build us. The physical environment with all its attributes, landscape, cities, buildings, etc. make up the actual stage, the container so to speak, upon which human actions are to be performed; and, is no less major determinant of the content through which and by which the actors would be shaped. As such where and what to build is as important as why and how to build.

        The question which then must be asked by the planners and decision-makers, beyond the narrow selfish interests of the players or the vanities of politicians to monkey some other places's vanities or good will, or just to carve one's name on the top cornice above the attic: Are Libyan skills, abilities, and needs up to the task of running these buildings but most importantly are they ready to participate in ideating, planning, design, and in the construction and management ? Or just staying as was in the past, mere onlookers waiting on the side for the goods to be delivered? If the answer as could be predicted, is, No, then a less onerous building typology and systems of construction, as, well as a more pertinent, to both environment and buildings, from materials, methods, to ways of doing and beyond, would be the wisest choice for this cycle of national existence.

        Development, is a too serious business to be left to the so-called experts. Since it doesn't deal only with relatively light weights, of what and how, but most importantly with that deep and visceral if not latent desire, which must be externalized and made tangible. A yearning that crosses the generations and goes beyond the contingent to express innate essence of the society's 'soul' and purpose of being. This 'instinctive,' in its essence, is made up of all those foggy, misty, and at times fuzzy dreams -that originate from deep down at the subliminal edge between the conscience and the unconscious levels- of dreamers, artists, scientists, engineers, philosophers, poets and novelists, etc,. Through images, such as those of the Futurists, Dadaists, Constructivists, etc.; or with verse as those of Baudelaire, Walt Whitman, .S. Eliot, etc.; or words from Kant through Nietzsche, and Heidegger, all helped externalize what was only faintly felt by the multitudes who lived through the good and the bad of what cultures had to offer.

        There's a role for everyone. Choices and decisions have to be made by thoughtful thinkers and society at large through its decision-makers, the politicians. If the fundamental choices have been elaborated such as, what kind of cities we want and more fit to our past heritage, present circumstances and future aspirations; what remains then only to muster consensus and resources to bring them to fruition. Pragmatic considerations become contingent on a host of circumstances among them, what fits the environment and can be easy on the pocket- book. Livability, sustainability, and affordability. Bear in mind, affordability must include, among other things, the skills required and the costs incurred to build, run, and maintain such behemoth constructions.

        Asking others, them experts, to yearn for you has not been attempted yet. Assuming that's feasible whatever they propose would have no guarantee to hold water. Even, questions as of the nature of what goes under: strategic plans, feasability studies, or simply options available are way off the target of what is meant by development. But even in these situations, a good local cadre of experts to vet the recommendations and sift the grain from the rot and weigh the options against each other and against the long term plans and goals, is needed. Asking, the experts, a vague or a open-ended question, will only lead to the predictable answer: Yea, absolutely, it can be done, if cost and/or adequacy aren't a problem! Just to be specific and give an example, once the Portuguese had asked Gustav Eiffel, of Tower fame, (actually they asked him more than once since he also had designed the Maputo's central rail station) to design their governor's residence in Mozambique. Gustav, being who he was, an engineer and his forte was iron, built them Casa de Ferro (House of Iron). Upon completion and occupancy, the governor seemed to be not very impressed with the palace, which, not long after, he abandoned. The reason was -as simple now as perhaps was not then when buzz words, like environment, air condition, etc. had yet to be invented- the metal's incompatibilities with the Mozambican sun. The little factoid anecdote is further testimony that asking great engineers, architects, and builders is not enough to avoid making mighty bloopers especially when these experts were not asked the right questions and supervised by likewise powerful minds. Bear in mind, the world over, is full of wrong constructions, in the wrong time, and for the wrong purposes!


More Articles Written By Ghoma

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