A few years ago, I was enjoying a casual afternoon browsing the shelves of my local bookstore. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, which is how I have found some find my favorite books, and that’s how I came across Kate Ascher’s The Works: Anatomy of a City. The book takes a nearly exhaustive look at the infrastructure of large cities, specifically New York City, including everything from the various types of potholes you’ll find on streets to how the Big Apple deals with its sewage. The book is beautifully decorated with hundreds of detailed illustrations and packed full of incredibly interesting and insightful details. I spent hours reading and studying The Works, which led to other reading, as really good books tend to do.
So, when I found out Ascher was releasing a new book, I was pretty excited. While her attention to detail and sense of exploration are still on point, her focus has become much more targeted. The new book, The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper, examines everything that goes into the design, construction, and use of very tall buildings. In some senses, the two books are quite similar, since skyscrapers are really cities in themselves.
In the new book, the author begins with a history of man’s desire to ascend into the heavens with concrete, masonry, steel, and glass. The eight page narrative and timeline begins with New York’s Tribune building and ends (in this edition, at least) with the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
The skyscraper’s design is examined next and all of the engineering hurdles that must be examined and overcome, from gravity and foundations to wind and aerodynamics. About half of the book details the design and construction before moving on to usage.
If you’ve ever wondered about how algorithms are calculated to make sure elevators are most efficient, or how sewage leaves buildings from the 140th floor – an answer that is a lot different in New York than New Delhi (see p. 117), Ascher’s book provides the answers. And if you think maintaining your wireless signal in your 3 bedroom ranch is tough, imagine trying to maintain even wireless in a high-rise.
Ascher also examines skyscraper disasters, from the MGM Grand’s Las Vegas fire to the the collapse of the twin towers and how buildings can be better protected from terrorism. Wrapping up, The Heights examines building maintenance, sustainability and the future of skyscrapers.
In a way, The Heights is similar in some ways to David Macaulay’s timeless classic, The Way Things Work, but for grownups. In all likelihood, you’ll find yourself flipping pages with the same sense of awe and wonder as you did when you were a kid with Macaulay’s book.