Book: The Heights by Kate Ascher

Very enjoyable book about skyscraper engineering

December 24, 2011

Kate Ascher

The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper

The Penguin Press, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-59420-303-9

187 pages (9” x 11 1/2”)


The Heights by Kate Ascher is a very enjoyable book about the engineering that goes into a skyscraper. It doesn’t have an ordinary narrative. Instead it’s a sort-of coffee-table book. The book has an introduction and four sections that follow: “Building it”, “Living in it”, “Supporting it”, and “Dreaming it”. Each section has chapters which begin with an introduction. But most of each chapter, instead of being a long steam of text, has individual explanations given by not more than few paragraphs of text and an accompanying illustration or info-graphic.

Because so many of the things that Ms Ascher discusses in the book are inherently visual (facades, floor-plans, and sight-lines, for example) or are unfamiliar to many people (air compressors for construction sites, for example) the graphics are a splendidly useful way for Ms Ascher to communicate with her readers. And there’s no reason that a person can’t read the book straight from beginning to end. I did. And I learned any number of fascinating things when I did. I’d never have guessed, for example, that wind loads are a bigger driver of skyscraper design than gravity loads. And I had often wondered how tall construction cranes are assembled. Wouldn’t that require a crane? And then.... Anyone who would like to see engineering explained elegantly will enjoy this book.

The only complaint one could have about the book is that Ms Ascher occasionally misjudges how far to take an explanation. Someone without her background in architecture might not know that “programming” refers to allocating different amounts of space for the different functions inside a building, for example. And at one point she says, “Several methods of air-conditioning are common, including a process known as ‘vapor absorption chilling’  that — somewhat counterintuitively — uses a heat source, such as steam or hot water, to cool air” (p. 113) and then she doesn’t tell us how that works. (Happily, Wikipedia can help out in this case.)

The Heights wasn’t a long read, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable one.