Lust for Height
From the January/February 2007 Issue
The Burj Dubai, slated to be the tallest building in the world when it’s done in 2009, is rising 160 stories or more (the final height is a secret) in the desert. It’s no anomaly. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 seem to have whetted the global appetite to build taller and taller. Most of the new mega-skyscrapers are in Asia and the Middle East, but the engineers and architects are American. Why the boom? A combination of economic imperatives and powerful egos, both national and personal. Coming soon: the fulfillment of Frank Lloyd Wright’s dream of a mile-high building.
In October, at the premier international conference of skyscraper builders, the first speaker announced without a hint of irony or doubt that by 2030, somewhere, a mile-high skyscraper would be built. Five thousand two hundred and eighty feet. One-tenth of the way to the ozone layer. More than three times as tall as anything now standing and exactly as high as the most fantastic towers ever dared conceived.
When the speaker made this prediction, there was no murmur of dissent from his colleagues, not a single snicker. Nor was David Scott, an accomplished engineer and the chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, hustled off the stage and gently dosed back to a normative view of what can be achieved by mortals. The 750 planners, designers, and technicians in the room met his statement with a shrug—not, it seemed, because Mr. Scott had lost the thread, not because they were jaded by the repetition of an ancient dream (mile-high towers were proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1950s and by Norman Foster in the 1980s) but because what he said was so obvious, so attainable. For many years it has been a commonplace in the profession that no impediments to such heights exist: the technologies are waiting for the money and the willing client.
Indeed, sitting there in rows, a half-story below ground in an auditorium on the Chicago campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, were the very people who could build a tower one mile high: the foundation engineers who already knew how to pin such a thing to the earth, the structural engineers who could keep it standing in a 100-year wind, the architects who would give it form, the contractors who would know how to phase the behemoth’s construction—even the guys who would have to figure out how to wash the windows. And there are going to be a lot of windows.
Welcome to Babel. The language is English, the units are metric, the know-how is mostly American, and the site is anywhere in the world where money, land, and opportunity converge, catalyzed by optimism—personal, corporate, or national. Five years after September 11, well into what was expected to be the post-skyscraper era, a boom of increasingly improbable proportions is underway and it shows no signs of abating. Like a bar graph measuring increased faith in the future, the towers keep getting taller—after lingering for decades around 1,400 feet, the height now needed to achieve a jaw-dropping wow-factor is approaching 2,000 feet—and all the biggest are clustered far from the building type’s familiar centers in North America.
“Everyone I know flies from Dubai to Tokyo to Shanghai to Hong Kong to Taipei,” says Carol Willis, an architectural historian and founder of New York’s Skyscraper Museum. “They’re almost never home.”
The current “world’s tallest” titleholder, the 101-story tower completed in Taipei in 2004, stands at a sinister 1,666 feet. When it is completed in 2008, the Lotte World II Tower in Busan, South Korea, will edge seven feet higher. The Burj Dubai, an epochal construction, stands now at about 1,000 feet with only 90 of its planned 160-plus stories completed; when it is finished in 2009, it may top out at over 2,600 feet—however, just as in the great Manhattan skyscraper race of the late 1920s (which the Chrysler Building won with its extended spire before being dwarfed in 1931 by the Empire State Building), the true planned height is a closely guarded secret. The Burj Dubai’s lead architect, Adrian Smith (until recently with the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill but now doing business as Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture), says that as soon as the final number is announced, a competing developer in Dubai will release plans for an even higher tower. A building down the Emirates coast in Doha, to be completed next year, will likely make little news: at 1,460 feet, it is a baby—only ten feet taller than the Sears Tower, which, with 108 floors, has been the tallest building in the United States for the last 33 years and is now (but for not much longer) the third-tallest in the world.
What’s behind the new boom? The quick answer, of course, is money. Except for very rare exceptions like the polemically motivated, 1,083-foot-tall Ryugyong Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea (if its stalled construction resumes, it will be the world’s tallest hotel), skyscrapers are built for two reasons: to make money, responding to existing demand, or to advertise and flaunt the money one already has. The current boom is driven by both, but the latter impetus—the realm of ego, personal or national—seems to be winning the day.
Of the ten tallest towers now standing, six are in China. In Shanghai—to pick but one impossibly dynamic city—nearly 100 buildings over 500 feet tall (typically, around 40 stories) were put up in the last decade. New York, the city with the most such buildings, has erected fewer than 200 in its entire history. The Shanghai skyscrapers were built in a direct response to the demand for space, associated with the ferocious reawakening of the Chinese economy—that is, to make money, responding to demand.
The old formula for what drives skyscraper construction—high density plus high land values equals high buildings—is quite undone by the new class of super-tall buildings, rising as they so often do from the wide-open spaces of unformed young cities.
By contrast, the twin Petronas Towers—which by climbing 33 feet higher than Sears took the tall-building title out of the United States in 1998—were built primarily to make visible the roar of Malaysia’s Asian Tiger (that is, to satisfy ego). The towers didn’t make a dime, and they still stand largely vacant, but now we all know that the folks in Kuala Lumpur can think big. The increasingly quixotic constructions in Kuwait or Riyadh or Dubai—such as the Babel-like Burj itself, which will house an Armani-branded hotel, boutique offices, and luxury residences—can be seen as the product of a pool of investment capital searching for a purpose and finding it, as skyscraper builders always have, in self-aggrandizement.
That popular function of tall buildings—to confer glory—easily survived the recent demonstration of their fragility. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Adrian Smith was at a meeting in Chicago with representatives of the Trump Organization. On the wall were three schemes he had designed for a tower Donald Trump was planning to build there. Each of the proposed designs, at 2,000 feet, would have been the tallest in the city, the country, and the world. The meeting stopped when someone turned on a TV just as the second plane hit. “Everyone went home, and then they called back and said, ‘Let’s make it 900 feet,’” Smith said. “They didn’t want to be the tallest anymore.” But Trump, perhaps the only American developer equipped with a grand enough self-regard to play today’s international tallest-tower game, soon recovered most of his nerve; his Chicago building, well under construction along the river near Michigan Avenue, will be over 1,300 feet tall, 92 stories, when it is completed next year.
Despite the eruption of concern over safety, fanned by the media, even at Ground Zero itself there was only a very brief post-9/11 pause in enthusiasm for skyscrapers. Among some groups, the attack even made tall towers more popular. Within days, people around the world were calling for the reconstruction of the Twin Towers or the construction of something even higher, and hundreds of amateur folk architects were drawing and circulating defiant designs. Within hours of the attack, some of the world’s leading pedigreed architects were sketching their own very high solutions for the site. As early as the spring of 2002, erecting the world’s tallest tower at Ground Zero had become part of the official program, and when Daniel Libeskind’s first version of Freedom Tower, with its symbolic height of 1,776 feet, was unveiled in late February 2003, it was expected to be the tallest in the world. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm that would soon also control the design of Freedom Tower, began work on the Burj Dubai in March.
“Well, 9/11 came and everyone said, ‘No more high-rise buildings,’” a New York architect involved in skyscraper construction recalled. “It took about a year, then it just exploded. I can’t find a place except maybe South America that’s not booming. don’t know what it is….” He trailed off, then added: “I do know what it is, it’s ego.”
“It’s so Freudian it’s ridiculous,” another New York skyscraper architect said.
Architectural historians—among them Carol Willis, in her book Form Follows Finance—have long made the case that skyscrapers are primarily shaped by monetary tides: the flow of capital, the cost of land and materials and labor, and projected demand. For a developer or entrepreneur to build something as exquisitely risky as a very tall tower, all of these factors have to meet at the proper values—and stay there long enough for the client to rally designers and secure funding for the campaign. The classic catalyst in this model is density, the argument being that in circumscribed commercial centers (like those in New York and Chicago, hemmed in by water), limited space to build forced land values, and therefore building heights, through the roof. The skyscraper was born.
But what held true at the birth is less relevant in rangy adolescence. The old formula for what drives skyscraper construction—high density plus high land values equals high buildings—is quite undone by the new class of super-tall buildings, rising as they so often do from the wide- open spaces of unformed young cities. Is there any limit on the ground in Sharq, Kuwait, to force the builders of the Al Hamra & Firdous Tower to go up 60 feet higher than the Empire State Building—making it, if it were completed today, the seventh-tallest building in the world? American architects who have suggested high-density, low-rise schemes to satisfy the same programmatic demands find that they usually lose their audience, if not the job. “The clients are driving the height,” one said.
The most primal motivation for skyscraper construction is to stake a claim, to mark the land, to show how your power can change the world, both physically and psychologically. Nothing says 'I am master of the universe' more clearly than the erection of a tall building. And if it can be taller than all the rest, so much the better.
“In the Middle East, they’re wealthy and if they can do it”—build extremely tall—“they do,” said Bill Pedersen of New York’s Kohn Pedersen Fox, architect of the Shanghai World Financial Center, or SWFC, which will be the second-tallest building in the world when it is completed next year. “In Asia, it’s totally different: the density just has to be dealt with.” But extra-economic rivalries of the sort that might lead one tower to overtop another certainly exist. Although it was intended to be the world’s tallest, the SWFC stalled for some years in development and will now be shorter—by 52 feet—than Taipei 101, which was fast-tracked (so much so that wind tunnel testing was only done after the foundation was poured, and major modifications to the plan, including the characteristic chamfering of the building’s corners, had to be made during construction). A design competition is now underway for a second parcel at the SWFC, known as Z3; earlier renderings showed a more modest building on the site, but the competition brief calls for towers up to 2,200 feet tall, bringing Asia’s tallest back across the Strait.
But even here, the motivations for one-upmanship are not purely nationalistic—or at least, in the new global stew, not quite as they appear. This is about business, and what ideology enters the recipe is personal. The developer of the SWFC is Minoru Mori, the Japanese real estate tycoon who collects paintings by Le Corbusier and fashions himself a social visionary, promoting mixed-use skyscraper cities that will spare Japanese businessmen their long commutes. “He has the money to build whatever he wants,” Carol Willis said, “but Mori builds towers because he thinks they’ll improve the quality of life.”
With Z3, Mori may be trying to return the tallest-tower title to his property in Shanghai (otherwise it will go, in 2008, to the Lotte tower in Korea), but he may also want to return the shine to his name in China. Bill Pedersen’s original design for the SWFC called for a tower that tapered on all sides, from a square footprint on the ground to a single line at its roof, with an enormous circle cut all the way through the narrow upper stories—ostensibly to relieve wind loads, but more probably to create a symbolic gesture of the sort architects use to distinguish one very tall tower from the next. Nationalists in China, comparing the circular void to the Japanese flag, protested the incursion, and, after many redesigns taking many years, the tower will now be built with an enormous square cutout instead: politically neutral. (Mori, by the way, wants to change the SWFC’s name to “Shanghai Hills,” an echo of several of his other projects, including Tokyo’s Omotesando Hills and Roppongi Hills. He had to get approval from Shanghai’s government, which, as of late November, was not forthcoming.)
It is in such cases—and in the reaction against them—that we see the most primal motivation for skyscraper construction: to stake a claim, to mark the land, to show how your power (read: money) can change the world, both physically and psychologically. Nothing says “I am master of the universe”—the natural, societal, and financial universes—more clearly than the erection of a tall building. And if it can be taller than all the rest, so much the better.
“If you look at the history of the world’s tallest building, it is no secret that economic need has not been at the forefront,” said Antony Wood, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings. “The quest to build the world’s tallest building comes with a certain ego attached.”
It has not always been so. “Previously, it has been about corporate ambition,” Wood continued, referring to the great era of American skyscraper building in the last century. “But now, for the past 10 or 15 years, it has transformed to be about national, or even personal ambition: cities see tall buildings as a way to signpost their success.”
Few localities have ever pursued such signposting with the fervor of Dubai. Unable to rely on the traditional revenue stream of its Persian Gulf neighbors—oil accounts for only 6 percent of GDP—the city has instead embarked on a successful campaign to retool as an international free trade zone and business hub, leveraging its enviable position halfway between Europe and the thriving economies of the East. Architecture—extravagant, wonder-of-the-world architecture—has been the preferred means to promote that goal. Each month sees a new fantastic tower or waterfront development completed or announced, and their improbable forms—the sail-like eminence of the Burj Al-Arab hotel, for instance, or the archipelago of 300 man-made islands that will soon form a new development zone in the image of a map of the earth—ensure column inches and TV time all over the world. In Dubai at least, attention-getting and bragging rights have replaced density and demand as the principal pressures on development.
Moscow's Federation Tower will have 93 stories and a spire reaching 1,470 feet when it is completed this year. In December, Gazprom released images from a select group of star architects for a towering new headquarters in St. Petersburg that could hit 1,300 feet.
Nothing but such pride-driven international competition could nurture a glorious aberration like the Burj Dubai (“burj” means tower in Arabic). Local land-use economics certainly can’t explain it. In Dubai, typically, the government (in the person of the prince) will donate property for developments it sees as beneficial. The site of the Burj Dubai is a huge decommissioned military base at the edge of town, directly abutting the flat emptiness of the interior. And still Emaar Properties, the powerful local developer in charge of the project, is going to pack three million leaseable square feet onto its relatively compact footprint—the same area as a moderately sized shopping mall parking lot—with loads of open land to the horizon.
“It was always the height,” Adrian Smith says of his Dubai clients. “That was the one thing they were trying to do.”
Although the building is already paying off in favorable publicity and regard for Dubai, as it was designed to do—no fewer than 200 articles mentioned it last year—Smith is quick to point out that the tower will also be an earnings winner for Emaar: “These buildings are typically built for other reasons than to make money,” he said. “The Burj Dubai is actually going to make money.” The tower sits at the center of a 30-million-square-foot development—an area that includes residential towers, recreational facilities, and what is being billed as the world’s largest shopping mall, the whole expected to cost about $800 million. Although the tower is spoken for—it filled in three days when space went on sale several years ago—the real payoff may come through using the Burj as a sort of elephantine loss-leader; according to Bill Baker, the lead engineer on the project for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, units in the surrounding Emaar-built residences that will face the tower are selling out too: “You always want a room with a view.”
Baker links the extravagant height of his Dubai tower to the fact that it’s not filled with offices. “A lot of these very tall buildings are residential, where you’re getting into the world of discretionary income,” he said. “Your company car might be a Ford, but your personal car is a Porsche. It comes down to what the market will bear. This is a moneymaking proposition for our client.” But he too acknowledges the fundamental “signposting” function of the Burj Dubai. “It’s the marker, like sticking the flag,” Baker said. “just another thing that makes Dubai better known. Before the Petronas Towers, no one knew where Kuala Lumpur was.”
Elsewhere, necessarily on a smaller scale, cities not previously known to express their might in height are getting into the game. Moscow’s Federation Tower will have 93 stories and a spire reaching 1,470 feet when it is completed this year. In December, Gazprom released images of a towering new headquarters in St. Petersburg that will rise almost 1,300 feet. London, codes were recently changed to allow skyscrapers to proliferate, against the European norm, in the central city, and the internationally acclaimed architect Renzo Piano has designed a tower, known as “The Shard,” that will be the tallest in town at 1,000 feet when it is completed in 2011. seems, in fact, that 1,000 feet is emerging as the benchmark height for towers in height-averse cities still seeking to grab headlines with their skylines in an age of giants. The mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, has been pushing for the construction of a new civic high point there for some time—not purely in response to demand but to signal the reinvigoration of the city far and wide; a design for a 1,000-foot tower by Piano was revealed in November.
It’s clear that the spirit of competitive civic aggrandizement is infectious, but it takes on a different form in mature commercial capitals. American cities, eye-catching architecture is, of course, employed to imbue a place with distinction—and to suggest its relative merit to rivals. But that function in the U.S. has largely fallen to cultural buildings, following the model of Francois Mitterand’s grands projets for Paris (I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre, Carlos Ott’s Opera Bastille, and so on), though without the national-government patronage: Frank Gehry’s shiny new Disney Hall in Los Angeles and Chicago’s Millennium Park (which also features an iconic Gehry music venue) are two recent examples.
In New York City, the regular march of corporate ambition has resulted in a handful of fine new skyscrapers—for Hearst, The New York Times, Condé Nast. Even the accounting firm Ernst & Young is in flashy new quarters on the hottest corner of Times Square. But none of these has even come close to surpassing maximum local heights. One very tall tower is going up in Manhattan—the 1,200-foot-tall Bank of America building—but, while it will be higher than everything in town except the Empire State, the focus of publicity (in the press and in ads plastered on the construction fence) has been its innovative, environmentally conscious building systems.
Height for height’s sake has had its day in New York. In the absence of extraordinary circumstances, as at Ground Zero, even the giddiest observer would have to put long odds on the world’s tallest building returning to Manhattan, or to any American city. Local ground rules are largely to blame. In the United States, and New York in particular, there is typically a skein of codes and public review processes that inhibit revolutionary breaks with the norm—restrictions that simply don’t exist in cities without a long history of building tall, or in nations without durable mechanisms to protect workers.
Height for height's sake has had its day in New York. In the absence of extraordinary circumstances, as at Ground Zero, even the giddiest observer would have to put long odds on the world's tallest building returning to Manhattan, or to any American city. Local ground rules are largely to blame.
Costs associated with unionized construction labor are famously prohibitive here—a problem unknown in China, with its surfeit of manpower, or the Middle East, where Asian guest workers are invariably employed and, to put it charitably, labor rights are not so well respected. Last year, protests over low wages and poor working conditions by workers on the Dubai Mall, adjacent to the Burj Dubai, erupted in riots that led to over a million dollars in damage to property and equipment and in stalled construction for a time on the entire site.
The developing world also lacks America’s thriving NIMBY industry—the preservationists, public intellectuals, and grassroots local groups that rally to the call of “not in my backyard.” Westway, an ambitious park and highway plan for Manhattan proposed in the 1970s, still stands as the most significant grand urban project to fall to protest, but the power accumulated by downtown residents in the debate over the future of Ground Zero (and the results they achieved in shaping the project to their needs) attests to the role that public resistance can play in tempering even the most exceptional civic vision. Even if the will were present and the money lined up, a normal American skyscraper, free of symbolic freight, doesn’t stand a chance now to reach an internationally competitive height.
Cost and resistance are part of the story, but the most pressing reason that we won’t soon see a Burj Chicago is more subtle, more emotional: the lack in America’s traditional urban centers of that upstart spirit, a kind of invincible optimism, possibly shading into hubris, that is the birthright of the achieving underdog, and that will move people to pursue what may be an economically irrational goal in order to make their potential known to the wider world. In other words, chutzpah. That spirit was abundant in the past—the Empire State Building so outstripped economic necessity that for years it was referred to as the Empty State Building—but now that typically American quality is flourishing in points East.
At the Council on Tall Buildings conference, rumors were flying that there were buildings already on the boards that would make the Burj Dubai look quaint—towers that would begin to close the gap between what is possible and what gets built. Leslie Robertson, who engineered the Twin Towers, was working on one such titan, it was said, possibly for the firm founded by I. M. Pei. Whether the story is true is immaterial (Robertson, trotting the globe, could not be reached)—it seems inevitable that the Burj Dubai, whatever its final height, will be overtopped in time, and it is just as inevitable that the building that beats it won’t be built in the United States. “Almost every week we see a proposal for the world’s tallest building,” the council’s director, Antony Wood, said.
Skyscrapers are built to make space, they are built to make money, but they are also built to make a point: they are built to awe. And when we do get our true mile-high tower—in 2030, or sooner, or later—one thing is certain: behind the financing, the army of workers, the engineers’ numbers, and the architects’ specs, there will stand one hell of a giant ego—personal, corporate, or national, but still requiring its likeness to be etched in the clouds.
“There’s a real can-do, will-do attitude in China and the Middle East,” the engineer Bill Baker said. “We interviewed for the Burj in March 2003. We got the commission in April. And now we’re already up 90 floors in the air. That tells you a lot about where those countries are in their optimism, not unlike the U.S. in an earlier time. I hope we haven’t lost it.”
Philip Nobel is a Brooklyn-based writer whose column, “Far Corner,” can be found monthly in Metropolis magazine. He is the author of “Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero” (Metropolitan Books).
Photograph by Rabih Moghrabi/AFP/Getty Images
The World's Tallest Buildings, Now and in the Future:
THE ILLINOIS (never built)
In 1956, at the end of his career, Frank Lloyd Wright proposed this mile-high tower. The tower would have been served by a 15,000-car garage, 100 helipads, and atom-powered elevators.
THE BURJ DUBAI (2009)
This skyscraper has significantly raised the stakes in the “world’s tallest tower” game. Lead architect is an American, Adrian Smith of Chicago.
TAIPEI 101 (2004)
Currently the tallest in the world, this building, with 101 floors, is one of the few giants that was not designed by an American—though the architect, C. Y. Lee, was trained at Princeton.
EMPIRE STATE BUILDING (1931)
Built in less than a year, the most famous building in America held the world’s-tallest title for 40 years. It now ranks eighth if you count Petronas (see next page) as a single building.
SEARS TOWER (1974)
Designed by SOM, Sears remains the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and ranks third worldwide—first, if the 275-foot antennas are included. It also has the most stories, 108.
PETRONAS TOWERS (1998)
The Kuala Lumpur towers, designed by New Haven–based Cesar Pelli, experimented with a contextual, traditional style in lieu of boxy modern. Petronas helped put KL on the map.
FREEDOM TOWER (2011)
After many iterations, construction began at Ground Zero last year. When it was designed, the skyscraper was to be the tallest in the world but will now fall about 1,000 feet short.
LOTTE WORLD II TOWER (2008)
The majority of the 107 floors of this skyscraper in Busan, South Korea’s largest port, will be filled by a hotel and entertainment development. Designed by Durrant, a Minneapolis-based firm.
SHANGHAI WORLD FINANCIAL CENTER (2008)
The developer of the SWFC is trying to change the building’s name to “Shanghai Hills.” Currently, six of the ten tallest buildings in the world are in China.
FEDERATION TOWER (2007)
The tallest building in Europe when done, Federation Tower will anchor a Moscow business center that could total over 27 million square feet. The independent spire holds glass elevators.
Illustrations by Jason Lee