Who Cares About the Tallest Erection?
Adrian Smith's Kingdom Tower will begin construction this year. Courtesy: Huffington Post.
There will soon be a new tallest building in the world. Who cares? Obviously the people who commissioned it, because the economics of
building such absurdly tall structures are largely non-existent, and have been
since the days of the Empire State Building. It is all about size. Above 50
stories or so, most tall buildings exist only out of vanity. The ratio of core to leaseable space, as well
as the amount that you have to invest in structure and support, make it almost
impossible to make money on such structures as the Burj Khalifa, the world’s
current record holder–which sits about half full more than two years since its
World’s Largest Erection, at well over 2,000-feet
tall, will be in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and will form the center of a $20 billion
real estate development. That is a clue
to the spire’s real rationale: It is to be the icon for a much larger
investment, representing about 5 percent of the total costs. Some developers add fountains or art, but in
the fast-growing and highly competitive cities of Asia and the Middle East, a
tall building is much more effective. In
Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the Burj Khalifa anchors a massive development that includes a shopping
mall and a sea of apartment building and offices that rise up only to efficient
Courtesy: Huffington Post.
Courtesy: Huffington Post.
I should note, parenthetically, that the Jeddah tower, which
is to be called Kingdom Tower and which was designed, like the one in Dubai, by
Adrian Smith, looks to be elegant. The
one advantage of going that tall is that you can truly soar, and the latest
modeling software lets a good architect control skin and proportion to such a
degree that a much slicker and smoother spire is possible. That is the case here.
What is particularly interesting, however, is that these spire-anchored
constructions are self-enclosed cities. The Empire State Building was meant to be an anchor not for a private
development, but for the recapturing of a part of Manhattan’s spine that had
been leapfrogged in the rush to midtown. Super-high-rises from Chicago to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, performed similar functions:
one developer led the way, with the idea that other developers and owners would
chime in and profit. It turns out that this
plan did not work so well, but the Rockefeller City model did: build a spire as
the center of a private world, draw people into the Magic Kingdom with the
castle, and reap the benefits of the star’s poise and panache.
We will have our version of this syndrome in the Ground Zero
redevelopment, which will be anchored by a tower that will rise to the
patriotic height of 1,776 feet. Though
that will not be enough to join the tall building race, it will draw attention
to a row of less ambitious (both vertically and stylistically) blocks and the
services that will surround them. This
will be a public–private partnership, though it is difficult to see what the
public will gain from the whole beyond the fact that the streets will not be
blocked off and there will be a memorial park and transit hub—paid for by tax
dollars and donations—at the development’s center.
Within these private worlds, urbanism of the kind popular
among a certain segment of theoreticians is the norm. The grounds are walkable, offer a mix of opportunities
to live, work, shop, and recreate, and give many clues to human scale. Outside, it is a different story. I remember dodging six lanes of traffic on
non-existent sidewalks to enter the grounds of the Burj Khalifa through a
parking garage, only to catch my breath sitting by the man-made lake, sipping a
coffee, watching office workers and shoppers parade back and forth in front of
what is a truly beautiful tower. Once
you are in the Erection’s sphere of attraction, life is good. Outside, in the real world where less fortunate people live and where natural resources are being depleted at a
disgusting and alarming rate—not so much.