Beyond Buildings


Who Cares About the Tallest Erection?

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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 completion.


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 heights.


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.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.