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Getting high

China’s skyscraper obsession explained

China’s skyscraper obsession explained

In Alicia Keys catchy homage to the Big Apple, she sings it’s the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of”. That jungle is largely a result of New York’s greatest contribution to architecture: the skyscraper. In a readable history on the subject, author Neal Bascomb argues that the trend towards constructing ever taller buildings began well over a century ago, with the city’s newspapers and insurance firms competing to erect landmarks.

In 1890 the skyscraper crown went to the building that housed the newspaper the New York World. The tower reached 94 metres (309 feet), and according to its architect Harvey Wiley Corbett, “architects said nothing would be higher; engineers said nothing could be higher; city planners said nothing should be higher, and owners said nothing higher would pay.”

Nothing could be further from the truth: Wiley Corbett was wrong on all four counts.

By the 1920s, skyscraper fever had engulfed New York with first the Chrysler Building and then the Empire State competing for bragging rights. Skyscrapers went on to become the icon of modern America, not just in Manhattan but also in other cities across the nation. By 1974, the Sears Tower (since renamed the Willis Tower) became the country’s tallest (at the time, the world’s highest too) at 442 metres.

Do nations on the rise have a tendency to fall in love with the machismo of tall buildings? As the Southern Metropolis Weekly points out China has now developed a fully-fledged skyscraper obsession of its own.

Take the city of Nanjing, which turned to Chicago architectural firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) – designer of the Sear’s Tower – to build it another version. Only a little bit taller, of course.

The city government wanted to give China’s former capital a new and impressive landmark, first having the idea for the 82 storey Zifeng Tower in 2003.

It told SOM it wanted it to be eight metres taller than the Chicago original. But by the time the tower opened two months ago, it had already slipped to seventh in the rankings of the world’s tallest buildings.

Soon it won’t even make the top 10. That’s because China is putting up new skyscrapers at a breakneck pace. Shanghai Greenland, the firm that built the Zifeng, is currently working on no less than 10 high-rise projects, including one in Wuhan, another in Changchun and three in Nanchang and Zhengzhou (second tier cities that most WiC readers will likely not have heard of).

“We are the only real estate developer in the world able to build so many high-rises in such a short time,” a company spokesperson recently boasted to journalists. Southern Metropolis Weekly points out that a project in Shanghai will become the country’s tallest at 632 metres when it’s completed in 2014.

“This is a good time for architects,” admits SOM’s China director, Silas Chow. “In the past in the West, an architect participated in two to three skyscrapers in their lifetime at most; now in China, it is not unusual for an architect to participate in two to three skyscrapers per decade.”

What’s driving the boom? Mostly the ambitions of local government officials. The bureaucrats maintain that skyscrapers showcase economic development and entice investors to their city – an outcome that also benefits their careers. But they also offer the more egocentric the chance to leave a personal mark on the urban skyline.

“Now that GDP comparisons [between cities] are out of fashion and people’s livelihood is not easy to quantify, there is nothing more prominent than skyscrapers,” argues Kuang Xiaoming, director of Shanghai Tongji Urban Planning and Design institute.

Buildings higher than 300 metres have a price tag of near Rmb5 billion, but that rarely dents the aspiration for altitude. SOM’s Chow admits his firm spends much of its time “lowering the expectations” of city officials on the height of the buildings being planned.

For example, for a project in Tianjin Binhai New Area, the local government had wanted a 600 metre structure and SOM had to explain why it wasn’t possible technically to build any higher than 450 metres on the selected site.

Chow adds that SOM is getting a lot of work thanks to its role in designing the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. At a colossal 828 metres high, the Burj ranks comfortably as the world’s tallest.

Other US firms are cashing in on China’s construction boom, reports the New York Times. Chicago’s Goettsch Partners now does half its business in China, and is currently designing a 439 metre skyscraper in Tianjin. San Francisco’s Heller Manus Architects is doing two thirds of its total business in the country, and is currently working on a dozen Chinese projects.

The US newspaper interviewed principals at a number of firms and was also told that Chinese clients (usually developers but sometimes government agencies) are much better clients than their American counterparts.

Why? The Chinese are “more ambitious, more adventurous and even more willing to spend the money necessary to realise the designs. This thrills the architects, who have artistic undercurrents that often struggle to find an outlet.”

A sample exhibit: Steven Holl Architects of New York, which designed an ambitious high-rise residential complex in Beijing in which a Mao era factory was replaced with an innovative building that tapped into the earth beneath for geothermal energy.

The firm’s partner, Chris McVoy said they thought the local developer would say “You’re crazy, forget it” when the firm first presented the idea. But the developer’s chairman responded enthusiasticlly, with a rhetorical flourish of his own: “Anybody can build buildings. Few can build poetry.”

Holl’s contract then led to a “more radical” concept building, says the Times, when it was commissioned to design property developer Vanke’s HQ in Shenzhen. “The structure is the size of the Empire State Building laid out horizontally,” the newspaper reports. Holl calls this Sino-American contribution to the architectural annals a ‘groundscraper’.

Perhaps it may not catch on quite like the skyscraper itself, although it reveals that American designers are still providing much of the thought leadership in the sector. Then again, it seems to be in China (and not at home) where the architects are getting the best opportunity to realise their visions.


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