Towering pride

The 838-metre Sky City is nowhere to be seen

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Broad Group’s Zhang Yue

Long before the era of the skyscraper, the medieval town of San Gimignano had its own fixation with height. Now one of Italy’s most beloved tourist destinations, it was once a hotbed of Tuscan family rivalries. The upshot of these feuds was that each family was determined that its home would have a tower taller than its neighbours.

At its peak San Gimignano boasted 72 towers. Many of these have failed to stand the test of time, but even in the 13th century there were concerns that the construction binge was getting out of hand. The fear was that structural safety might be compromised as families sought to build higher than their neighbours. So in 1300 the Torre Grossa, or Great Tower, was completed. As the LA Times points out: “The 174-foot Torre Grossa was deliberately designed by the city authorities to be taller than any tower in town. By forbidding anyone to build anything higher, the city council hoped to stem the family squabbles.”

Over in modern-day China and the desire to build bigger and higher is alive and well, with ambitious tycoons and city bureaucrats desperate to outdo each other and set new records. It’s a topic we’ve picked up on before (see WiC94 for an example). But perhaps the most controversial example of the altitude-obsession centres on a skyscraper in Hunan province’s capital city of Changsha.

Back in June 2012 the founder of property conglomerate Broad Group, Zhang Yue, signed a deal with the city’s government to erect Sky City (see WiC155). Not only would this be the world’s tallest structure (beating Dubai’s 828-metre Burj Khalifa by 10 metres), it would be built in a record time too (a mere 10 months).

The secret ingredient for such a speedy construction? The firm planned to prefabricate sections of the buildings in factories and then assemble them on site. It had done it before, albeit on a smaller scale. Broad Group’s building of the Ark Hotel in Changsha proved an internet sensation (see WiC86), when video footage of the project’s construction (played at rapid speed) showed the 15-floor building going up in just six days.

But when the much grander plan for Sky City went public, media and netizens were aghast. And just like in San Gimignano, officialdom may have started to worry about safety issues. Construction was set to begin last July, but as we reported over a year ago, journalists sensed that nervous regulators in Beijing had put the frighteners on the Changsha officials who had originally approved the high-rise plan.

Last month Time Weekly sent one of its reporters to the site to see what was going on with the tower. He found a giant puddle, covering an area of nearly 10,000 square metres, with signage warning that swimming was prohibited. With few people on site, a security guard told the magazine that work had started on the tower’s foundations last July but then suddenly came to a halt.

According to the original schedule, Sky City ought to have been welcoming tenants by now – its 202 floors were supposed to house 30,000 people, plus schools and ‘vertical parks’. But Time Weekly concludes the RMb9 billion ($1.45 billion) project is going nowhere. One reason may be the radical construction methods, which lack a track record for structures of anything like the proposed height. Would it be stable, especially in an earthquake? That was just one of the fears aired by netizens.

Another problem could be changes in credit, with the central government now blocking many of the cheap loans that local banks were set to offer to finance its construction.

The company has not commented on the specifics of the project, although it sticks by its building technique, insisting that it reduces energy requirements and pollution. Broad Sustainable, its construction division, says it has signed contracts in several other cities to build 50 million square metres of floorspace by the end of next year, while company founder Zhang Yue says he has dreams of Rmb1 trillion in sales once the construction technique becomes more widely accepted.

But with Sky City seemingly stalled, Zhang’s target might need to be shaved by a few zeros.

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