Tall order

Why the world’s highest building is not in China

Tombstone Sky City

The Sky City: 202 storeys to go

By now China should have been home to the world tallest building – Sky City, a 202-storey tower in Changsha, the capital of Hunan.

But things have not gone to plan for Broad Sustainable Construction – the maverick company that wanted to build it.

No sooner had it broken ground in 2013 than work was halted because the firm didn’t have the right permits. Soon the shallow foundation pit filled with water and locals began to farm fish in it instead.

In May the project was dealt a further blow when the area was reclassified as a protected wetland in the city’s new environmental plan. “Any development construction, which would damage ecological function in the protection zone, is forbidden. Any programme that would create pollution is forbidden,” it said.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, a spokesperson for Broad appeared to suggest that this meant the building would now have to be relocated. “We will definitely build the tower. As for the timing and the project site, we will let you know when it’s confirmed at a later date,” she said.

The irony is the tower was conceived as a clean and green housing solution. Broad’s founder and boss Zhang Yue is a committed environmentalist who gave up his private jet in 2000 and urges other members of China’s business elite to do the same.

He and his brother made their fortune by creating an energy efficient air cooling system that doesn’t use ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. The Department of Energy in Washington and Qualcomm’s head office in San Diego have both installed Broad cooling systems, according to Fortune magazine.

Sky City was undoubtedly hubristic in scale – 838 metres in height, it would have been 10 metres taller than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Zhang says the concept was all about limiting the impact people have on the environment by reducing travel, emissions and the amount of land used.

Fortune magazine suggested that Beijing did not support his flagship project. At issue is the construction technology Zhang’s firm uses – piling prefabricated blocks one on top of the other in a manner not unlike Lego. The fear was that building the world’s tallest skyscraper via such a radical approach could lead to a disaster. Zhang’s pledge to finish building Sky City in 10 months also did little to inspire regulators’ confidence in the ambitious project.

Last year the company assembled a 57-storey building in 19 days, also in Changsha. It should have been 97-storeys but aviation officials said it was too close to the airport and could disrupt air traffic.

Zhang said the speed at which his buildings go up also means they are cheaper – Sky City had a budget of just Rmb9 billion ($1.4 billion).

The political climate has changed since Sky City received initial approval in 2012. Xi Jinping has spoken about the need to rein in “weird” architectural designs and the People’s Daily has also criticised the “vain” pursuit of tall buildings.

Zhang is unrepentant about his vision. Thirty storeys is not enough for buildings in a country with China’s high population-to-land ratio, he said. “The government hasn’t realised there are different building methods,” he added.

Sky City would have housed 30,000 people, and contained a hospital, a school and a farm among other things. Indeed, at the groundbreaking ceremony last year, Zhang proclaimed it would be “mankind’s most desirable place”, complete with “everything except a crematorium”.

Last week China Youth Daily revisited Sky City’s now dormant wetland site, asking the head of the Hunan University School of Architecture, Liu Su, for his view. He said that he doesn’t approve of the Sky City concept and objects to the integration of so many functions into one building. “People still want outdoor activities: to go for a walk, take a look at the landscape,” he said.

He also said the urge to top Dubai’s record was misguided.

“To win all the time is the Chinese people’s mentality, because we were too far behind in the past and we want to earn face,” he said, but he warned that the accolades for the world’s tallest building should have “no meaning” in today’s China.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.