Days after the Twin Towers fell, noted urbanist, James Howard Kunstler declared the skyscraper dead. Writing in the online journal Planetizen, Kuntsler said: “We are convinced that the age of skyscrapers is at an end. It must now be considered a building typology that has failed.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Today the race to build the tallest building has never been more solid. The bragging rights for the world’s tallest tower currently goes to the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, designed by Adrian Smith of ASGG, but much taller buildings are possible.
The Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats (CTBUH) recently put the question of how high buildings could go to a group of skyscraper designers. The responses, summarized in an article by Nate Berg in The Atlantic Cities, were varied but most
agreed that the technology exists today to build skyscrapers that can reach a mile high or higher. There are limiting factors that would first need to be addressed to do this. “The predominant problem is the in the elevator and transportation system”, said Adrian Smith to The Atlantic. But beyond vertical transport challenges, mile high buildings would need to have larger bases to support them. William Baker of SOM, a top skyscraper designer who worked with Smith on the Burj Khalifa, a building designed with a buttressed core system, which affords great stability, said that system could be used to design buildings ever taller. Baker told The Atlantic: “We could go twice that or more. We could easily build a mile and probably quite a bit more.” But such buildings would require a different structural strategy, either the use of the modified buttressed core or an entirely new system, where buildings would have hollowed bases. "Think of the Eiffel Tower", said Tim Johnson, chairman of CTBUH and a partner of NBBJ, who worked on a project back in the late 2000s, which was abandoned, that would have been a mile and a half tall.
But would anyone want to live a mile up? While having a room at the top has its advantages, such as unobstructed views (providing there is a view!) and bragging rights, living the high life is not all its cracked up to be. For those living at the top, there is vertigo to deal with and concerns about safe egress in emergencies, not to mention that it costs more to live up high, just ask anyone in
Manhattan who lives on the upper floors of such towers as The Gehry. There is also the effect on the surrounding community to consider. The bigger bases, that Baker says will be required to build mile-high structures, will result in more demolition of the neighboring urban fabric. And, tall buildings cast large shadows, so access to sunlight at ground level will be a challenge. Also of concern is the increased densification that comes with high occupancy buildings and how to deal with it effectively and humanely.
So while the possibility of the mile high buildings exists and most assuredly someday will be a reality, let’s not forget our responsibility as design professionals to the greater context. Hopefully new technologies will come along that will allow us to build mile high buildings that also are good neighbors.
Image of Kingdom Tower in issue 399 of News Review copyright of Jeddah Economic Company/Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
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