ASEE Prism On-line, February 2000

Kowloon Station tower
Kowloon Station Tower

Reach For The Sky
The race to put up the world's tallest building has developers around the globe trying to top one another
By Ray Bert

Quick: what current race for a prestigious title involves big money, some major U.S. cities, constant gamesmanship, and — peripherally, anyway — Donald Trump? No, we're not talking about the battle for the White House, but one involving much more palatial digs: the competition to build the world's tallest building.

We are currently smack in the middle of a new golden age of skyscraper construction. The latest push to remake skylines dates to 1997, when the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, ended the 23-year reign of Chicago's Sears Tower as the tallest building in the world.

But the race is far from over and, unlike in earlier skyscraper heydays, the competition is now global. Dueling proposals currently on the drawing board or under construction around the world give "one-upping" a whole new meaning as emerging economic powers seek to cement their reputations as players on the world stage.

An American Tradition

The first two tall building booms took place mostly in the United States. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, landmarks like New York City's Empire State Building and Chrysler Building rose up to dominate the skyline. The second period, which ran from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, saw the rise of Chicago's "big three"—the John Hancock Center, the Amoco Building, and the Sears Tower—as well as the World Trade Centers in New York City.

The Empire State Building, which at 1,250 feet is still the world's seventh tallest building, held the crown for more than 40 years until finally being deposed in 1974 by the Sears Tower. But the era of long reigns may be drawing to a close. Kuala Lumpur will likely be the home of the tallest building for less than five years, as a spate of new projects threaten to sail past Petronas' 1,483 foot spire-aided height.

The United States, of course, has not abandoned the chase—least of all in Chicago. Last fall, a proposed 1,550 foot addition to the Second City's spectacular skyline at 7 South Dearborn St. was announced that would top not only Petronas but the partially built World Financial Center in Shanghai, which was on hold due to money woes stemming from the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Then, shortly after the Chicago announcement, the Kowloon Station Tower in Hong Kong was announced at 1,575 feet.

Not to be outdone, the builder of the Shanghai Financial Center then announced that construction would resume in 2000, and that the building would be even taller. "We can't announce [the height] yet, because some people might want to surpass it again," said Mori Building Company president Minoru Mori.

But unless the upward revision is significant, Shanghai may still be playing second fiddle. Or third, or fourth. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a wealthy Indian spiritual guru, plans to construct tall buildings on six continents. The first will likely be the Maharishi Tower of World Peace in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a pyramid-shaped design that could top out at over 1,600 feet and encompass some 13.5 million square feet. Meanwhile, flamboyant Australian millionaire Bruno Grollo is making noise about building an 1,838 foot "Grollo Tower" in Melbourne.

And what of the United States' king of the eponymous, Trump? In the last 15 years, The Donald has pushed several projects in New York City and Los Angeles that have fizzled, and has reportedly tried to buy into several current efforts—including 7 South Dearborn—to no avail. For now, Trump may have to settle for the world's tallest apartment building, currently under construction in New York City.

But there are no guarantees in this volatile, high-stakes arena—even after construction is underway. The financial troubles that have plagued the Shanghai project are by no means atypical. Construction on the Plaza Rakyat, a 1,254 foot building in Kuala Lumpur originally scheduled for completion in 1999, has been on hold for more than a year and may be another casualty of Asia's economic problems. "I wouldn't put money on tall building projects right now," says Jeffrey Herzer, creator of the World's Tallest Buildings Web site. "Skyscrapers are lumbering dinosaurs in a lightning-fast economy."

And the problems are not limited to money: Taiwan's Taipei Financial Center is on track for completion in 2002, but its height was chopped from a dizzying 1,666 feet to a mere 1,286 because of concerns about disrupting air traffic. Other projects face different obstacles: there is simply no room, no money, or insufficient technology to support them. Examples range from pipe dreams—such as the 5,280-foot Mile High Tower designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1956—to the truly preposterous: the 800-story, two-and-a-half mile high X-Seed 4000 design for Tokyo. These concept designs exist primarily as fanciful gleams in the eyes of architects and financiers.

Engineering on a Grand Scale

Structural engineers know that gleam well, because they are the ones who often have to talk the architects down, as it were, to ensure that the designs are both buildable and safe. However, they don't necessarily get the credit for making these concrete-and-steel giants reality. "People don't understand that the engineer designs the structure, not the architect," says Robert B. Johnson, a senior engineer with Bowman, Barrett & Associates in Chicago.

Skyscrapers, of course, have their own unique structural considerations. Johnson says that above 70 floors, the cost per square foot spikes, as does the number of engineering concerns—of which wind sway is an important one.

"Tall buildings are going to move," Johnson says, "but you have to make it so people don't feel it." He notes that engineers use a building's height in feet divided by 600 as a rule of thumb for maximum sway. Thus, the Empire State Building could acceptably "bend" slightly more than two feet during heavy wind conditions. "If penthouse occupants have a chandelier—and they shouldn't—that's the classic way to tell how much sway there is," Johnson adds.

Petronas Towers
Petronas Towers

Sears Tower
Sears Tower

7th South Dearborn
7 South Dearborn

Shanghai World Financial Center
Shanghai World Financial Center

Fortunately, engineers today have improved tools for putting up super-tall buildings. All-steel skyscrapers have given way to all-concrete structures or hybrids, in part because concrete today is much stronger. Though structural steel is still stronger per unit area, concrete's stiffness and greater mass make sway easier to control, and today's improved cast-in-place concrete forms can "climb" up a building as it is erected, speeding construction.

Onward and Upward

Even with improved materials and construction methods, Johnson says that 2,500 feet is probably the practical limit for the time being, especially once non-technical considerations are factored in. But that height leaves plenty of room in the future to duke it out for the heavyweight title. And like boxing's top prize, sometimes there are multiple combatants who claim to be the champ.

Skyscraper height can be measured in numerous ways, from the structural or architectural top, to the highest occupied floor, to the top of the roof. The Sears Tower, which has several antennas but no aesthetic rooftop features, would still be the champ by the latter two measures. But what it comes down to is this: spires count, antennas don't. Which is why Petronas, though its highest occupied floor is some 200 feet below that of Sears', gets the bragging rights.

Rooftop adornment isn't the only point of contention when it comes to determining who is the tallest. Toronto's 1,815-foot CN Tower proclaims itself the world's tallest building. But the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat—the arbiter of height generally recognized within the architectural and engineering community—places a mostly unoccupied structure like the CN Tower in a different category.

Much remains up in the air about the many tall building projects being considered. However the dust ultimately settles, one thing is clear: the fascination with construction on such a grand scale will not go away. "Tall buildings are literally the pinnacle of the architectural and engineering world," Herzer says.

And it is a pinnacle that keeps growing, and growing, and growing . . .


Ray Bert is senior editor of Prism.

World's Tallest Buildings



Petronas Tower 1

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

1,483 ft

Petronas Tower 2

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

1,483 ft

Sears Tower


1,454 ft

Jin Mao Building


1,379 ft

One World Trade Center

New York City

1,368 ft

Two World Trade Center

New York City

1,362 ft

Empire State Building

New York City

1,250 ft

Central Plaza

Hong Kong

1,227 ft

Bank of China

Hong Kong

1,209 ft

Emirates Tower #1

Dubai, UAE

1,149 ft

The Center

Hong Kong

1,149 ft

Source: World's Tallest Buildings Web Site ( )


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