- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2007

Skyscrapers are back and bigger than ever as the centerpieces of urban skylines around the world. As the Burj Dubai building extends toward its half-mile-high goal in the Middle East, the pieces are in place for a skyscraper building boom.

“I think the age of the super-skyscrapers is just starting again,”said George Efstathiou, a Chicago architect for the Burj Dubai.

The building set a record in July as the world’s tallest, while construction continues in the tiny nation of Dubai. Unofficial sources say it will top out at about 2,625 feet in 2008, about the same as putting Chicago’s John Hancock Center on top of the Sears Tower.

The tallest building in the U.S., the Sears Tower, at 1,451 feet with a roof antenna rising an additional 300 feet, is barely keeping pace with the ambitious building plans in the United States and other countries:

Foundation work started in June on the tallest U.S. building, which would stand 2,000 feet high over downtown Chicago in 2010, if completed on time. The Chicago Spire would look like a giant corkscrew to shed wind currents that might make the building sway. It would house about 1,200 condominiums.

Real estate mogul Donald Trump is building a 96-floor, 1,362-foot luxury hotel and condominium high-rise in Chicago. Mr. Trump originally planned it as the tallest building in the world but knocked several hundred feet off the design after the September 11, 2001, attacks to avoid making it a target for terrorists. It is scheduled to welcome its first hotel guests on the lower floors in December. The condominiums are scheduled to open in 2008 and 2009.

Crown Las Vegas is a planned $5 billion super-tall skyscraper to be built on the Las Vegas strip by 2012. The building, formerly known as the Las Vegas Tower, would stand 1,888 feet high, making it the tallest all-hotel structure in the world. It would include 5,000 hotel rooms and a 250,000-square-foot casino.

Boston would get New England’s tallest building with the planned Trans National Place. Construction on the 1,175-foot office and retail building is set to begin in 2008 and be completed in 2011. The architect left the project in March, casting its future in doubt. If it is built, it would surpass the 790-foot John Hancock Tower.

Internationally, builders have equally big plans, such as the Busan Lotte Tower in South Korea. The mixed-use tower would stand 1,674 feet over the southern South Korean city of Busan. In Shanghai, the Shanghai World Financial Center is nearing its early-2008 completion date. The 1,614-foot skyscraper would offer offices, hotel rooms and retail.

Race to the sky

Skyscrapers derived their name from tall masts on sailing ships that seemed to scrape the sky.

The first skyscraper was the 10-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago, completed in 1885. The architect, Major William Le Baron Jenney, used the innovation of a steel frame supporting the weight of the walls instead of the walls bearing the weight of the building, which allowed a greater height.

They emerged as skyline landmarks in the 1920s and 1930s as the Chrysler, Empire State, Woolworth and Rockefeller Center buildings rose from New York City’s streets to become emblems of the city.

Although the exact modern definition is disputed, skyscrapers generally are defined as buildings at least 100 meters high, or about 328 feet. Super-tall skyscrapers, which emerged in the 1960s, stand over 1,250 feet high.

The Washington Monument held the title of the world’s tallest man-made structure when it was completed in 1884. The marble, granite and sandstone tower stands 555 feet tall.

It was surpassed in 1889 when the steel-trussed Eiffel Tower rose 986 feet over downtown Paris as the main exhibit of the World’s Fair.

The Washington Monument and Eiffel Tower were not inhabited buildings, merely testaments to bigness.

Elisha Graves Otis’ invention in 1853 of elevators that would not crash to the ground if a suspension cable broke turned tall buildings into places to live and work. Reinforced concrete and water pumps added to the engineering of livable spaces high above ground.

With all the technology in place, the stage was set for an architectural race to the skies.

“Skyscrapers are blueprints to make money,” said Carol Willis, director of New York’s Skyscraper Museum.

By packing high-rent-paying tenants into a city’s best pockets of commerce, they tend to generate ripples throughout a local economy.

New York’s 1,250-foot Empire State Building has been an economic success since it was completed in 1931. It stood as the world’s tallest man-made structure for 23 years.

Butskyscraper construction lost its luster in the 1930s with a downturn of the nation’s economy during the Great Depression.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, skyscrapers emerged again as a way to beat high real estate prices by building up instead of out.

Chicago’s 1,127-foot John Hancock Center was completed in 1969. In 1973, New York’s World Trade Center was completed with the taller of its two towers standing 1,368 feet, briefly holding the world record for the tallest building.

It was beaten within months by the 1,451-foot Sears Tower, which continues to hold the record as the tallest U.S. skyscraper. It was the world’s tallest building from 1973 to 1998, when the 1,483-foot Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysiawere completed.

Architects called the 1970s skyscraper-building era the skyscraper renaissance.

Rocky road upward

The road to lofty heights was difficult for developers in the past three decades, as economics and controversy slowed skyscraper construction.

Skyscrapers, the paragon of what business and power are supposed to exemplify, have been getting too big for their own good, according to some critics.

They overpower skylines, feed traffic congestion by drawing in thousands of tenants to one place and are easy targets for terrorists in an age when many peoplethink another September 11, 2001, style of attack is merely a matter of time.

Even New York’s Freedom Tower had to withstand skeptics before construction could begin last year.

The 1,776-foot tall Freedom Tower is being built in the footprint of the destroyed World Trade Center towers. Outrage over the terrorist attacks helped motivate supporters of the roughly $3 billion building.

But shortly after New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was sworn in to office last year, he called the Freedom Tower a “white elephant.”

Author James Howard Kunstler and urban designer Nikos Salingaros wrote in an essay published after the September 11, 2001 attacks, “We are now convinced that the age of skyscrapers is at an end.”

But Mr. Efstathiou, a partner in the skyscraper-building architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, said, “I think they’re wrong.”

As economics and building-material innovations advance, architects call the new age of tall-building construction the second skyscraper renaissance.

“We are experiencing now a competition among the super-talls that is unprecedented around the world,” Mrs. Willis said. “There are lots of people who will describe their national pride and sense of identity in terms of having the record for the world’s tallest building.”

Taiwan’s 1,671-foot Taipei 101 held the title of the world’s tallest from its completion in 2004 until last month, when the Burj Dubai set the record.

So far this year, building-industry analysts predict that spending on skyscrapers and other commercial buildings is likely to continue in the United States, Middle East and China with steady industrial profits.

The American Institute of Architects predicts 7.2 percent growth in nonresidential construction this year in the United States.

“There’s been a lack of spending in those markets over the last few years,” said John Rogers, a research analyst for the financial firm D.A. Davidson & Co.

Meanwhile, terrorism has created a new risk for skyscraper financing.

Even the best marketing strategy could be ruined by terrorism threats that drive tenants away, analysts said.

“If customers aren’t willing to move in there, it’s going to affect rents,” Mr. Rogers said. “That affects the economics of skyscrapers.”

Styles push the envelope

One common characteristic that distinguishes the new breed of skyscrapers is their daring style.

“Many of them are more elegant in their design,” said Michael Hickok, a Washington architect.

Early 20th-century skyscrapers followed the “historic” style of a “block and tower,” in which a towering middle section rose over a large block-like building surrounding it.

Windows often looked like “punched holes” in the walls.

The skyscraper renaissance of the 1970s followed the “big box” style of steel and glass, as more components were manufactured by machines. Skyscrapers were similar to other office buildings, just bigger than most. The World Trade Center’s Twin Towers were good examples of the 1970s’ big boxes.

Then came computer-aided design (CAD).

Using new software and equipment, architects can now design entire buildings without ever leaving their computers. Even pressures from wind vortexes against the walls can be programmed.

CAD allows designs that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier.

New skyscrapers often have irregular shapes to reduce wind pressure and the swaying often experienced on the highest floors.

“The real innovations in high-rise design are those buildings that are trying to take advantage of the environment,” said Louis Pounders, a Memphis, Tenn.-based architect and fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Typically, they use expanses of photovoltaic cells to turn sunlight into electricity, double exterior walls for both insulation and to trap wind currents that crank wind generators, and rainwater basins that replenish buildings’ water systems.

A building designed with environmental features “can generate enough power to sustain itself,” Mr. Pounders said.

In addition, new composite materials allow irregular shapes. One composite uses aluminum wafers with durable plastic sandwiched in the middle. Composites tend to be stronger than steel but more lightweight.

As a result, modern skyscrapers are “pushing the envelope” with their design, according to architects.

Taipei 101 in Taiwan resembles pagodas stacked atop one another. The 62-story Museum Plaza being built in Louisville, Ky., looks like an enlarged version of Lego toys thrown together haphazardly.

The Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai looks like an unfolding sail 1,053 feet high.

Bigness creates risks

As the buildings get taller, security analysts wonder how long before they see another terrorist attack like the one six years ago that destroyed New York’s World Trade Center, the world’s only skyscraper to be destroyed by hostile action.

“Unbelievably, evacuation and emergency preparedness were sorely lacking or totally nonexistent on 9/11,” said Monica Gabrielle, co-chairman of the nonprofit organization Skyscraper Safety Campaign, told the 9/11 commission during a 2003 government hearing to determine what went wrong. “This, along with critical flaws in the design and construction of the buildings, contributed to the ominous conditions occupants found themselves in, which ultimately claimed the lives of thousands.”

When Leslie Robertson, the structural engineer for the World Trade Center, was asked about risks that might collapse the Twin Towers, he dismissed the concerns, calling the buildings “a Gibraltar.”

But the planes that hit the towers nearly sliced through them, cutting off escape routes for anyone above the impact zone.

Lessons from the World Trade Center are being taken to every new skyscraper being built, according to architects.

More internal supports are added to guard against collapse. Stairwells are wider for emergency evacuation and ventilation systems are installed to force smoke out, rather than allowing it to spread upward like in a chimney.

Homeland Security Department officials say their challenge is to protect infrastructure such as skyscrapers, but not to stifle commerce.

“If we lose sight of the very things we’re trying to protect, then in many respects we’ve allowed the terrorists to gain a victory,” said Russ Knocke, Homeland Security Department spokesman.

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