Global Economics

Asia's Quest for the Ultra-Skyscraper


Wealth, growth, and the desire to make a mark are spurring cities to build ever higher power-towers—and reshaping architectural design in the process

Scientists haven't isolated the "trophy tower" gene just yet. But there is something almost primal about the century-plus quest by some mega-ambitious cities to build the ultimate, record-busting, flat-out tallest skyscraper on the planet. The old power-tower rivalry early last century between New York and Chicago is legendary. Now the obsession to build mega-structures in nose-bleed territory has gripped much of Asia.

True, oil-rich countries in the Middle East have their living-large dreams, too, and there is one mind-blowing project now under way in Dubai. Still, the betting is that Asian cities likely will transform 21st-century skyscraper architecture in the biggest way. Currently eight of the world's 10 tallest skyscrapers are in the region. And the present reigning champ among skyscrapers globally is Taiwan's Taipei 101, a structure that soars 509 meters, or 1,671 ft.

On top of that, there is the right combination of high-speed growth, accumulated wealth and power tower-obsessed politicians from Kuala Lumpur to Shanghai that will keep the boom going for many years to come. Even lesser-known regional cities that have a burning ambition to make their mark view big, gutsy, and distinctively designed skyscrapers as potential game-changers—and are willing to offer serious incentives to make them happen.

Boon for Builders

That's pretty much what city leaders in the South Korean port city of Busan (formerly known as Pusan) hope to accomplish with the planned 560-meter (1,837-ft.) Millennium Tower World Business Center that is expected to be completed in 2010 or 2011. And this will be no bland, monolithic building.

New York-based Asymptote Architecture, which won an international design competition for a project that will result in the tallest building in Asia, came up with a concept that features three tapered towers emerging from a powerful base of floors offering stunning ocean and mountain views. "They were looking for something bold," says Hani Rashid, a principal architect with Asymptote. "We actually went in and tried to do something more reflective, to reset the game in terms of this tower mania" in Asia.

Whether the Millennium Tower in Busan (a city also hoping to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games) results in a huge economic lift is uncertain. But plenty of cities in Asia are definitely willing to roll the dice, and that is sweet news for international architectural firms and general contractors alike. "The market outlook for ultra-high buildings in the region is pretty bright," says Kang Sun Jong, vice-president in charge of architectural design and consulting at Samsung Corp.

Temporarily on Top

There is also, of course, a super-size building boom now raging in parts of the Middle East such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. In fact, Samsung snagged the construction work for the monstrously high Burj Dubai, a tower complex slated to reach 800 meters (2624 ft.) in height and easily blow by Taipei 101 as the world's tallest building when it is completed in late 2008. (It was designed by the U.S. architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.)

Yet if recent history is any judge, the pride of ownership for a city that manages to get one of these ultra-high towers off the ground will be fleeting. Consider: New York's fabled Empire State Building, finished in 1931, held the world record for height for more than 40 years, while Chicago's Sears Tower, completed in 1973, had a 25-year run.

These days, cities are lucky to hold the title for a half-decade. The 452-meter (1,483-ft.) Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, built in 1998, were eclipsed by Taipei 101 just six years later. The Taiwanese are going to lose their title after only four years when Burj Dubai opens its doors.

Lofty Shanghai

Some argue that the economic development boost a city ultimately garners from a successful mega-structure is far more important than whether it is the world's tallest or not. The Petronas Towers "may no longer be the tallest building in the world, but it changed Malaysia and the perception of Kuala Lumpur" worldwide, says Goh Tuan Sui, chief executive of property consultancy WTW Malaysia. "A world-class building can also raise the bar for other buildings in the city, be it malls, office blocks, or hotels," he adds.

When it comes to sheer scale of tall building construction activity, it's hard to match Shanghai. Since 1990, the city has erected enough high-rises to fill a big chunk of Manhattan (see Businessweek.com, 2/8/07, "Shanghai Rising").

The 88-story Jin Mao Tower, with its distinctive tiered pagoda design, is the tallest building in China, rising to 421 meters (1,380 ft.). Or at least it will be until the Shanghai World Financial Center (492 meters, or 1,614 ft.) is completed in 2008.

Supply Shortage

So is the current wave of next-generation skyscrapers starting to hit the limits of modern-day construction engineering and material science? Rashid with Asymptote Architecture doesn't think so given new construction materials coming on stream, advances in computer-aided building design, and the increasing use of robotic technology in building. "There are new materials emerging that could replace steel," he says.

Probably the biggest challenge for general contractors at the moment is getting their hands on needed engineering and construction talent, and even some basic construction materials, in a timely fashion given the construction boom in Asia and the Middle East. "So many projects are being undertaken at the same time that securing in-time delivery of construction materials has emerged as a challenging task," Samsung's Kang says in reference to the Burj Dubai project.

No doubt some ambitious city planner or real estate developer in Asia will be sketching the outlines for another sky-hugger to overtake the Burj Dubai and grab tallest building honors before too long.

With Moon Ihlwan in Seoul and Assif Shameen in Singapore

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