Global Economics

The Race for the Tallest Skyscraper


Asia and Middle East cities are in the grip of serious tower mania, and are transforming 21st century architectural design in the process

The race among the world's cities to build the ultimate record-busting, flat-out tallest skyscraper on the planet is fast and furious. And the obsession to build mega-structures in nosebleed territory is particularly acute in much of economically dynamic Asia and the oil-rich Middle East.

The frenzy of high-powered construction projects promises to transform 21st century skyscraper architecture in a big way. Currently, eight of the world's tallest 10 skyscrapers are in the region. And the present reigning champ among skyscrapers globally is Taiwan's Taipei 101, a structure that climbs up 509 meters or 1,671 feet.

Of course, a super-sized building boom is 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 (2,624 ft.) in height—which will easily blow by Taipei 101 when it's completed in late 2008. (It was designed by the U.S. architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The architect was Adrian Smith.)

"Something More Reflective"

Even lesser-known regional cities with 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 get them. 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-m. (1,837-ft.) Millennium Tower World Business Center, expected to be completed in 2010 or 2011.

This will be no bland monolith. New York-based Asymptote Architecture, which won an international design competition for the project that will spawn the tallest building in Asia, came up with a concept that features three tapered towers emerging from a powerful base foundation of floors. It offers 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's 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.

Economy Drivers

These super-structures are about more than just civic pride. Well-executed skyscrapers can be a real economic-development driver. Consider the 452-m. (1,483-ft.) Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, built in 1998, which was the world's tallest until it was eclipsed by Taipei 101 just six years later.

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 officer 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, or 1,380 feet, …or at least it will be until the 492-m. (1,614-ft.) Shanghai World Financial Center is completed in 2008.

Girding for Materials Shortages

So is the current wave of next-generation skyscrapers starting to bump against the limits of modern-day construction engineering and material science? Rashid, with Asymptote Architecture, doesn't think so, given new construction materials coming onstream, 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," says Samsung's Kang in reference to the Burj Dubai project.

As long as city planners in Asia and the Middle East have the financial wherewithal and vision to keep pushing the limits of construction engineering, the global "edifice complex" seems sure to continue.

Bremner is Asia Regional Editor for BusinessWeek in Hong Kong.

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