Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The taller towers of tomorrow

The world has a new tallest building. Last week it was announced that, rising above the desert coast of the Persian Gulf, the Burj Dubai became taller than any other structure on the planet. And it's not even due to stop climbing until 2009. According to a press release issued by its developers, Burj Dubai currently stands at 629 meters, at least one meter taller than the KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota, which has held the mantle of world's tallest structure on and off since 1963. Burj Dubai is already taller than the CN Tower (553.33m), the tallest free-standing structure in the world and Taipei 101 (508m), the world's tallest building which has floors throughout.

The exact final height of the Burj Dubai is a closely guarded secret, anything between 700m and 818m (the latter making it roughly twice the height of the Empire State Building) is reported. It is also reported that its total number of habitable floors will be around 162. The arrival of the Burj Dubai, moreover, heralds a new age of skyscraper design that promises to rival the astonishing rise of 20th-century American cities.

Since the completion of the Sears Tower in 1973, the height of the world's tallest buildings has stalled around the 450m mark. For over 30 years, the construction of taller skyscrapers has been held back by two difficulties: building enough elevators to reach the top and a diminished fervour for record-breaking buildings.

The Burj Dubai is only the first of a new generation of skyscrapers that will see that desire unbound and push the record over 1,000m, into the kilometre-high club and beyond: buildings as tall as a mile high. In Dubai, the proposed Al Burj could stand as tall as 1,200m (down from the initial proposal of 1,600m, or just under a mile). Further up the Gulf in Kuwait, Burj Mubarak Al-Kabir could tower as high as 1,001m, although its UK-based architects, Eric Kuhne and Associates, admit that such a structure is likely to take 25 years to build and require triple-decker elevators to make it feasible.

Then, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, preliminary designs for a building provisionally called the Mile-high Tower is about to be put out for tender, according to Meed, a business intelligence service covering the Middle East. Apparently you will be able to see North Africa from the top.

Away from the Gulf (credit crunch permitting), we can expect the International Business Centre in Seoul possibly some time next year weighing in at 580m and then Foster and Partners' Russia Tower which will soar above Moscow at 612m, all of which puts the current hoo-hah about tall buildings in London into perspective.

But it's not outside the realms of possibility that London could one day join the mile-high club. Indeed, preliminary plans for a super-tall tower rising above St Paul's were drawn up as early as 2005. Populararchitecture describes its Super Tower as a building "of unprecedented scale conceived not as a building so much as a vertical extrusion of the city - a new town in the sky complete with parks, public squares, schools and hospitals."

It would rise 1,500m above London, be hollow of structure and have great gaping holes - hundreds of metres in the air - to let in the light. Of course, several engineering and logistical challenges have to be overcome to break into this new bracket of super-tall buildings, while questions about their economic and environmental sustainability also have to be asked. But the sheer audacity of these designs is simply so striking.

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