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The opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in January 2010 heralded new heights in building construction. But is it trophy architecture, or an innovative solution for the ever-growing metropolis?


For more than a century competition to claim the tallest building title has grown fierce. Thanks to the current economic downturn, the Burj Khalifa, which measures an astounding 828 metres - 320 meters taller than its current closest rival, Taipei 101 in Taiwan - may keep its title as the world’s tallest high-rise... for now, but as ground breaking commences on each new monolith, developers, architects and engineers throughout the world’s major cities are planning the next record-breaking construction. But what defines a skyscraper? According to Jan Klerks of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), the leading authority on tall buildings, there is no fixed differentiations between a tall building and a skyscraper, but he believes that the motives to build high are as much emotional as they rational. “My own interpretation is that the difference between the two is what I call vanity height. Tall buildings can be economical when it comes to saving space, high land prices and creating density, but at some point, the height of a building really doesn’t have a rational meaning any more, but an emotional one. That means people are willing to pay a premium for great views and the name and fame of the building.” He explains. However, from a more technical standpoint the CTBUH defines a “supertall building as any occupied building reaching over 300 meters in height.

The notoriety of these towering masterworks have engendered a breed of architectural elite – the starchitect. Just as Chicago’s 157 meter tall Seagram Building elevated Mies Van Der Rohe’s status to architectural icon, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Santiago Calatrava and César Pelli are just a handful of the architectural stars who have found fame through challenging traditional engineering techniques and form to reshape future skylines. Toward the end of the 20th century rising oil prices and the relaxed trade embargoes brought quick wealth to countries within the Middle East and Asia. City populations grew as the regions prospered and corporations were eager to flaunt their new found wealth by creating megatropolises. However, the crisis has prolonged and even brought a halt to many of the most ambitious starchitecture projects, such as Eric R. Kuhne & Associates’ Burj Mubarak al-Kabir in Kuwait, a cluster of towers supporting a main 1001 meter high structure, which, if realised, won’t see completion until at least 2023, or Calatrava’s Chicago Spire (currently on hold) and Nouvel’s New York Tower Verre. The residential and hotel development and expansion of the MoMA, designed by the French architect, was initially proposed to stand at 381 meter high, equalling the city’s tallest landmark, the Empire State Building. However city planners have forced a downscale of 61 meters (200ft), reducing it to just 320 meters. Despite the mainy halts on construction in Dubai, Foster + Partners’ 328 meter high The Index in Dubai, has faired a lot better and is scheduled for completion before the end of the year.

Such structures have long been considered ‘vanity architecture’, particularly in the 20th century, but there is a price to pay, as developers are discovering. Uncharted heights demand new techniques, new materials and ultimately a new approach to construction as sustainability becomes an important question. Connecticut-based Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects has been leading advocate in environmentally sustainable building design for over a decade. Best known for its design of New York’s World Financial Center, the Petrona Towers in Malaysia, and the UK’s tallest building, One Canada Square, the company was the first to design America’s first residential tower to be awarded LEED’s (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum rating.

Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects’ Aqua Tower looks set to achieve LEED silver certification. Water and energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality and its sustainable site are just some of the impressive green credentials of the 82 story Chicago mixed use block. However, it is not only the eco credentials that are impressing critics of this ambitious project, but also its innovative design. “Aqua Tower was shaped by an organic, site-specific design process. Rather than starting out with the goal of creating an icon, we let the climate and views shape the building, weaving it into its surroundings and treating the building and its environment as interconnected not separate. Even though it may appear to be formally expressive, it is equal parts data and imagination.” Explains principal architect, Jeanne Gang. The recently completed tower not only ranks fifth among world structures, it is the tallest building to be designed by a women. This dramatic new addition to the Chicago skyline, proves that despite financial constraints, iconic high-rise architecture continues to break new ground.

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