`Supertall’ Buildings Defy Cash Crunch, Ape Condoms, Scar Mecca

Al Hamra Fidrous
An artist's rendering of the 74-story Al Hamra Fidrous tower under construction in Kuwait City, Kuwait. The design, by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, appears to unfurl to reveal the supporting core of the building, faced in stone. Source: Skidmore Owings & Merrill via Bloomberg

Dubai’s real-estate sector was collapsing when the country opened the Burj Khalifa, a skyscraper that rises in silvery setbacks a dizzying 2,717 feet (828 meters).

Hubris and scandals color the history of buildings that stretch the limits of engineering. Yet the “Supertall!” exhibition at Lower Manhattan’s Skyscraper Museum shows that the allure of high buildings is stronger than ever.

The Burj Khalifa opened with elevator problems and a cash crunch. Its labor practices drew the attention of Human Rights Watch.

Yet the building makes visitors swoon. Gorgeous architecture has a way of sweeping away doubts. Designed by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and ex-partner Adrian Smith, its shimmering magical thinness seems to dissolve into the stratospheric mists.

For the Skyscraper Museum’s exhibition, founder, director and curator Carol Willis focused on a rarified class of 48 buildings taller than 1,250 feet (the height of the 1931 Empire State Building).

One is the suave Guangzhou International Financial Center in China. London-based Wilkinson Eyre and the global engineering firm Arup crowned the 1,443-foot tower with 30 floors of hotel rooms opening onto scalloped balconies wrapping a wow-inducing skylighted atrium.

The inevitable priapic imagery takes contemporary form in several towers with smoothly tapering tops and ribbed sides possibly inspired by condoms. Engineers say these shapes do an especially good job of offsetting the potential damage from wind turbulence.

Both the Shanghai Tower and Seoul Lite tower will shimmy like voluptuously curved, sheath-dressed models as each tops its skyline at more than 120 stories (over 2,000 feet).

Appears to Disrobe

Al Hamra Firdous Tower, a spare-no-expense skyline icon in Kuwait City, appears to disrobe as the glass-clad exterior peels open to reveal its stone-faced concrete core. It’s not a stunt, according to architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The curving edges shield the most sun-seared side of the building.

The sheer size defeats most of the tactics architects use to humanize large structures. A resort tower in South Korea bundles vertical shafts like bunches of asparagus. A Moscow slab layers shardlike pinnacles steep as ski slopes. A fan of glass Art Deco fronds explodes at the top of a dull Dubai tower. Twinkling lights outline everything.

Though sleek, futuristic modernism prevails, cash-laden promoters ransack history to lay on gilded glitz.

Defacing Mecca

The appalling Abraj Al Bait Towers loom 1,972 lugubrious feet over the sacred precinct of the Grand Mosque of Mecca. Some addled soul at Dar Al-Handasah architects cribbed the bellicose classicism of Stalin-era Socialist Realism, then crowned the 95-story central tower with a 140-foot-diameter clock face imitating London’s Big Ben.

The hotel, shopping and meeting complex has been designed to harvest cash from pilgrims headed to Islam’s most sacred shrine. I predict Saudis will come to their senses and implode this insult within a generation.

In the exhibition, tall towers show off their curves, bulges, and bias-cut rooflines in far-flung cities such as Dalian and Tianjin in China, and Busan, South Korea. They display technical bravura to advertise recently acquired engineering and construction proficiency. South Korea’s Samsung built Dubai’s Burj.

Willis notes that many of these shafts rise above huge metropolitan areas so dense they make London and New York look countrified. They are icons for an era when million-person cities rise in a single generation.

Skyscraper Curse

“Supertall” buildings, with stratospheric condos and five-star hotel rooms, have a way of opening just as markets implode. This is the famous Skyscraper Curse. The Tokyo-based Mori group started the Shanghai World Financial Center in 1997, just as the Asian financial crisis hit. Mori made it even taller once conditions improved, though it didn’t open until 2008.

If the Curse is your oracle, be afraid for China (22 towers in the show, including Hong Kong), Dubai (6 that survived the market meltdown), and South Korea (4). Despite real-estate collapses in many markets, Willis found 13 more “supertalls” in her current survey than she did in bubbly 2007.

Skyscrapers remain assertions of ego, advertisements for success and monuments to overreaching. But as you gaze at the panorama of city lights spread out below some atrium sky-lobby, you can’t fail to recognize that their bigness goes with the century of the global megacity.

“Supertall!” runs through January 2012 at the Skyscraper Museum in New York. Information: http://www.skyscraper.org

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” For more information: http://web.me.com/jscanlonrussell)

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