A mile-high skyscraper, almost double the height of today’s tallest building, may become a reality by 2025 as developing countries splurge cash in an ego-fueled race to construct the world’s highest tower.
“If you have enough money, I’m sure the human mind can create a lot higher,” said Timothy Johnson, an architect and chairman of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, in an interview in Shanghai yesterday. “Who are we to say it’s good or bad. People want to push higher and higher. That’s just human nature, isn’t it?”
Planning for the next milestone, a 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) building, may be under way before 2020 and completed five years after that, Johnson said, without giving further details. Johnson designed the Sail at Marina Bay in Singapore, the world’s 10th tallest residential building.
Today’s highest skyscraper -- the 828-meter (2,717-foot) Burj Khalifa in Dubai -- is set to be overtaken by the 1 kilometer Kingdom Tower in Jeddah when it’s completed in 2018. Developing countries are eclipsing the U.S. and Europe in the “megatall” category of 600-meter-plus buildings, fueled by faster economic growth and a desire to show off their wealth.
The council, founded in 1969, is holding its first congress in China, where it says nine of the world’s highest 20 buildings under construction are going up, three times more than any other country. It has been recognized as the arbiter on building height and the body that determines the title of “The World’s (or Country’s or City’s) Tallest Building,” according to its website.
Johnson said he had discussed with a Middle Eastern developer a plan for a building with a height of 1 1/2 miles about four years ago. The plan was shelved because of the economic turmoil in the region, he said, declining to identify the developer.
“We actually discovered you can do it,” Johnson said.
The challenges are finding materials to replace steel and cement, and identifying methods beyond traditional elevators to move people. The world’s next tallest building is unlikely to be in the U.S. or in Europe, he said.
Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect who designed New York’s Guggenheim Museum, sketched fantasy skyscraper “The Illinois” in 1956 that would have been a mile high. The tower called for 76 atomic-powered, quintuple-deck lifts, including express elevators that could reach the top of the 528-story building in a minute.
“Maybe the one-mile building will be in Africa, a place that needs to somehow say ‘look, we are also here,’” Johnson said.
China completed 23 buildings over 200 meters last year, more than any other country, according to the council.
The 492-meter World Financial Center in Shanghai is the tallest tower in China and the third in the world. The 632-meter Shanghai Tower in the city’s Pudong business hub is set to be the world’s second-highest building when construction is completed in 2014.
The world’s No. 2 skyscraper today is the 508-meter Taipei 101 in Taiwan. Chicago’s 442-meter Willis Tower, the eighth tallest, is the only building outside of Asia or the Middle East in the top 10.
Johnson said he isn’t concerned about the impact of China’s economic slowdown on the construction of skyscrapers. The nation’s economy is poised for its weakest expansion in 22 years, adding to risks in a global economy that is grappling with Europe’s debt crisis and an anemic recovery in the U.S.
At least 12 banks and brokerages have cut their gross domestic product forecasts for China, with UBS AG, Morgan Stanley and Barclays Plc predicting the nation’s growth will sink to 7.5 percent this year, the lowest since 1990. That compares with 9.3 percent in 2011.
“It might take time to fill up those buildings, but China in general has the capacity to continue to grow,” Johnson said. “Maybe you are not going to take your money back in two years, but in five or even 10 years.”
Johnson and Adrian Smith, the Chicago architect responsible for the Burj Khalifa and the Kingdom Tower, spoke today at the congress hosted by the council in Shanghai.
“Technologically, mile-high buildings are feasible to do, you can build them now,” Smith said in an interview today.
Still, Smith said such a venture is unlikely in the near future. “There is no real reason to go that high and it’s a very expensive venture. I think we are going to be creeping up on that stage. My guess is that won’t happen for another 20 to 30 years.”
Beyond 1 kilometer, skyscrapers would likely need to have two or three buildings interconnected, with horizontal elements bracing the “legs,” Smith said. The horizontal areas could be used as sky-terraces, or sky-decks and lobbies for people to travel within the building, he said.
Five of the world’s tallest 20 buildings in 2020 will be located in three countries in the Middle East: the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to the council.
“What’s happening in the Middle East is a bit of ego,” said Johnson. “A lot of this is built with oil money. There isn’t necessarily the demand, however the people building these want to push human ingenuity.”
Kingdom Holding Co., Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s investment company, is seeking a loan to help pay for the construction of the Kingdom Tower, two people with knowledge of the matter said in April. It will be about 50 floors higher than Burj Khalifa.
Emaar Properties PJSC, the Dubai-based developer of the Burj Khalifa, said second-quarter profit more than doubled, beating analysts’ estimates, as a one-time impairment charge was not repeated and it cut costs.
Like most of its peers in the United Arab Emirates, Emaar’s earnings dropped after Dubai’s property market collapsed at the end of 2008 and caused residential values to fall by more than 60 percent. Income from selling properties in the Burj Khalifa has dwindled as buyers paid their final installments on completed apartments.
Johnson said it’s an amazing feeling to stand on top of skyscrapers such as the Burj Khalifa. “But you kind of ask yourself, ‘why would anyone want to be up that high?’ And some of it is just human ego.”