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The temptation and greatness of skyscraper ambition

The Saudi billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal has announced that he wants to build a skyscraper a kilometre high.

Written by The Financial Times | Published: August 15, 2011 3:14:20 am

Christopher Caldwell

The Saudi billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal has announced that he wants to build a skyscraper a kilometre high. It would have a Four Seasons hotel and a 157th-floor terrace. High-speed,double-decker elevators would rush visitors to the top levels in barely a minute and a half. The projected “Kingdom Tower” in Jeddah would rise higher than Burj al-Khalifa,the 828-metre colossus that has been,since it opened in Dubai in January,the world’s tallest building.

Ambitious plans for big skyscrapers are not in short supply these days. Spanish architects have proposed a 300-storey,1,228m edifice for Shanghai. But the Saudi plan has done more to capture the imagination.

Prince Alwaleed — a nephew of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and an energetic disburser of oil wealth — is more likely than most dreamers to make good on his plans. He has already enlisted the Chicago-based architectural firm of Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill and it has designed something that looks like a paper aeroplane stood on end. (Smith was the lead architect on Burj al-Khalifa.) Another source of fascination is surely that the Saudi Binladin Group will participate as a builder and investor. The announcement that SBG would help construct the world’s tallest building comes almost exactly a decade after another “bin Laden group” — Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network — took the world’s one-time tallest buildings down.

Engineering is the most pragmatic science,but feats of engineering are often more symbolic than practical. Gustave Eiffel and those who conceived of a vast tower to mark the Paris world’s fair of 1889 intended it as a monument to republican modernity. That is why a lot of traditionalist Frenchmen,including Guy de Maupassant,raged against it. Throwing up symbolic structures —monuments — is a high-risk business. For every Eiffel Tower there is,somewhere,a Montparnasse tower. While a good building highlights a city’s identity,a badly thought-out one can detract from it. The Swiss Re tower makes London look less like London and more like Anyplace,USA. A well-designed building in Jeddah could enhance the visits of the millions of pilgrims who pass through it each year on their way to Mecca. On the other hand,a badly designed building could make a pilgrimage to Mecca feel more like a shopping weekend in Dubai.

The Eiffel Tower,the Chrysler building,the Empire State building — these were meant to testify to the greatness and vision of the country that built them. It was US president Herbert Hoover who turned on the lights once the Empire State building was done. In recent years,however,great feats of engineering have testified only to the wealth of the country that built them. The Kingdom Tower project will rely on Smith and Gill to do the architecture and on Thornton Tomasetti,an international engineering group that has worked on other super-skyscrapers,including the Petronas Towers in Malaysia and Taipei 101 in Taiwan.

It is tempting,in fact,to say that builders and statesmen are in error when they point to such-and-such a building project as a source of national pride. But that would be wrong. Technology may be widely shared,but rising countries have the authority to capture big chunks of their national income for bold acts,while declining countries do not.

Big engineering feats are measures of ambition,just as those who exult in them claim. India and China have run unmanned moon explorations in recent years,but the US,where the National Aeronautics and Space Administration took up 5 per cent of the budget around the time of the moon landings in 1969,has renounced them.

In the face of US feats,Europeans have for centuries made the case that they are superficial tricks that do not matter much. If the Empire State building were 10 times as high,it would still not be the equal of the Florentine Duomo.

That may explain the scepticism of W H Auden when he wrote about “the lie of authority,whose buildings grope the sky”. Building the kind of building that dynamic societies have built will not turn Saudi Arabia into a dynamic society.

It is nonetheless hard for any country to resist trying. Shortly after September 11 2001,the French businessman and author Alain Minc published a book in which he argued that anyone who knew Americans would expect them to rebuild the towers even higher. For a long time,as the work site lay empty because of red tape,litigation and labour actions,it has been possible to entertain doubts. But this summer,1 World Trade Center reached 76 floors,and the building on that site,albeit unfinished,is once again the tallest structure in lower Manhattan.

© 2011 The Financial Times Limited

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