Five years ago, with a Fulbright Fellowship funding his summer study in Malta, U. of I. architecture professor Mir Ali agreed to assist the Malta Environmental and Planning Authority and the University of Malta in determining whether more skyscrapers should be built in the tiny island nation. As one of the most densely populated countries in the world, Malta consists of a group of islands, the largest of which is the "rock" just off the toe of Italy. The Republic of Malta's government had received close to 50 proposals from developers wanting to build high-rise office buildings, hotels and condominiums.
Nicknamed “the Gherkin,” London’s 591-foot-tall 30 St Mary Axe (previously named the Swiss Re Building) is an example of an iconic, aerodynamic form, but it has been criticized for its lack of connection to the historic context of its surroundings.
Photo by Kheir Al-Kodmany
While formulating that report, Ali was contacted by the government of Amman, Jordan, with a similar request for advice on the feasibility of erecting skyscrapers there. During his trip to Jordan, Ali realized that many cities were confronting the same questions. "I realized that this is a worldwide topic," he said. "There are no clear guidelines for urban design with respect to tall buildings."
Ali, a professor emeritus who had already written, co-written or edited four books on skyscrapers, knew that he could help answer those questions with another book. For this one, "The Future of the City: Tall Buildings and Urban Design" published by Wessex Institute of Technology Press, he brought in Kheir Al-Kodmany, a U. of I. alumnus who is a professor of urban planning and policy at UIC, as lead author. Complementing each other's expertise, Al-Kodmany, whose doctorate is in urban and regional planning, and Ali, whose doctorate is in structural engineering, addressed all aspects of tall buildings, from pragmatic considerations such as land prices, population density, technology and infrastructure demands to more subjective elements such as cultural and architectural context, spatial strategies, skyline aesthetics and even the role that human ego plays in the urge to build ever taller skyscrapers. They worked on the 420-page volume for four years, during which Al-Kodmany traveled to 25 cities around the world to photograph, research and examine the architectural and urban design aspects of the newest, tallest and most iconic building developments.
How tall does a building have to be to be called a skyscraper? There is no universally accepted answer, Ali said. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, an international organization founded in the late 1960s, defines a tall building by a combination of three criteria: Its height relative to its surroundings, its incorporation of height-related technology (vertical transport systems, certain structural systems) and its height relative to girth. This last criterion Ali calls "the quality of tallness."
"It has to look tall," he said.
Ten or 12 stories is the minimum height for a building to be considered tall virtually anywhere in the world, Ali said. In 1884, Chicago's 10-story (138 feet) Home Insurance Building was considered the world's tallest building. It was soon dwarfed by surrounding structures and demolished to make room for a taller building in 1931. That same year, the 102-story (1,250 feet) Empire State Building was completed in New York, and it resided at the top of the list of world's tallest buildings for almost 40 years.
The Council on Tall Buildings coined other terms for buildings meeting specific heights: "supertall" or "ultratall" for buildings more than 300 meters (984 feet) tall, and "megatall" for buildings more than 600 meters (1,968 feet). Worldwide, there are currently at least 30 supertall buildings (Chicago's Aon Center, John Hancock Center, Trump Tower and Willis Tower are in this category) but only two megatall - the 601-meter (1,972 feet) Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and the 828-meter (2,717 feet) Burj Khalifa in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Taller buildings proposed in China, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia may be completed before the end of this decade.
But height isn't the only frontier being explored by tall buildings. As Al-Kodmany and Ali explain in this lavishly illustrated book, the trend toward more fluid lines is transforming skylines, using dynamic shapes that can't be duplicated with a toddler's building blocks. The authors devote an entire chapter to the "rise of the iconic high-rise" - for example, the curvaceous Absolute World 1 Tower (nicknamed "Marilyn Monroe") in Mississauga, Ontario; the aptly named Tornado Tower in Doha, Qatar; and the Shanghai World Financial Center, dubbed "the bottle-opener." Another chapter focuses on futuristic skyscraper developments such as the SkyPark of the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore and the Linked Hybrid housing development in Beijing, as well as some still in the planning stages, including fantastic landscapes in Baku, Azerbaijan; Istanbul; and Seoul, South Korea.
What make these advances possible, the authors write, are technological breakthroughs in building materials, engineering and computing. Urban planners can now site, design and construct buildings using geographic information systems, 3-D modeling and virtual reality, testing everything from wind forces to traffic patterns to seasonal shade before beginning any actual construction. Al-Kodmany, whose research focuses on reshaping planning and design using computerized visualization, is working on another book about the role of these new technologies in guiding decisions about the location and design of future tall buildings.