Big is beautiful in China. While the global economic slowdown has triggered tough times for skyscraper construction in the West, it is a different story in the second-biggest economy in the world.
With the country’s economy expanding at more than 7 per cent a year, there is serious interest in constructing the mega-tall buildings that showcase China’s achievements.
The UAE is home to the world’s tallest building, the 828-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai, while the world’s first kilometre-high building, Jeddah’s Kingdom Tower, is due to be completed in 2018.
In China, it is a numbers game. Nine of the world’s tallest 20 buildings being built here are potent symbols of the country’s economic might.
Adrian Smith, the Chicago-based designer of the Burj Khalifa who is working on the Kingdom Tower, believes rapid urbanisation in China will fuel major expansion in tall buildings.
“In the near future, it depends how the economy goes in China, but from an urbanistic point of view, there are 179,000 people moving into urban areas every week. Do they go into a horizontal or a vertical city? It’s a question of economics,” said Mr Smith.
China’s statistics on tall buildings are not for those afraid of heights.
There are 239 buildings taller than 200 metres being built in the country, far more than any other nation. At the end of last year, there were only 61 buildings taller than 300 metres in the world, but in five years, China will have more than 60.
The nation’s growing ranks of “mega-tall” buildings encompass the need to match functionality with property costs, the architect Timothy Johnson, chairman of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), stated at the organisation’s first congress in China last month.
“But also the image. It’s all about telling the story of the accomplishments of China,” said Mr Johnson, a designer partner at the firm NBBJ.
“If you look back at the Sears Tower or the Hancock Center in Chicago, they are about image. I don’t think tall buildings are going to slow down … Human accomplishment and urbanisation will continue to drive this for the future,” added Mr Johnson, who designed the Sail at Marina Bay in Singapore, the world’s 10th-tallest residential building.
Jack Portman, the vice chairman and chief executive of John Portman & Associates, which has built some of China’s landmark buildings in the past 30 years, at the CTBUH meeting showed images of the transformation of Shanghai that bear out these figures.
When Portman’s company signed its joint venture in 1985 to build the Shanghai Centre, there was little to see on the city’s horizon. Since then, it has been completely altered, from a low-rise sprawl located almost entirely on the Puxi side of the river to a megalopolis with a giant high-rise city on reclaimed land in Pudong. He underlined the future transformation by showing images of projects his company is working on in other cities, such as Jinan, Wenzhou and Wujiang.
It made sense that the CTBUH congress took place in the Jin Mao Tower, an 88-storey skyscraper in the Pudong district of Shanghai.
Until 2007, it was the tallest building in China, the fifth-tallest in the world by roof height and the seventh by pinnacle height.
Right next door is the Shanghai Tower, under construction, which, when completed in two years, will stand 632 metres high with 121 storeys.
China completed 23 buildings of more than 200 metres last year, more than any other country, and five of those buildings were in Shanghai. The city’s vice mayor, Shen Jun, believes that tall buildings are an inevitable part of the urban make-up in Shanghai, which is China’s most populous city.
“Land resources are not renewable,” he said. “We have no choice but to build high-rises to save land.”
Li Guoqiang, a professor of structural engineering at Tongji University in Shanghai, saw the start of the boom in Shenzhen, the financial centre just across the border from Hong Kong, during the 1980s.
“I participated in the first tall building over 100 metres in Shenzhen,” Mr Li said. “At that time China had no experience in the design and construction of tall buildings. We imported the steel from Japan and the fabrication was done in Japan. The workers were trained in Japan at that time.
“Right now, China has much improved. Next, China needs to develop techniques, such as techniques in structural terms to deal with earthquakes, which is very important in China,” Mr Li added.
“When I first moved to Shanghai in the 1980s, there were 10 million people here. Now there are 20 million people. There are more and more people from the countryside moving to Shanghai. We need tall buildings for these people. The land in Shanghai is limited.”
There are crazy stories coming out of China’s tall building world. It took Dubai more than five years to build the Burj Khalifa, but architects and engineers in June were saying they needed just 90 days to build Sky City, an 838-metre building in Changsha, Hunan province, probably best known as the hometown of the late Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong.
Sky City will be built by Broad Sustainable Building, a unit of the air conditioner maker Broad Group.
The construction process will be fast because the building will be made up of precast sections. However, public uproar over the project’s claims led the local government to withdraw information about the development, and the group subsequently said its plan was awaiting the government’s approval.
As well as tall buildings, there are also tall tales in China.