dec 08 | Millionaire

Yearning to soar

Structures that touch the sky have fascinated us from time immemorial, wither it is for their utility value - like a communications mast - or for their beauty and sense of achievement - like Burj Dubai, now the tallest manmade structure in the world. At the cutting edge of this phenomenon is super architect Adrian Smith, who says designing super-tall towers is an opportunity to make a strong statement and add meaningfully to the vocabulary of architecture.

Take humankind's centuries-old fascination with structures that reach for the stars, mate it with a new-found need for self-express ion and native pride - and you get this intense enchantment of driving past the world's tallest building twice a day, day after day. From the legendary Tower of Babel to the Tower of Dubai - via the Empire State Building and Taipei 101 - the journey has documented our need to reach higher and higher.

One man stands head and shoulders above all the architects and builders who have fed our fascination for tall buildings down the years. Beginning his practice in Chicago - the world / capital of tall buildings - gave architect Adrian Smith the thirst to reach even higher. As a raw young architect straight out of school, he worked on the John Hancock Center more than 40 years ago. As an experienced and respected architect today, he has designed what is now the world's tallest manmade structure, the Burj Dubai, or the Tower of Dubai.

The first two tall-building booms took place mostly in the United States. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, landmarks like New York City's Empire State Building and Chrysler Building - which may soon be owned by a UAE company - rose up to dominate the skyline. The second period, which ran from the late 1960s through the mid-I970s, saw the rise of Chicago's "big three" - the John Hancock Center, the Amoco Building and the Sears Tower - as well as the World Trade Center towers in New York City.

The Empire State Building at 1,250 feet held the crown of the world's tallest building for more than 40 years until finally being deposed in 1974 by the Sears Tower. But the era of long reigns ended in the opening years of the new millennium, when Asia and the Middle East started building structures that seem to reach out and grab a fistful of stars.

How high can we go? As construction technology takes the next leap into the nano realm, humankind may even realize science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke's dream of an elevator into space, soaring 36,000 kilometers up from an equatorial point in Sri Lanka, as depicted in his 1979 book "The Fountains of Paradise." The concept combines Clarke's overriding themes of technological evolution and human aspiration - which are both essential drivers of the need to build super-tall towers.

Millionaire spent some time chatting with uber architect Adrian Smith to discover perspectives to tall buildings in the context of the cities in which they are built, the technologies that take them higher and make them environmentally responsible and the human dream of creating landmarks that last. Excerpts from conversation:

Millionaire magazine: How long have you been creating structures?

Adrian Smith: For 41 years now. I remember the first project I ever worked on. It was the John Hancock Center in Chicago. It was 1967. I joined a firm called Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and I was assigned to the John Hancock Center. I was assigned to detailing grills in the basement. I also worked on the observation level- you enter the building, get into the sky elevator and shoot up to the 100th floor - I worked on that a little bit. Didn't really design much on that building but it was an interesting opportunity that got me really charged up about tall buildings. It gave me an education in terms of how super-tall buildings work.

MM: Besides your work on the John Hancock Center, is there any other factor to which you attribute your near-obsession with tall structures?

AS: I think that super-tall buildings help to define the nature and the character of a city. They become symbols for the cities that they are in. They also help to create walkable cities. If you have a number of tall buildings clustered close together, within walking distance, and each of these buildings is mixed-use, you begin to frame an idea of a walkable city. A place where you don't have to drive 30 miles every day, a place where you can walk to your restaurant, where you can walk to your place of business, to your gym and spa. A place where you can walk around the neighborhood where you have a lot of density of people whom you can associate with. It's a new approach to building cities but it's a highly sustainable one. For example, New York City is one of the densest cities. But it's also one of the cities in the United States that has the lowest carbon emissions. The reason for that is that a lot of people simply walk to where they need to go.

MM: You've always been a proponent of context - where a building has to be in consonance with its surroundings. There may be some places - such as Mumbai, India, where you are building a skyscraper in the middle of a low-rise neighborhood - where the building may actually stick out like a sore thumb. How do you justify context in such cases?

AS: Tall buildings are the exception to context - but they also form the new profile of a city. They can in many ways be freed from the contextual relationships around them, as long as in subtle ways, there is a relationship to the larger sense of the culture of a place. If you look at Burj Dubai, for example - the materiality of Burj Dubai is different from the materiality of most of the buildings around it. But the forms that are embodied within the shapes of the building evoke a memory of other building shapes and other surface shapes around Dubai. They recall memories in the people who look at the building who say: "There is something about this building that feels like Dubai, that feels like this region - and I'm not sure what that is." They associate it with the area even though it is not a replication of anything in the area.

MM: A million people drive past Burj Dubai twice every day and feel a sense of pride that the building and they inhabit the same city. However, apart from reading about how it represents the shapes of the desert flower, how are they to see the flower? From where they stand, it's more like a space needle.

AS: You'd have to be in an airplane looking down before you can see that. Or you'd have to be on the 150th floor, looking down at the petals. And people will do that. However, when you get close to the building and you look up, you also see those forms and the shapes of onion domes, and they are repeated. The onion dome is not just a shape, it is also an art form. It's a form that is used in the Middle East in very traditional, classic architecture. Most people can associate an onion dome form with this region. People may not discover that for weeks and even months as they get to know the building. It's highly abstract - and it's meant to be abstract, so that it stays as representational.

MM: In 41 years, what is the most exciting project you've worked on?

AS: Every project that you are doing at the time seems to be the most exciting. I think projects that relate to a context - that add a certain Significance to the context - and those that can be the most sustainable and the quietest from the point of view of urban pollution, with the lowest degree of carbon emissions - this is where we are going in terms of how we do our work from now on. But I have a lot of pride for buildings like Burj Dubai, the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, a little building that I did inBahrain about 20 years ago for United Gulf Bank, and some of the projects I did at Canary Wharf in London. There is a particular building in Boston for Manulife Financial- which is the first double-wall building in the United States and the first LEED-certified building in our firm. I'm particularly proud of these buildings. But I think that the Verde residence and office buildings in Dubai are very significant as well, because they are highly sustainable and will add a great deal to the vocabulary of the architecture in Dubai. They're very simple and straightforward buildings - every flourish and decoration is done for a purpose. Every floor is shaded with sun-shading devices. The systems that we have put into these buildings will generate more power than 600,000 trees. It is roughly equivalent to taking 680 cars off the street on a yearly basis. That's a powerful and interesting thing for a building to do. We hope to get to a point some day in our lives when we can say: "We need more energy - let's build a building." We're working on such an energy-positive building in Abu Dhabi for Masdar - it's their headquarters.

MM: This must keep you on the cutting edge of building technology. For instance, the Burj Dubai has a feature that allows the condensation that collects on the exterior to be channeled into landscaping uses. How do you remain on the cutting edge?

AS: We spend a considerable amount of our resources on researching new and innovative ways to introduce some of these ideas into our architecture. We have a team that does this research - on how to make our buildings contribute more to society.

MM: Is this one of the reasons you walked away from Skidmore after so many years - because they did not work at the cutting edge?

AS: There were aspirations to do this there, but the clientele was different. The clients at SOM did not seem to be particularly interested in that aspect of it. For example, we did the Pearl River project in China where the design actually harvests the wind that comes from the south side of the building. The winds would be gathered like a sail and funneled into four openings that would drive wind turbines and generate power. That building is under construction now. That's one of the aspects to the Verde Residences as well. At the top of the building we have these wind scoops that pick up the wind from the west and bring it through the mechanical core and out to the turbine on the east.

MM: Sounds like a marriage of really old technology -like the barajeel of this region - with new technologies of power generation.

AS: That's right. Before air conditioning, people understood that they needed to build these things. Once they understood that they needed to create shelter, the next step was to make themselves more comfortable. This has been the strategy throughout the history of architecture. When we got into air conditioning systems, the comfort level went way up, but the problem was, so did the environmental pollution. What we're trying to do now is develop energy that can drive the systems without creating carbon emissions. And of course, we're trying to orient buildings - orientation is a critical first step to design. You can orient a building north- or southfacing to avoid the harsher sun of the east or west.

MM: lust out of interest, do you use any of the Oriental orientation methods such as Feng Shui or Vaastu Shastra?

AS: Oh yes, we paid attention to Feng Shui in the J in Mao Tower in Shanghai. Even if it was in Communist China and they were not supposed to believe in it, there was this feeling that it may be important to their guests. Even in Burj Dubai, we have paid attention to Feng Shui - just the orientation and how you enter the building. Emaar Properties had a Feng Shui expert come in and do this. You just need to cover all your bases.

MM: Do you see concrete technology evolving to be able to support even taller buildings in the future?

AS: Concrete technology has advanced a great deal in the past 10 to 15 years. We probably could not have built the Burj Dubai 15 years ago. That will continue to evolve and new, stronger and lighter materials will continue to be produced through nanotechnology. We are studying this from the aeronautics industry.

MM: What is the arc that Burj Dubai will sway in a wind of, say, 100kph?

AS: Its designed sway is roughly 1.2 metres. When you figure that over the height of the building - which I can't tell you - you won't feel it. What you feel in a building is the acceleration of movement, not the duration of movement. So, the longer the duration is, the less you feel it. You really need to design buildings for vortex shedding, which happens when wind is hitting the building and moves around the building. As it moves around, it creates spiral activity on the sides which tries to move the building back and forth. At a certain point, if you get a harmonic resonance, then the building begins to crack. We design our building to avoid that.

MM: How deep does Burj Dubai's piling go?

AS: About 55 metres. The taller the building, the heavier the building, the deeper the piling has to go or the more piling you will need.

MM: In terms of the comfort of a building's living spaces, what do you see in the future?

AS: It's going to continue to get better. We are looking at new materials and new methods to build our exterior walls, where we have the flexibility to bring in all the light we want, or reduce it. The important thing is to develop an exterior wall system that is highly responsive. We are looking at new ideas for window technology. We're researching high-efficiency glazing systems that don't exist today. We will probably incorporate such systems in the Masdar headquarters in Abu Dhabi. You will see buildings that are intelligent enough to become more responsive to users needs. This will also use less energy.

MM: You have worked and are working on projects across the world. Where do you see the maximum demand coming from?

AS: The Middle East.

MM: Worldwide, how long would you say it will take for another building to go higher than Burj Dubai?

AS: Five years at least. Nothing right now has started construction that aims to go higher. And it would take five years to build something of that height.

An architect in full
Adrian Smith has been a practicing architect for more than 40 years. His extraordinary body of work includes some of the world's most recognizable landmark structures, including Burj Dubai in Dubai, UAE; Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, China; and Rowes Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. His unique design approach emphasizes sensitivity to the physical environment.

He considers each project holistically, taking into consideration site orientation, climate and geography, cultural and social influences to create highly sustainable projects that achieve contextualism within the global environment. As one of the world's foremost experts of super-tall towers, he recently collaborated with Gordon Gill to design the world's first net Zero-Energy skyscraper, Pearl River Tower, to be built in Guangzhou, China. The design harvests the natural forces of wind, sun and geothermal mass, and continues Smith's tradition of integrating energy-efficient systems and technologies into his design. In 2006, Smith walked away from a long career at the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to found Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. He has also designed buildings in Bahrain, Brazil, China, England, Germany, Guatemala, Indonesia, Korea, Kuwait, Mexico, the United States (Chicago, Boston, Des Moines, St Louis, Minneapolis, Washington DC, Orlando) and Saudi Arabia. Projects under his design direction have won more than 90 major awards for design excellence, and his work has been featured in major museums in the United States, South America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

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Nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at the nanoscale. The nanoscale has been defined as involving minuscule particles that measure between 1 and 100 nanometres - one nanometer is equivalent to less than 1/10,000 of the thickness of the average human hair. Nanotechnology is a multidisciplinary field, which involves physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and medicine. Still newer, more efficient methods are being developed which will rely on the creation of sophisticated biomaterials. However, the challenge lies in interfacing these biomaterials with existing technologies, and creating the required infrastructure needed for mass manufacture.

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