18 jan 10 | The Orange County Register

San Clemente gave architect of world's tallest building a foundation

by Brittany Levine

Adrian Smith, who designed the 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai, grew up in San Clemente. At 65, he's competing to design a building in Saudi Arabia that may be even taller.

Alfred Smith was picking through women's clothing at a wholesale warehouse in Los Angeles to find merchandise for his San Clemente department store named after his youngest son, Adrian. But the vacationing college student wasn't interested in selecting women's clothing.

So he started chatting with the shop's accountant. They talked about the hot weather that summer of 1966. They talked about Adrian's plans to be an architect and the accountant's son-in-law, a Chicago architect named Bruce Graham. Adrian got his address.

A few years later, Graham would become Adrian's mentor and design Chicago's Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world in 1973. Decades later, Adrian would design the Burj Khalifa, a spiraling, heat-deflecting tower in Dubai that opened this month at 2,717 feet, making it the tallest building ever.


Adrian Smith, 65, moved to San Clemente when he was 5 years old. His father opened a department store on Avenida Del Mar named Adrian's, where Billy's Deli is now.

Growing up, Adrian had a gift with numbers and an obsession with building things. He and his friends would run down to the beach almost every afternoon and build sandcastles before helping fishermen bring their catch ashore using wheelbarrows kept near the pier. He sometimes searched the coastal bluffs for bamboo to make huts. He never surfed, but his older brother hung out with Hobie Alter, the man behind the foam-and-fiberglass surfboard.

Smith didn't realize it back then, but living near the ocean in one of the first planned communities instilled in him a respect for the relationship between a building and its environment.

"It gave me a sense of place," he said during a recent visit to San Clemente between work trips to Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai, China.

He played baseball in the city's Little League and his father was a member of the City Council. In high school, he was good at math and geometry, so his mother suggested he think about architecture. He chose Texas A&M University because it was cheap and his brother, a doctor, lived nearby.

He sent a letter to Graham the summer before his senior year asking for a job. Graham said his famous Chicago firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, wasn't hiring but to try again the next year. Smith did. In 1967, he was hired as an apprentice architect and worked on many of Graham's projects, such as the John Hancock Center, one of the tallest buildings in the world. He met his wife, Nancy, a Skidmore administrator, in 1968. They lived in Chicago with their two children, Katherine and Jason, but would visit San Clemente in the summer.


Every now and then, a kid who loves skyscrapers asks for Smith's autograph. Chance Mitchell, a 7-year-old with congenital heart failure, became fascinated with the Burj Khalifa after searching "tallest building" on YouTube and watching a clip about the structure being built in Dubai. The Make-A-Wish Foundation of Orange County and the Inland Empire made the boy, who has a hole in the wall separating his heart's right and left chambers, a 4-foot scale model of the Burj this summer.

When Smith heard about Chance's wish for the model, he wanted to talk to him. Chance jumped around the schoolyard screaming, "I am going to talk to Adrian Smith! He built the Dubai tower!"

After visiting San Clemente recently, Smith stopped by Chance's house in Temecula. He showed Chance, who is the same age as Smith's grandson, how to make a strong base. Chance showed Smith the secrets of his twisting tower. He gave Chance's parents pointers on what classes Chance should take and which schools have the best architecture programs.

"I love (the Burj). I love how tall it is," Chance said in an interview. "I just like building."

Smith also designed Shanghai's 88-story Jin Mao Tower in the early 1990s. Now he's competing for the chance to design a building in Saudi Arabia that could be up to 5 percent taller than the Burj. The winner will be announced late this month.

"I feel pretty good right now," Smith said. "I may have one more left in me."