12 aug 08 | The Chicago Tribune

Skscraper wars part two: egos clash and cultures collide as Chicago architects reshape Asia's skylines

By Blair Kamin

Fourteen years ago, long before anyone knew that Beijing would be hosting the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the following story of mine ran in the Chicago Tribune Magazine. At the time, Sears Tower had reigned for 20 years as the world's tallest office building and the skyscraper remained synonymous with the United States. But all that was about to change, as the piece makes clear. The story chronicles the conflicting design philosophies of two of Chicago's leading architects, Adrian Smith (then a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) and Helmut Jahn, still the head of Murphy/Jahn, as they shaped skyscrapers in Shanghai. Smith's 88-story Jin Mao Building (now called the Jin Mao Tower) was built. Jahn's 21 Century Tower was not. With the Olympics focusing attention on China, I'm offering the story as a five-part serial that will appear on this blog from Monday through Friday. I'll return next week.

Put the city up,

Tear the city down;

Put it up again,

Let us find a city.

Poet Carl Sandburg penned those lines about turn-of-the-century Chicago. Today, they could be written about Asia, home to more than half of the world's people.

Fueled by inexpensive labor, an infusion of foreign capital and China's 1978 shift to free markets, an economic boom is underway throughout East Asia, which embraces China, Taiwan and Korea. The same is true in much of Southeast Asia, which extends from China's southern borders to the islands of the Southwest Pacific.

In Hanoi, where French colonial rulers laid out streets resembling the boulevards of Paris, elegant villas that survived American bombs during the Vietnam War are under threat from a bulldozer blitz that is clearing the way for high-rise hotels, shopping malls and condominiums. In Kuala Lumpur, a tropical East-West crossroads where the architecture ranges from Moorish to British to Chinese, the quaintly named Selangor Turf Club has been relocated to make way for a massive complex of hotels, condominiums, shops and a park that will include the world's tallest office buildings. In Shanghai's Pudong, an agricultural and industrial backwater just three years ago, the authorities have demolished 1920s-era shacks to make way for a commercial district that will include the glistening Jin Mao Building (above).

On the surface, there are myriad similarities between these teeming cities and the Chicago in which the first skyscraper, William LeBaron Jenny's Home Insurance Building of 1885, poked its squat frame above the Victorian cornices of the Loop: staggering economic growth, packed streets and rural dwellers coming to urban areas in search of a better life. Another common element, especially in development projects, is widespread corruption.

To speed a project's way through the approval process in Indonesia, "an envelope passes hands," acknowledges William Louie, a partner with New York-based Kohn Pedersen Fox, the firm that designed the curving green high-rise at 333 West Wacker Drive. Louie quickly adds that Asian architects who work in association with his firm take care of the payoffs. He also is reluctant to condemn the corruption. "It's part of the process," he says."It's unwritten, unspoken. It's the only way to get things done."

Smith denies that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and the Chinese architects with whom it is working on the Jin Mao Building have engaged in such activity. But it is clear from conversations with the architect and his American colleagues that their Asian clients resemble Westerners in other ways, with rival cities trying to outdo one another on the skyline. If Shanghai is going to build Smith's 88-story skyscraper, then Shenzhen will raise one of equal height-even if it would be more economical to go only 50 stories high. "It's just like Houston and Dallas," says Craig Hartman, the partner in Skidmore's San Francisco office who designed the 88-story Shenzhen tower. "There is prestige and pride at stake, a competition among cities."

With so many high-rises going up so fast, Asia's boomtowns recall the turn-of-the-century Loop, where the streets were jammed with cable cars, horse-drawn wagons, early automobiles and trucks that groaned under loads of logs. Some question the wisdom of raising additional megabuildings, which almost surely will cause more congestion, but in Shanghai at least, relief from the congestion appears to be on the way. The city's municipal government is finishing $14 billion worth of bridges, tunnels, freeways, ports and power plants. And in March, local officials say, they will start $25 billion worth of construction, including a subway system, a second international airport and more tunnels and freeways.

Yet for all the comforting similarities between America and Asia, there are marked, often controversial, differences that attend the art of skyscraper-building in the two places.

Asia's economic boom is occurring under the aegis of authoritarian regimes, not Western-style democracies, including the Chinese leadership that carried out the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Does this mean that the skyscrapers of Smith and Jahn are symbols of dictatorship?

Smith replies that China's construction boom is improving the lot of thousands of Chinese workers. Jahn, who has been heckled at college lectures for designing an office tower in South Africa, says flatly, "I work for a client, not a regime. He adds: "I've got to keep 80 people busy. If I were to not take the job, some people in the office would ask if I'd gotten crazy. I don't think we're selling our soul. If I didn';t take this job, 10 other guys would be willing to take it."

The all-powerful governments exert significant impact on skyscrapers, according to Robert Bruegmann, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Illinois-Chicago. In Singapore, for example, political authorities-not private property owners-control land, forcing would-be developers to negotiate nearly every aspect of their towers with the government bureaucracy. "They have a kind of control that is unheard of in the United States," says Bruegmann, who has traveled to Singapore, as well as Malaysia and China.

Other differences between East and West are more obvious to the eye. American architects working in Indonesia and Malaysia have incorporated mosques into their commercial complexes, enabling Muslim office workers to recite their prayers, kneeling and facing Mecca, during business hours. Many U.S. firms have added Asian nationals to their staffs to interpret building codes written before the dawn of supertall, or chao gao, skyscrapers, as they are known in China. With an eye toward providing safe havens for office workers in the event of fire, for example, Shanghai requires skyscrapers to have an empty "firebreak floor" every 15 stories. To make the Jin Mao Building comply with this requirement, Skidmore has designed the safety floors as conference centers that won't be rented out for office space. "Our building codes were not exactly designed with skyscrapers in mind," says Zhu Qihong, the Jin Mao Building's project director.

Zhu notes that Americans seem obsessed with contracts and want everything spelled out in black and white. In contrast, he says, Chinese rely more on "relationships, understanding and human ties." That's why bonding rituals like banquets and karaoke songfests are so important.

In other cases, the distinctions confronting American architects separate not East and West, but North and South. In cold, northern cities such as Chicago, the glass skins of high-rises gather natural light, a feature appreciated by office workers during the short, gray days of winter. But in equatorial Malaysia, there is a tradition of seeking relief from the bright, beating sun. Houses have large overhanging roofs and verandas. "Nobody goes out and sits on the lawn when the sun is out in Malaysia," says Pelli, who has given his towers a sculpted exterior that includes projecting sun shades. The architect wants office workers to feel protected in these buildings "in the way they would normally be in their homes."

Yet perhaps the most pronounced difference-and the one that has had the greatest effect on Smith's skyscraper-is the Chinese tradition of fung shui (pronounced "fung shway"). It's the practice of foretelling a building's success or failure by discerning whether its location, shape and other factors are pleasing to supernatural forces, and it's done by free-lance geomancers hired by developers. Westerners who may regard fung shui practitioners as kooks might consider that the West, too, has bizarre building customs-for one, no 13th floors in office buildings.