How to build supertall: Designers of the world’s tallest towers share their secrets

The tallest building in the world casts a long shadow. For more than a decade, the 828 meter tall Burj Khalifa has dominated the Dubai skyline and the collective consciousness of architecture. Not only did it break the record; 62% larger than its predecessor, Taipei 101, wiped it out. His legacy was remarkable – and remarkably useful to the man who designed it.

Adrian Smith conceived the Burj Khalifa as an architect at Skidmore, Owings and Merill (SOM), but by the time the tower opened in 2010 he had established his own practice, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gil Architecture, alongside Gill and Robert Forest. Known as AS+GG, the company specializes in the design of supertall and megatall skyscrapers – buildings at least 300 and 600 meters tall, respectively.

According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), supertalls are still relatively rare with only 173 completed buildings worldwide, and megatalls are still very rare with only three at present. Many more were canceled at various stages. For anyone working in this space, “you don’t have a lot of examples to look at,” Smith said in a joint video interview with Gil and Forest.

“The ultimate learning experience is when the building is complete,” he explained. “Anything but that is paperwork.” This is why skyscrapers like the Burj Khalifa remain so relevant.

“To go back and see something that was made 15 years ago and how it’s weathered or how it works and to talk to people about their experiences or how the building works is priceless,” Gil added. “There is no substitute for that.”

Over the past 15 years, AS+GG has developed a portfolio of skyscrapers in Asia, North America, Europe and the Middle East. These designs have now been published in a new book entitled Supertall | Megatall: How High Can We Go?”

A street view of the Central Park Tower, a 472 meter skyscraper in New York designed by AS+GG and completed in 2020.

A street view of the Central Park Tower, a 472 meter skyscraper in New York designed by AS+GG and completed in 2020. Recognition: Courtesy of Michael Young/Adrian Smith + Gordon Gil Architecture

The Big Tome is intended as a practical guide for both students and practicing architects. It’s full of technical drawings that explain the innovations behind skyscrapers like the recently completed Central Park Tower in New York (472 meters) and the forthcoming Chengdu Greenland Tower (468 meters) in China, to concepts that evolve extend over a kilometer high. It’s architecture on the cutting edge, charting a path for where skyscrapers could go next.

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“It’s surprising how few people on the planet actually know how a supertall works,” said Smith, who describes the topic as “more or less unknown.”

So why is the company so willing to share its secrets?

A brief history of the tallest buildings in the world

A great idea is never lost

AS+GG’s most famous design is the Jeddah Tower (formerly known as Kingdom Tower) in Saudi Arabia.

The height of the Jeddah Tower when completed is reported to be over 1,000 meters, which would make it the tallest building in the world. After the planned completion in 2020, the building was according to “Supertall | Megatall” as of 2020 climbed 58 stories and had delays.

Smith said the designers “protected everything they need to protect” and “the building is not deteriorating.” In response to inquiries about his reinstatement, Gill said, “Never say never.”

The Jeddah Economic Company, responsible for the nascent Jeddah Economic City where the tower is located, has not responded to a request for comment on the condition of the building at the time of publication.
A 2013 composite image of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and a rendering of the Jeddah Tower, a skyscraper in Saudi Arabia that, when completed, would surpass the Burj Khalifa as the world's tallest building.

A 2013 composite image of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and a rendering of the Jeddah Tower, a skyscraper in Saudi Arabia that, when completed, would surpass the Burj Khalifa as the world’s tallest building. Recognition: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images/Adrian Smith + Gordon Gil Architecture

One of the longest entries in the book is dedicated to the innovations built into the tower design, from extensive wind testing using a 1:4,000 scale model, to solar radiation mitigation strategies, to a condensate recovery system with the ability to collect 14 Olympic-sized swimming pools water from the building every year.

But “Supertall | Megatall” also notes that Jeddah Tower’s structural system builds on and refines that of Burj Khalifa, with a three-wing, Y-shaped design for maximum stability – as seen in previous designs such as WZMH Architects’ CN Tower in Toronto . Smith also said that the Burj Khalifa and Jeddah Tower were inspired by the sharp, all-glass skyscraper on Friedrichstrasse, a 1920s undeveloped design by German-American Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Bad’ The building is “a perfect example of (a design) that went unrealized and still has value,” Gil said. That might explain why “Supertall | Megatall” also includes AS+GG skyscrapers that were never built.

A rendering of Meraas Tower, a 2008 design by AS+GG. The proposed skyscraper would be 526 meters tall.

A rendering of Meraas Tower, a 2008 design by AS+GG. The proposed skyscraper would be 526 meters tall. Recognition: Courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gil Architecture

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Many of these are from Dubai (in fact, it has more entries than any other city in the book). A growing city with ambitions to burn, the emirate has been a petri dish for bold projects over the past two decades. AS+GG’s proposed skyscrapers include Meraas Tower (526m), Za’abeel Signature Tower I (598m) and 1 Dubai Atrium City (1,000m). It’s a flight of fancy to imagine what the city’s skyline would look like with their addition, but like Rohe’s Friedrichstrasse, their absence isn’t a total loss.

“That’s why we talked about the projects that didn’t happen in the present tense[in the book],” Foster said. “It’s not a graveyard of dead ideas.”

“Tons” of lessons learned from these buildings have already found application in other AS+GG designs, Gil said. For example, the design development of the one-kilometer-tall “vertical city” 1 Dubai has prompted discussions about mechanical systems, structural efficiency, elevators, fire safety, air and lighting, among other things, Gill said, “making their way into a larger dialogue around height.”

On the last pages of “Supertall | Megatall” we see the development of 1 Dubai’s three slender, interconnected towers in a series of kilometer-tall skyscraper design prototypes that utilize three separate towers connected to a central structure for stability.

“I don’t think a great idea ever goes to waste,” Gil said.

Left: A representation of 1 Dubai, an unrealized skyscraper over 1,000 m tall.  His resemblance can be seen in one of the company's concepts for a mile-high skyscraper (shown in an illustration alongside the Jeddah Tower design).

Left: A representation of 1 Dubai, an unrealized skyscraper over 1,000 m tall. His resemblance can be seen in one of the company’s concepts for a mile-high skyscraper (shown in an illustration alongside the Jeddah Tower design). Recognition: Courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gil Architecture

Design for the invisible

For cities trying to raise their profile on the world stage, supertalls can help make a name for themselves. “You can’t hide these buildings,” Forest said. “Regardless of the owner, it becomes a symbol of its location.”

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What worked for Dubai became a blueprint for Jeddah. But height isn’t everything, and it’s not necessarily the company’s primary concern (the commission to make the Burj Khalifa the world’s tallest building came from client Emaar, Smith recalled).

A rendering of part of the facade of the Biophilic Tower, a 668m tall skyscraper proposed for Suzhou, China in 2012.  The design incorporated many elements inspired by forms found in nature and incorporated flora into its interiors.

A rendering of part of the facade of the Biophilic Tower, a 668m tall skyscraper proposed for Suzhou, China in 2012. The design incorporated many elements inspired by forms found in nature and incorporated flora into its interiors. Recognition: Courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gil Architecture

For AS+GG, altitude becomes the starting point for a number of problems to be solved; a scale that both requires and incubates innovation. The book suggests that super and megatall buildings can update ideas related to energy efficiency, reduce carbon footprints, and bridge the built environment and the natural world through biophilic design. “We have economies of scale that allow us to introduce ideas that sometimes get stuck,” Gil says.

The Biophilic Tower, an unrealized 2012 design destined for Suzhou, China, incorporates many departures from convention, including a spiraling 119-story vertical forest and sunshades inspired by the structure of leaves and honeycomb . But innovation is often hidden from the public eye, Gill suggested.

“Sometimes I think people look at buildings and they can’t really pinpoint what they’re seeing,” he said. “That’s because we often design for the invisible… things that people never see and never engage with. But they are in science and in design. And that just makes the buildings better.”

A computer model of 1 Dubai stress tests of the structure under different conditions.  A lot of "super large |  super big" consists of technical drawings and graphics of the inner workings of skyscrapers.

A computer model of 1 Dubai stress tests of the structure under different conditions. Much of “Supertall | Megatall” consists of technical drawings and graphics of the inner workings of skyscrapers. Recognition: Courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gil Architecture

With “Supertall | Megatall” puts the invisible in the spotlight. “The educational component of this book should not be ignored,” said Smith, who, like his partners, is excited to see AS+GG’s designs finding a second life as an industrial resource. “As professionals, we have a responsibility to share our knowledge,” Gil said.

As it turns out, Supertall’s secrets don’t want to stay secret.

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