The super-tall skyscraper is a contentious thing. The culmination of our technological and cultural evolution, such buildings are some of the most readily identifiable symbols of modernity. They are derided as much as celebrated: seen by critics as follies that speak of meaningless excess and a futile race for the sky and by fans as the ultimate combination of architecture and engineering. The title of "world's tallest" secures a place in the public consciousness and, for many, is the epitome of architecture. Even Frank Lloyd Wright succumbed to the allure of designing one, with his 1956 idea for the mile-high Illinois Tower in Chicago.
Over a 39-year career that started at SOM in Chicago, Adrian Smith has been credited as the architect of many of the most famous super-tall (more than 300m) buildings in the world. He was the lead designer of the 421m Jin Mao tower in Shanghai (1999), the 423m Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago (2009) and the 828m Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, in Dubai (2010). After leaving SOM in 2008, Smith founded AS+GG with Gordon Gill, and the firm is working on a tower that will surpass the Burj Khalifa: The Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
"When people talk about architecture, these projects always come up in conversation," Smith says. "When you think of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and prior to that, the Burj Al Arab, they symbolise what Dubai is to the larger audience." Smith is wary of the impact that super-tall buildings have on the culture and context of a site, and is aware of the paradox of creating a building that needs to address the evolution of a place while transforming it. "It is true that many of the buildings are not of the culture, climate or geographic conditions of a place, but they are contextual in the sense that they are establishing a context for the future," he says, laughing. "To what degree you can link with the past is something I look at also. I see if there is a way of holding hands from the past to the future, so there is a sense of familiarity and a relationship with the people impacted by these buildings."
Burj Khalifa opened in January 2010 and grabbed the attention of the world. It is a centerpiece of Downtown Dubai, a development that aims to point the Emirate in a new economic direction, not solely dependent on its limited natural resources. The tapering spire is intended as a catalyst for – and the first piece of the city that generates its money from – tourism and business. The plan and interiors of the tower draw from the natural beauty of the region, acknowledging the shifting sands of the desert, Arabic calligraphy and the onion-dome motif, that informed the shape of the plan at each step-back. But, undoubtedly, the gleaming glass structure with stainless steel fins on the exterior sets a paradigm in aesthetics and technology.
In Jeddah, Smith says work is about to start. "They have their boring equipment on site," he says. "They should be digging holes any week now." The final height is yet to be revealed, or maybe even decided on, but Smith is sure it will be more than 1,000 metres. When pressed on the need and desire to build so big, Smith pauses before answering: "For me it's not necessarily important that it is the world's tallest. But for our clients it is important. I always tell them they are not going to make money on the building – it is too tall, complex and costly to make any money." So why do it? "What typically is happening, on those that get built, is that they have some other device for making money than the tower itself. It tends to be that the land around the tower increases in value for future development purposes. That is a tried and tested phenomena."
The Kingdom Tower is part of a plan to shift the centre of the city north. Jeddah is a tourist destination for Saudis, and has a more hospitable climate than the rest of the country. It is also the gateway to Saudi Arabia for the 3 million pilgrims who pass through on their way to Mecca for the Hajj. "The tower is about strengthening that gateway presence and the role within the Islamic community. The tower will be the building that many people will visit when they go there." Smith says. "I think there is another goal of the Saudis: to become more open and to make the country more accessible and a place of international business."
Much like the Burj Khalifa, the tower is tripedal in plan, centred on a concrete core, but while the tower in Dubai spirals skywards, the three legs of the Kingdom Tower drop off towards the summit. "The massing of the two buildings is similar," Smith says. "In terms of the aesthetic, the Kingdom Tower is more – I'll use the word – severe. It is more angular, cutting and sharp than the Burj Khalifa. Each leg is sloping at a different angle, so they terminate at different heights." The tallest of these will rise to more than 1km, the second highest will be about the height of the Burj Khalifa and the shortest will be 600-700m. The tower will contain offices, hotels, residential space, an exterior observation deck and some undesignated, but special, spaces above.
In Seoul, AS+GG have also unveiled its design for a tower in the Yongsan development. Daniel Libeskind has devised a masterplan, and about 30 international architecture practices including SOM, KPF, BIG and MDRDV have been invited to design buildings, for a 23,000sq m site on the banks of the Han River. Renzo Piano is designing the tallest building of the set, but Smith and his team are working on the second tallest: the Dancing Dragons. The two towers – one 450m and the other 390m tall – would dwarf the Shard in London. "The appearance stems from creating a wall that is shingle-like and there is a thickness between the models of around 18 inches," Smith says. "That becomes a seam through which you can ventilate the interior, it becomes a breathable wall."
The cuts that scythe through the glazed "dragon skin" help counter the wind vortices that form around the tower. The Dancing Dragons are designated as "officetel" buildings, a typology that means they are not solely for office or for residential use – and exploits a South Korean tax loophole. AS+GG had originally planned two very different towers – one with a softer, curvilinear form – but the client was worried about the complexity of a structure with some 4,000 exterior wall conditions, so asked the architect to make them the same. "We made subtle differences in the way each tower was cut and placed them against each other, so they are dancing together," Smith says. "It is poised, they are flowing into one another."
The title of the world's highest has moved to the eastern hemisphere, where it appears it will remain for some time. The US could once finance high-rise marvels that were symbols of its economic and political ambition and success; as both demonstrations of power and the solution to the densification of urban centres. But could the gargantuan architectural gestures of the east make an re-appearance in the post 9/11 west? Smith is unsure, but sees an opportunity in two cities: "London and New York, because they are such international cities, could build towers of this size. There are deep pockets that want to be in those locations if you have the right site," he says. "In New York, there is a re-emergence of super-tall towers, but they have a very small footplate. There is one we are working on that is 1,200ft (366m). They aren't as tall as the ones we are making in Asia at the moment, but people are seeing the value in higher density point structures."
Chicago and New York were the cities that pioneered the high-rise boom, but many of their symbols of progress and power are now energy inefficient and expensive to maintain. Smith and his team led the greening of the landmark Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago, designed by SOM in 1973.
"We were able to reduce the amount of energy used in the base building by about 50 per cent," Smith says. "By applying modern day technology, like simply recladding it with double glazing, we were able to save a tremendous amount of energy." With more than 50 per cent of the tall buildings in Chicago built before 1975, the need to improve the energy performance of the old building stock is vital. The city has implemented the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning scheme to retrofit towers in the same way AS+GG did with the Willis Tower. "It's the ultimate for sustainability to use what you have," Smith says. "Make it better and more efficient."
Although AS+GG has made a name for itself with a very particular type of building, Smith is pragmatic about the possibilities of continuing with this kind of work. "I don't think we need to go any higher," he says. "There might be a couple that challenge the Kingdom Tower in a serious way. But from a cost and use point of view, I don't see many happening over the next 15 to 20 years. You also wonder if it's not happening in China right now, if it will happen at all."