The 9/11 attacks were very nearly the death of the skyscraper. The shockwave from the destruction of the World Trade Center cast doubts on the rising heights of urban buildings, and calls for modesty were heard all over the world. Surprisingly, this initial burst of fear didn’t slow down the industry. In fact, skyscrapers have shot up at unprecedented rates since then; in the years since the September 11th attacks the world record for the tallest building has lept up by 1,234 feet. A new type of buildings has been born, presenting new challenges and reaching towards new goals. These buildings are the supertalls. Via Popular Science:
Technically, the supertall category, as defined by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, covers anything taller than 300 meters, or 984 feet. That includes the 1,250-foot Empire State Building, a supertall half a century before the term’s invention. The two World Trade Center towers, which began to rise in 1966, reached 1,368 and 1,362 feet. But only within the past 15 years have architects and engineers begun to see supertalls as a separate class, with its own challenges and opportunities.
One firm is taking the lead in the charge to redefine the limits of architecture, engineering, and construction. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, or SOM, are most famously known for the Burj Dubai, or the reinging tallest building in the world. But they aren’t satisfied with simply holding the record; they want to keep breaking it. With the right client, they claim they could build a mile high building.
What gives this firm such confidence? A process that incorporates all of the most advanced processes in the industry. Everything begins with an idea, and traditional sketching and rendering are still fundamental tools in the architect’s arsenal. But when it comes to supertall, the next steps are the most important in determining whether or not a sketch can become a building. SOM 3d print dozens and dozens of models for each of their designs, cover them in sensors and run them through wind tunnels to determine where the buildings are the weakest. Then its back to the drawing board, as the dance between creativity and technology push the functional boundaries of human ingenuity. Research is also key, and SOM are no strangers when it comes to radical ideas on construction.
As some engineers move toward concrete, others are already thinking beyond it, to carbon-fiber composites, the same lightweight, superstrong material that provides the structure in racing bikes and jet aircraft. But scientists will need to work out some significant challenges. Not only is carbon fiber very expensive, but its advantage—its lightness—would also be disturbing for anyone inside the building. People are used to the solidity of concrete and steel under their feet; in a carbon-fiber building, they would feel like they were walking on a drumhead, a disconcerting sensation at 1,500 feet.
As supertalls become more and more common, revolutionary and even somewhat frightening new ideas like these will become increasingly necessary. As such, the post 9/11 surge in supertall growth is not just a trend, its a full scale architectural revolution. In 2017 the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia will open, dethroning SOM at its height of 3,280 feet. Still, this is far from the end. The world’s population is increasing exponentially, and the only direction we have to go is up. Fortunately, architecture’s best and brightest are ready for the challenge.