High Mark When the 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa [left] opened in Dubai in 2010, it topped Taipei 101, then the world’s tallest building, by more than 1,000 feet. SOM/Nick Merrick Copyright Hendrich Blessing

Sky-High: The 3,280-foot Kingdom Tower, scheduled for completion in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2017, is the tallest building currently planned. Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture/Jeddah Economic Company

The Rise Of The Supertalls

Engineering advances have architects striving for the mile-high skyscraper.

By Clay Risen
Posted 02.15.2013 at 10:00 am

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Bill Baker, a structural engineer with the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), was at his office in downtown Chicago. SOM is the undisputed leader in skyscraper design, and, at least on the engineering side, Baker is its undisputed king. In the past 30 years, he has overseen or worked on six of the world’s 15 tallest buildings. But 9/11 was a bad day to be king: As the World Trade Center collapsed and rumors circulated about a rogue plane headed for the Sears Tower, Baker and his colleagues watched as the symbols of their profession became objects of terror.

A few days later, Baker and some of his co-workers drove to New York. The contractors at ground zero needed volunteer engineers to help take apart the towers. “They broke up the site into four zones,” he said. “Each zone had four structural-engineering teams, and we were the Chicago team.” As Baker picked through the rubble, it was hard not to question the future of high-rise architecture. One article in The Associated Press noted that architects were asking bluntly, “Should we ever build iconic skyscrapers again?”

Barely 18 months after 9/11, Baker returned to New York—this time to talk about designing the world’s tallest building. The firm won the contract; six years later, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai topped out at 2,717 feet, more than half a mile tall.

Rather than an era of architectural modesty, the decade since 9/11 has seen a flowering of skyscraper construction. In the 70 years before 9/11, the record for the tallest building grew 230 feet. Since then, it has shot up 1,234 feet. And it’s poised to rise much higher over the next decade. Today’s tallest skyscrapers are new in every respect: new structures, new materials, designed and tested with new methods. The result isn’t just taller buildings but an entirely new category of building: the supertall skyscraper.

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. “When you get above the World Trade Center size, you’ve got to change your fundamental thought process,” Baker says.

Read more: The Rise Of The Supertalls | Popular Science.

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