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Reinventing skyscrapers
Edgy designs emerge as strong markets drive building boom

By Alex Frangos
19 April 2006
The Wall Street Journal Europe

CHALLENGING traditional notions of what tall buildings are supposed to look like, developers around the world have unveiled a flurry of new skyscraper designs in the past few months.

A tower in China owned by a tobacco company is shaped like a cigarette pack and will breathe in air to push turbines that will generate enough electricity for the entire building. A plan for a tripartite spire in Moscow aims to be not only the tallest building in Europe but also the only modern skyscraper with a natural ventilation system. Another design, in Louisville, Kentucky, looks like a three-legged chair with a 22-story diagonal elevator that accesses a "floating island in the sky" art museum.

To some big-building watchers, the over-the-top swoops and curves reflect a top-of-the-market mentality as global real-estate tycoons pour money into notoriously difficult-to-build stylized symbols of ego and economic strength. "Skyscrapers are always a function of good economic times," says Carol Willis, founder of New York's Skyscraper Museum.

The good times include a robust high-end residential market in major cosmopolitan cities. For the first time, many of the tallest buildings being built include apartments for the well-heeled. Strong economies in Asia and the U.S., as well as oil-fueled booms in the Middle East and Russia, are also driving the soaring spectacles.

A flush market has made often risk-adverse contractors more willing to take the plunge on a project that doesn't look like anything they've built before. "The big contractors are becoming more adventurous, going for a challenge," says David Scott, a skyscraper engineer with the London-based firm Arup and chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a sort of skyscraper-designer trade group.

The shimmering Moscow City Tower, in the Russian capital's planned financial district, would rise from an unusual Y-shaped base into narrow blades that taper as they rise 118 stories above the ground. The tower, which has been dubbed by its developer, STT Group, a "vertical city for 25,000 people," will include apartments, a hotel, offices and leisure space. It is expected to cost $1.5 billion and be completed as early as 2010.

The architects, London-based Foster & Partners, led by Norman Foster, say it will be the world's tallest "naturally ventilated" tower, reducing heating demands in frigid Moscow winters by 20%. Rain and snow harvesting will supply 30% of the water for sinks and toilets.

In Guangzhou, China, state-owned China National Tobacco Co. Guangdong's new headquarters will be an undulating rectangle. It won't be the tallest in town, but it is aiming for a lofty goal: having zero net impact on energy consumption. Gaps in the facade will "inhale" wind that will propel turbines to produce electricity.

Making a tower green is a bigger challenge than making it tall, says Thomas Kerwin, managing partner at the Chicago office of architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which won a competition to design the tower.

"Height doesn't seem to be a problem," says Mr. Kerwin. "Engineering feats are becoming commonplace. . . . Pushing the envelope from a sustainability perspective is more difficult."

The most atypical skyscraper scheme is the Museum Plaza in Louisville, designed by Office for Metropolitan Architecture's New York branch. It could be mistaken for an agglomeration of several towers on stilts, connected in the middle by the three-story "island" 22 stories up. It will house a 50,000-square-foot contemporary art museum and lobbies for offices, hotels and loft condominiums that will be perched in three finger-like towers that emerge from the top of the island. Visitors will access the island through an elevator that leans diagonally against the side of the building.

Joshua Prince-Ramus, the lead architect, says the plan was born from the "backwards" nature of the development. Instead of the commercial aspects driving the project, the museum is the main focus.

For all the grand plans of developers around the world, past experience indicates many of the proposed projects will never break ground. The history of skyscraper design is littered with never-realized, stalled or half-completed projects. Developers often unveil flashy drawings simply to attract investors and tenants. In addition, extremely tall buildings have a checkered past in terms of attracting tenants.

The Moscow City Tower is actually the second stab in recent years for a supertall structure there. The first never got off the ground for lack of financing. The Louisville project will depend on a host of unknowns. They include landing a hotel operator and residential and office tenants, who might prefer to be in more traditional structures. The Guangzhou tower has better prospects since its developer also plans to occupy the building.

Ms. Willis of the Skyscraper Museum says the curves, bends and contortions of today's tall buildings echo a skyscraper boom -- and eventual bust -- in the late 1920s. While many famous spires went up before the 1929 U.S. stock-market crash, she says there were "many more announcements for the tallest building or eccentric designs, some brightly colored, that never got built."

Sara Seddon-Kilbinger contributed to this article.
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