By Herbert Wright
We end our History of Cities series with a monumental tower in Saudi Arabia that, when finished in 2018, will become the world’s first kilometre-high skyscraper. So what does it say about the future of our cities?
The ever-taller story of modern skyscrapers is due to reach a new milestone in 2018 – or rather, kilometre-stone. Upon completion, the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah will rise at least 1,000 metres into the Saudi Arabian sky (its final height is still unconfirmed), thus stealing the coveted crown of world’s tallest building from Dubai’s 828m-tall Burj Khalifa.
The Kingdom Tower aims, in the process, to become the ultimate trophy building; a technical tour-de-force courtesy of its revolutionary structural engineering, state-of-the-art heat-shunning glass, and lifts that use carbon fibre to go higher than ever before. The project’s lead architect, Adrian Smith, says the new tower will be “a gateway, a marker and a symbol for Saudi Arabia”.
To achieve all that, the project must overcome social concerns and economic omens that are hard to ignore with a building as ambitious as this. The Kingdom Tower’s context is the surrounding $20 billion Kingdom City that will be built subsequently – and whose origins can be found in Le Corbusier’s 1922 Ville Contemporaine, which established the idea of “towers in the park”. Countless failed tower-block social housing schemes, including St Louis’ infamous Pruitt-Igoe complex, stemmed from this approach, before the vision transformed in the 1980s into new business districts such as London’s Canary Wharf.
This century, the high-rise masterplan has resurfaced in the petrodollar-fuelled cities of the Gulf states, giving rise to zoos of bizarre towers bordered by freeways in a syndrome the Qatari-based writer and artist Sophia Al Maria calls “gulf futurism”.
The Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, an evangelist for human-scaled cities, has roundly condemned this approach in books such as Cities for People. In 2010 he told a Melbourne audience that modernist planners had “left the ground and the people dimension in planning, and started to fly over the whole thing, planning from a distance”. One result of that was buildings Gehl refers to as “birdshit architecture – the starchitects fly in, fly out, and drop some buildings here and there with no context”.
That’s unfair in the case of Smith’s tallest towers – while working for SOM, he designed the Burj Khalifa, whose shape follows from the Hymenocallis desert flower, with setbacks evoking spiralling minarets. The Burj is popular too, its observation deck attracting almost 2 million visitors a year.
Kingdom City, designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG), recycles the Burj’s planning formula down to the surrounding moat and towers – only bigger. The buildings encircling the Kingdom Tower will rise from 20 storeys (for those nearest) to 60 storeys, so everyone in them should get a good view. Smith says they expect 3 million visitors a year – some delivered by the planned new metro system, the stations of which Norman Foster’s practice is tipped to design.
Right now, the $1.2 billion Kingdom Tower is an isolated, fortress-like hulk of concrete, standing about 15 storeys tall in the forbidding desert landscape beside the Red Sea, separated by Abhur Bay from the city centre 15 miles to the south.
Jeddah is often described as a relatively liberal counterpoint to Saudi Arabia’s conservative capital, Riyadh. Mounib Hammoud, CEO of the Jeddah Economic Company, the project’s developers, told arabianBusiness.com that Kingdom City will “position the city of Jeddah on the international scene of modern regional cities, alongside the downtown of Beirut and Downtown Dubai”.
Saudis escape their ultra-conservative regime by holidaying in such places, and Hammoud wants some of that vacation wealth to stay at home. The complex’s open spaces will probably bustle, because everyone will have money and time to spend there. But what about those who can’t afford it, such as the migrant workers that built Kingdom City in the first place?
Since 2013, according to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia has been conducting mass expulsions of its migrant workers. Across the Gulf states, the construction industry relies on migrant labour, and low pay and harsh conditions have been well documented. The Kingdom Tower has not been linked with any abuse cases, and hopefully lessons have been learned from other projects in the region.
Asked if there would be separate entrances and circulation zones for men and women, as in many Saudi public buildings, Smith replies that “the Kingdom Tower is a true mixed-use tower, and it will have four separate entrances based on function, not gender” – just like London’s Shard.
While Jeddah is Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, in many ways the Kingdom Tower belongs to a very different second city – Chicago: home of the world’s first skyscraper in 1884, and the world’s tallest, the Sears (now Willis) Tower, between 1974 and 1998. Smith started as a young architect in SOM’s Chicago office in 1967, going on to design skyscrapers worldwide including the Burj Khalifa. When he finally left to co-found AS+GG in 2006, he set up shop in a 1911 Chicago skyscraper – from where the Kingdom Tower was designed in 2009.
Chicago is also where the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright hoped to build his mile-high skyscraper, The Illinois – proposed in 1956. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the plan electrified Chicago and kept its dreams of height alive. And there seems more than a passing resemblance between the 252-storey Kingdom Tower and the 528-storey Illinois – both are slender, angular, straight-edged and taper to a sharp point – although Smith dismisses Wright’s tower as “more sculpture than architecture”. The Kingdom Tower, he says, is “an evolution of the Burj Khalifa”, tracing its lineage back to Mies van der Rohe’s unbuilt 1921 Berlin skyscraper, the first designed with glass curtain walls.
Like the Burj, the Kingdom Tower has a Y-shaped cross-section with three wings separated by 120 degrees, one pointed towards Mecca. “Its specific form comes more from the image of a new palm about to spread its fronds,” Smith says. The wings emerge from a triangular core containing lifts and services, and the plan gives stability against skyscrapers’ traditional enemy: the lateral forces of wind.
A Starship Enterprise-like circular helipad, 30m across, protrudes out at level 157. This was originally designed to provide fast access to the penthouse, but the wind makes it a dangerous place to land, so instead it has become an observation deck – the world’s highest at 630m.
Wright dreamt of including 76 five-storey, “atomic-powered” lifts in the Illinois. The Kingdom Tower will have 57 of the non-atomic variety, including five of the world’s fastest “double-deckers” travelling at up to 10 metres per second (there are faster single-deck lifts, but apparently they can induce bladder problems). Conventional steel ropes limit a lift’s reach to about 500m, but Finnish manufacturer Kone’s carbon fibre-based UltraRope extends that, so here the lift shafts are designed up to 660m.
Kone also provides “an occupant evacuation operation system for emergency situations” – but little more has been said about the security issues surrounding this landmark construction. Saudi Arabia faces a threat from terrorists with an even more fundamentalist religious ideology than the official one, and which has targeted ministers, foreigners and, as recently as May, Shias. The cost of terrorism is unspecified in the Kingdom Tower’s $1.5 billion insurance policy.
In 1999, the economist Andrew Lawrence noted how record-breaking skyscrapers often coincide with economic downturns – a phenomenon known as “the skyscraper curse”, graphically charted by the Economist. New York’s Singer Building was built during the Panic of 1907 onwards; a century later came the Burj Khalifa and the last global financial crisis.
While the Kingdom Tower promises to house 121 serviced apartments, 360 residential apartments, a 200-room Four Seasons hotel and much office space to boot, its top 85 floors will go unoccupied as they are too narrow for apartments or offices (some will house plant machinery and communications equipment). In truth, the developers are probably not that bothered if their tower takes time to fill up – this is often the case when exceptionally tall, speculative towers are marketed: the Empire State Building took two decades to fill with tenants.
The big question, though, given the economic and technical challenges faced by the Kingdom Tower, is how much higher our cities’ skyscrapers will go in the future. Several taller project proposals are waiting in the wings, in oil-rich countries from Kuwait to Azerbaijan – but oil revenues are not what they were.
“The materials are already available and the engineering is advanced enough to design and construct a building of a mile high and taller,” says Smith. “The question is how practical is it to go higher? It’s really a question of economics.”
“I would guess that mankind will eventually produce a 1,500m tall tower,” says James von Klemperer, president of the global high-rise architectural practise KPF. “It won’t make practical sense, and it will involve some gigantic form of subsidy, but someone will make it happen.”
But while cities across the world now understand that densification can make them more efficient and socially productive places, there is also growing recognition that higher densities can be achieved without resorting to super-tall skyscrapers. Gehl says he detects “a change of paradigm” with planners to human-scale cities, citing his home city of Copenhagen as a model.
Is it possible, then, that Jeddah’s Kingdom Tower may turn out to be mankind’s last, tallest, trophy tower? And that one day, after humanity’s population has peaked and cities have contracted again, it could stand empty but heroic, like Shelley’s description of Ozymandias’s ruin: “Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”