Why China's Plan To Build The World's Tallest Skyscraper In 90 Days Is 'Madness'

Christian Sottile, SCAD Dean of the School of Building ArtsChristian Sottile, SCAD Dean of the School of Building Arts.

Photo: Courtesy of SCAD

Earlier this year, a Chinese construction company announced plans to build a new “world’s tallest skyscraper,” an 838-meter highrise in Changsha.It also promised to complete the building, called Sky City One, in an astonishing 90-day timeline, and to do it for $628 million — around a third of the cost of the Burj Khalifa, which currently holds the title of the world’s tallest building.

The company, Broad Sustainable Building, says it plans to accomplish the feat by using a proprietary prefabrication technique. And while it is still waiting for certain government approvals, the company recently reiterated its promise that Sky City One would be standing at full height in March 2013.

The mixed-use building, which would include luxury apartments, low income housing, and space for businesses and retail, sounds incredibly ambitious. But we were sceptical that it could be done on such a tight timeline and small budget.

We reached out to Christian Sottile, the Dean of the School of Building Arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He gave us his take on why the project is possible, but a terrible step for architecture and urban living.

Business Insider: A 220-story highrise in just 90 days: Is it mad, or brilliant? Is it even possible?

Christian Sottile: Pre-fabrication has revolutionised the building industry — applying this now as a strategy for tall buildings under the right conditions is brilliant. The irony is that at the same time, if you look at the outcome of this endeavour urbanistically, it is at best a folly, and at worst, madness. 

The proposition that a city can be contained within one building is unnatural and devastating to the human spirit. This project would, however, not be the first to propose such an end. It follows a long tradition of audacious architecture attempting to rethink the city. But in the end, the city always wins. I am speaking of the evolved city of over 7,000 years of transcultural human history — cities that honour the human being, as well as the art, craft, culture and resources of places.

One might do well to remember the Italian Super Studio movement in the 1960s proposing radical new forms of the city. Many of its founding members later went on to reject their propositions in favour of more universal ideas embodied in the traditional city. Among them, Adolfo Natalini once told me that “I started my career as a pyromaniac and ended it as a firefighter.”

In an era of blind adherence to the marvels of technology, we are all too often seduced into believing that any result of its application will advance our collective well-being. We do this without considering all of its possible effects. We might remember that while nuclear physics is in itself a wonder of scientific achievement, it can be used either to create clean energy or fatal weaponry. In the case of Sky City One, the application of this technological feat, even if executed successfully, is ultimately a loss. 

Whether you build it in three months, or not, you still lose.

BI: Broad Sustainable Building says the short timeline is possible because of its “modular” technology — most of the building will come prefabricated and be assembled on site. What do you think of the concept, and what are the drawbacks and dangers to “modular” construction?

CS: The process of making buildings as a local activity enriches the local economy, draws on local resources and develops local skills. The efficiencies gained in off-site modular prefabrication come at the risk of impoverishing the uniqueness, identity and regional wisdom that evolves in different places. This is not to ignore that certain elements of buildings will be sourced or fabricated elsewhere, but that the majority of the act of building should be a sector of a local economy.  The more that the activity of building happens remotely, the more individual places are deprived of their own expertise, identity and self-determination.

BI: Broad Sustainable Building also claims it can do the project on a $628 million budget, which is a fraction of the cost of the Burj Khalifa, which cost $1.5 billion to build. How can the company do it so cheaply?

CS: The standardization of the building format for Sky City One, repetition of structural elements, and proportionately high volume of space enclosed by the design all add up to significant cost savings. Also, realising the efficiencies that arise from pre-fabrication and limiting costly construction time on-site reduce the real costs of construction. 

The irony of building quickly and cheaply is that we ultimately live with our buildings for decades to come, maybe centuries. Buildings that allow long-term use accommodate restoration and reinvestment. In the category of ultra-tall buildings, quick and cheap may be fitting. I say this because these buildings really have no long-term future. The technologies involved are so specific to one moment in time and one manufacturing process that they later prove to be un-restorable. They can be thought of as single-use buildings. Think of Sky City One as the Paper Plate of Architecture.

BI: Assuming that Broad Sustainable Building gets government approval for the project, do you think there’s any chance it will actually be standing at full height in March 2013? Is there a more realistic timeline?

CS: Mark Twain noted that “history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes a lot.” Allusions to the audacity of the Empire State Building in New York in the 1930s abound. Even Sky City One’s Art Deco-inspired hero-rendering and its formal stepped design puts off the same monumental aspirations. The Empire State boasted construction in 13 months, Sky City One boasts three months. The Empire State rose at five stories a week, Sky City anticipates five stories a day. Updated for technological advances nearly a century later, it follows that these exponential metrics should be possible. But we must still ask, what does this prove? 

Fancy, folly, or foolish prestige?

BI: Sky City One is billed as a “car-free city for 100,000 people.” How does the design help or hurt density problems in the area?

CS: In a disquisition of the ultra-tall building type as a useless format, we must remember to avoid the fallacy of perceived density. Density is often presented as the inevitable need and justification for skyscrapers.  However, it should rather be understood as a question of format. Density can either be located within fewer tall buildings with inordinately large open spaces around them to allow light to reach building surfaces, or it can be arranged in networks of low to mid-rise buildings with more compact and legible open spaces around them, such as walkable streets, parks, and plazas, providing a more comfortable human habitat. Let’s remember that the average height of a building in Manhattan is three stories.

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