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Bold new era of building to the sky

By Ruth WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 21, 1999


In the end, it's all about bragging rights.

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Until the project hit a financing snag in recent days, Melbourne had a prospect for taking the title "world's tallest building" into the Southern Hemisphere for the first time.

Connoisseurs see a new golden age of skyscrapers unfolding around the world.

The Grand Hyatt opening atop the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai this spring is the world's tallest hotel, occupying the top third of the world's third-tallest building.

Even the Vedic pandits of India - learned Hindu priests - have a towering proposal for a world's tallest building.

"The conversation is once again about building the world's tallest building," says Judith Dupr, author of the 1996 book "Skyscrapers." The late 1960s and early '70s saw a boom, she says. "Then the conversation died for 20 years."

A strong contender for "world's tallest," the Grollo Tower was to be the dominant feature of a renovation project in Melbourne's Docklands.

It has been designed to rise to 1,837 feet. It will include apartments, a luxury hotel, shops, offices, and a rooftop observatory open to the public. The developers are hopeful of starting actual construction in early 2001.

The Grollo Tower may be described as a new-age, sensitive kind of skyscraper. "It will say, 'I'm a very tall building,' but it won't be a monster," says Terry Mason, project architect at Denton Corker Marshall in Melbourne, designers of the tower. "It's not going to be so big it's gross." He describes it as "refined, almost not of its time," and predicts hopefully, "It won't look like a 1990s building or a 2010 building."

It is a paradox of the postmodern age that such a boom should be going on at all. Around the world, the buzz within much of the international business set is about corporate decentralization, about replacing hierarchies with networks, about having people work by fax and modem from their homes or from corporate "campuses" in quality-of-life suburbs or exurbs. And yet high-rises are on the rise.

It's not always about 'need'

"There are two key factors" in the construction of supertall buildings, says John Zils, associate partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago, designers of the Sears Tower and other landmarks. "One is the economic climate for wherever they're being built. That is a function of land values, the cost of construction, being able to build more square feet on a given property. The other is a more subjective issue - the ego needs of the client. It almost always takes a combination of these two factors."

Tall buildings are "symbols of where the big money is, the big power," says Ms. Dupr. "It used to be the churches."

Another paradox of the new high-rises is that they depend on well-established basic technologies: elevators, steel, and reinforced concrete. "Most of the time you're taking it one step at a time - moving incrementally," when it comes to new technologies for skyscrapers," says Mr. Zils.

In Melbourne, Mr. Mason comments, "The Grollo Tower won't be a groundbreaking building in terms of ... what we might call 'whizbangery.' Rather, it's about taking what we know and using it optimally effectively."

Refinements in concrete technology make it possible for builders to go higher and higher from a slender base. This means smaller floors at each level, which can be more appropriate for today's businesses.

"You no longer have armies of clerical workers in a big office tower," says Jeff Herzer, a Chicago native who produces a Web site devoted to tall buildings ( "New generations of buildings are aimed at different kinds of companies," he adds, say, a half dozen principals or "creative types" who all want window offices.

And the efficiencies of classic urban living mean as much as ever. High-rise apartments make it possible for people to walk to work, shops, and recreation.

The Grollo Tower, which will have about 450 apartments, is in part an experiment in seeing whether Australians will countenance alternatives to the suburban single-family house that most of them regard as their birthright.

But very tall buildings can have an appeal that goes beyond the practical.