Bold new era of building to the sky

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

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.

"Very tall buildings enter into a realm that many cultures consider sacred," said Cesar Pelli, architect of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, currently the two tallest buildings in the world. "In my native Spanish, 'sky' and 'heaven' are the same word."

Dupr says, "There's a primitive human need to go up." The fortresses to which the people of a medieval village would retreat in time of danger always had some kind of lookout tower.

Asia's reach for the sky

One unmistakable trend in the world of very tall buildings is the dominance of Asia. The last few years have seen cancellation of a number of notable Asian projects, such as the proposed Millennium Tower in Japan. But in 1979 all 10 of the world's tallest buildings were in North America - nine in the United States and one in Canada.

In 1999, six of the 10 tallest are in Asia: four in China, including Hong Kong; plus the two Petronas Towers in Malaysia. The other four are in the United States (see list, above left).

One dark-horse candidate for "world's tallest building" is Majarishi Mahesh Yogi's proposed World Centre for Vedic Learning. It is planned as a 2,222-foot-tall pyramid to be built at the exact center of India. It is to house up to 100,000 Vedic pandits, or custodians of the ancient Vedic traditions of India, who will practice transcendental meditation and Yogic flying.

Ground was broken and a cornerstone laid last November. Some observers are skeptical, but Dupr says, "I really hope they can build it. They certainly have the money for it." It would be a significant departure: the first "noncorporate" skyscraper.

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, based in Bethlehem, Pa., is an international organization that tracks all aspects of skyscrapers. Lynn Beedle, its founder, is careful to cite its official disclaimer: "The council is not an advocate for tall buildings, per se; but in those situations in which they are viable, it seeks to encourage the use of the latest knowledge in their implementation."

The council is holding its sixth world congress in Melbourne in March 2000. In an interview here, Jamie Learmonth, the Melbourne architect who chairs its organizing committee, permits himself to wonder aloud whether the "urban habitat" part of the agenda is getting short shrift.

"If size is the criterion, why can't we have the world's longest building?" he suggests provocatively. "Instead of lifts you'd have rolling walkways."

What would it mean in practical terms for Melbourne to have the world's tallest building? From a tourism perspective, "increasing visitor stay is the name of the game," says a Docklands Authority official.

Concretely, that means enticing travelers into one more hotel night in Melbourne before or after the standard visit to see the penguins on nearby Phillip Island. He acknowledges that it's hard to calculate a tall building's value in terms of getting visitors to stick around. Still, the authority projects the Grollo rooftop will draw 1.5 million visitors annually - a third from overseas.

The value of icons

By many accounts, Melbourne is in need of an icon. Sydney, after all, has its instantly recognizable landmarks. Melbourne, on the other hand, for all its livability and cosmopolitan character, has for an icon just its trams.

Still, putting up the world's tallest building "sounds like something they would do in Sydney," was a common grumble from Melbournians. Docklands Authority officials stress that Grollo's project bid has made it this far on the basis of its financial soundness, not its height.

Says Mr. Learmonth, "I haven't seen a city that's built a symbol of itself that's been hurt by doing so." People returning from a visit to Sydney, for instance, "will remember the incidentals of their experience," he says. "But visually, it will be the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge that they remember."

The decisions to build skyscrapers, says Herzer, are decisions about "what kind of city you want to be. He says he's had a lot of calls from people in Melbourne wanting to talk about the Grollo Tower. "I've told them, ' 'This building will change your city.' "

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