In 2015, when architects face very few technical constraints, the design and construction of a supertall building requires the consideration of hundreds and thousands of factors. These factors represent a multitude of objective considerations (such as cost, structure, mechanics, program mix, and construction) and subjective considerations (such as aesthetics, culture, and comfort).

As an architect designs a super tall building, s/he must anticipate the effects of every small permutation. Change one detail of the façade, and the building’s overall construction budget could jump by ten percent. (In today’s budgets that sum can be upwards of $100 million.) Increase the footprint by one meter, and the building’s dead load grows beyond what the structure can withstand. One or two meters taller, and escalating steel or concrete costs will keep the building on the drawing board.

Success isn’t the result of a great design; it’s the outcome of what can be described as, “the architect’s ability to make sense of the most complex building type and construction process.”

The plan was to build the tallest building in the world. Commissioned by the Mori Building Company to design the Shanghai World Financial Center, KPF would spend a minimum of two years in the design and planning phase. It would take all that time to make sure that once the building started construction, the nearly ten-year process would continue smoothly.

The change request came after the two hundred foundation piles had been tendered driven in place. The Mori Building Company wanted the building to be taller, which meant a heavier building. Though the architects could make the building taller, the already-built foundation wouldn’t be able to support it.

The building is extremely efficient in other ways. Unlike many supertalls which lose as much as thirty percent of their floors to unoccupied vanity height, the Shanghai World Financial Center surrenders just four.

Like the Eiffel Tower or the pyramids, the silhouette of the Shanghai World Financial Center is impossible to mistake. Although it was the world’s tallest building for only a few years, the building endures as one of the city’s most beloved landmarks and destinations, as evidenced by its reincarnation as a popular tourist souvenir, which can be purchased in the building’s gift shop.

At the start of the twentieth century, total global population was just 1.6 billion, twenty percent of the 7 billion people today.1 Coupled with urban migration, the world’s cities are densifying as new residents clustering in high-demand areas, those with the most robust infrastructure and services.2


Cities have a negative reputation for being expensive, dirty, and uncomfortable.

Yet, according to Harvard urban economist Edward Glaeser, density bad. In fact, “Density matters because we’re a social species geared to learn from people around us.”3

Glaeser argues that we can’t underestimate the value of face-to-face contact; we become smarter by being around other smart people, “and that’s why cities thrive.”4

With so much of the planet steadily densifying, vertical building—going up instead of sprawling out—may be the best solution to accommodate growing populations and densifying cities. According to the UN, there are 200,000 people moving into cities every day. From a practical standpoint, skyscrapers increase the planet’s inhabitable surface area; stacked buildings allow more people to live, work, and play on the same piece of land. While our need for shelter hasn’t changed, the character of our populations and our societies have changed the reasons why we build.

In areas of the world with the highest growth and densification, “The challenge is not to hold down the first-tier cities, but to pick up the third-tier ones.”5 In light of this call, the supertall acts a ballast in the city; it’s the most notable building in a skyline of notable buildings. Its placement not only has visual impact, but where a supertall stands, can determine how a city grows because it will attract new populations and businesses.

Notes 03–05

The Trials and Triumphs of the City: Edward Glaeser in Conversation

Humanity's Greatest Invention? Face-to-face with Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City

Designed in Chicago, Made in China by Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune

A supertall is subject to the same concerns and demands as those of a small city. Completed in 2010, the International Commerce Centre in Hong Kong houses the activities and functions of thirty thousand people. Everyday these thirty thousand individuals enter the building all at once. Without the carefully designed circulation paths and lifting systems, getting to the right place would become an all-day journey. Because the building seamlessly connects to Kowloon Station below, the individual commuter feels no resistance when moving from underground, to ground, to the building’s upper levels. For such a significant addition to Hong Kong’s city fabric, the building is at its best because it is frictionless.

L: International Commerce Centre building with the bottom floors fully occupied, the middle a temporary construction staging zone, and the top still under construction.
C: The building's vertical circulation system, zoning.
R: International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong, China

Set against the strong winds sweeping off Hong Kong Bay, the building’s profile maximizes leasable floor space without creating extra wind resistance. The building’s re-entrant (notched) corners provide the building with the same wind efficiency as circular floors, but without the hard-to-use round floor layouts. This wind efficiency is of particular importance given the strong gales coming off of Hong Kong Harbor. If the ICC were built in Beijing, the same building would only need to resist a fraction of the lateral loads. (A 100-story tower in Beijing would experience the same magnitude of wind as a 20-story building in Hong Kong.) In fact, if the ICC were in Beijing, it would cease to be the same building at all.

Like its circulation system and physical form, the construction process of the ICC was staged to provide the least resistance possible. Clocked at a typical speed of five years, supertalls require a huge amount of upfront investment that will show no return until the building’s floors are leased. Curtailing this timespan, the tower’s vertical organization allowed full occupation of the lower zones, while the middle and upper zones were prepared for fit-out and still under construction.

Building a supertall is a very different in Dubai (low density), China (high density), and New York (high density, high construction costs). Even though a building looks like it has a transcendent design, the true mark of a building’s timelessness should be measured by how well it functions under the pressures of use and occupancy.

In 1996 there were only four supertall buildings (over 300-m tall) in existence. In the two decades since, the upward pace of supertall building has been swift and frequent. There are now over one hundred supertall buildings throughout the world, thirty times what it was twenty years ago, when there were only four.

Whether fifty or one hundred stories above the ground, the skyscraper resident lives and works in a place that no one has lived or worked before. Supertall building are one of the most seductive of building types and have—time and time again—energized entire regions by their presence. Billions of dollars are spent; whole nations are invested in their making.

Given such demands, a supertall building anticipate and behave perfectly for future occupants and coming generations. For the architects at KPF, the quality of a supertall building is a measure of its performance and its reception, not just what it looks like. As the measure of a supertall building rises, its design should—more importantly—strive to best serve the society that builds it.

As our skylines fill up, to what end do we surge upward?

The outlook at KPF, author of several tall and supertall buildings, is pointed solely upward. Managing principal Jamie von Klemperer, who is leading the design of One Vanderbilt, a not-so-supertall skyscraper adjacent to Grand Central Station, focuses much of his efforts on the design and integration of the base of the building.

One might consider the junction of the skyscraper with the ground—which is more a tangle of transport, information, and commercial systems than a flat surface—to be the most important of all. It’s the place where the building proves its worth to the city as something far more than a shiny object.