Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
Shanghai Conference News: Day 3
September 15, Pre-Conference September 16, Day 1
September 17, Day 2 September 18, Day 3
September 19, Technical Tours September 20/21, Regional Tours
Conference Theme Comes to Life in Second Opening Plenary
The overall theme of the conference, “Towards Sustainable Vertical Urbanism,” was driven home with particular emphasis during the opening plenary session. The possibility of a future of tall buildings that support urban life, rather than stand apart from it as interchangeable icons, seemed especially clear by the session’s close.

Three different perspectives were on offer – that of an architect working on projects in Southeast Asia that take full advantage of its salubrious climate, an architect-by- training-turned-developer; who offered a rich vision of a mega-development that fully integrates with historic urban fabric; and an architect/academic/non-profit director, who charged up the audience with a set of utopian principles.
Mun Summ Wong, Principal of Singapore-based WOHA, demonstrated his firm’s efforts to upend assumptions about the social sustainability of high-rises. One of the main reasons so many of WOHA’s projects emphasize horizontal spaces at height is because it changes the psychology of building occupants.

“The idea is to inject more urban life into the high-rise city,” Wong said. “We introduce horizontal movement in the high-rise building because it changes the dynamic. When you talk to the people next to you in an ordinary high-rise, it is considered rude. But in the street, you talk to people, build relationships and bonds.”
Mun Summ Wong, WOHA
Through projects such as the greenery-shrouded, horizontally connected vertical residences Skyville @ Dawson and Newton Suites, Singapore and The Met, Bangkok, Wong demonstrated how both nature and urban vitality could be blended together in vertical communities that foster interaction but also a sense of peace and remove from the busy streets.

Wong also showed institutional projects such as The School of the Arts, Singapore,  BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the stunning Parkroyal on Pickering Hotel in Singapore, all of which favor lush greenery, large gathering spaces and breeze-channeling forms instead of air-conditioning and dark corridors characteristic of less-inspired buildings.

In many cases, WOHA was able to convince clients to alter their assumptions about standard designs, using “landscaping as an architectural material” as a major selling point and often as not, adding more greenery to the building sites than was previously existent.
The theme of additive and integrative urban interventions continued with Yang Wu, CEO of the Bund Finance Center, currently under construction on the north bank of the Huangpu River in Shanghai.

Wu, an architect by training turned developer, diagnosed some of the issues that have characterized China’s hypertrophic construction frenzy.

“In China, there is still a lack of thinking about architecture culture,” Wu said. “We have seen a lot of stereotypes of tall buildings. Architecture should be more converged with the culture.”
Yang Wu, Bund Finance Center

Although the Bund Finance Center is a typically large-scale mixed-use development, Wu demonstrated how, through the presence of a theater and an art gallery in the program, the stepping back of scale from the Bund, and the integration of public rights-of-way would knit the requirements of global capital with the objective of maintaining the cultural vitality of the city’s historic waterfront.

“You seldom find art galleries in high-rise buildings,” Wu commented. “Developers think they will not make any money out of it. But we think we have a social responsibility.”

Wu said he had the highest respect for his design team, led by Norman Foster, who pushed back on some of Wu’s concepts, resulting in a better outcome. He advocated that urban context be considered as the “heart and soul” of the city, not “a collection of landmarks.” His parting words for future architects of Asian megaprojects: “When I open my eyes in the morning and I am in Shenzhen, I still think I am in Shanghai because they look the same,” he said. “[China is] duplicating buildings and the mistakes of the West. There is focus on building bizarre and tall buildings but ignorance of the connotations – resulting in cold buildings for cold cities. As a developer, I call on architects: you need to have your own independent ideas that bring vitality.

The final presentation of the plenary served up 10 independent ideas, piping-hot. In a particularly energetic talk, CTBUH Executive Director Antony Wood “put on his architect’s hat” to discuss the “Design Principles for a New High-Rise Vernacular” he has developed over years as an instructor at the University of Nottingham and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

“Cities are becoming terribly homogenized,” Wood said, echoing Wu’s sentiments. “Architecture is the worst culprit, and tall buildings are the worst culprit within that. We need to find an indigenous response to skyscrapers all around the world.”
Antony Wood, CTBUH
The 10 principles argued that tall buildings should:
  • Relate to the physical characteristics of place
  • Relate to the environmental characteristics of place
  • Relate to the cultural characteristics of place
  • Vary with height – in form, texture, scale and program
  • Maximize layers of usage on all systems and materials
  • Provide significant communal, open, recreational space
  • Introduce façade opacity and variation in skins and envelopes
  • Embrace organic vegetation as an essential part of the material palette,
  • Introduce physical, circulatory and programmatic connections, such as skybridges
  • Bring all aspects of the city up into the sky
Wood illustrated these principles by way of numerous examples from around the world. Providing his assessment of the Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and their cultural reference, he said, “This is a two-dimensional plan form extrapolated upwards, based on Islamic motifs, and became indelibly associated with Malaysia. But if it were built in Shanghai the same thing would have happened. It could have gone further.”

Even though it is an office tower and nearly 20 years old, Wood argued that Commerzbank of Frankfurt, Germany, is still largely unsurpassed in terms of setting a standard for developing ecologically sensitive vertical communities.

“Every single level of that building has at least a visual, if not a direct physical connection with a significant sky garden,” Wood said. “Occupants have access to natural light, natural ventilation and physical communal space. Now, that is a model for a residential tower. What is disappointing about residential towers, is they don't put in the space - preferably green space - for community to develop.”

To conclude, Wood called for tall buildings to reduce their homogenizing effects and sharpen their integrative capabilities. Key to this will not only be more enlightened design, but better engagement with urban planners and other decision-makers not directly involved in the projects’ financial outcomes, he said. Through this engagement, Wood illustrated a future in which the city’s horizontal infrastructure would be incorporated vertically into and between buildings. He called for the establishment of a new social, economic and political framework between city government and private sector to deliver this connected, 3-D vision of “sustainable vertical urbanism.”

Turning Tall Building Visions Into Realities

Panelist (from left to right): Abdo Kardous, Hill Interational; Michael Doring, Turner Construction; Stefan Krummeck, TFP Farrells; and Chia Pan, Ronald Lu & Partners.
Even as Asia is a staging ground for many of the world’s most ambitious urban construction projects, there are many realities on the ground that can throw up obstacles on the road from vision to realization. In the panel “The Challenges of Constructing and Project Managing Tall Buildings in Asia,” these issues were discussed in detail.

At its essence, every project management engagement is a an object lesson in “how to balance cost and delivery schedule with what the clients want – tallest tower, lowest price, highest quality,” said session Chair Abdo Kardous, Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Asia-Pacific Operations at Hill International. “One thing is always at the expense of others.”

In developing regions of Asia, this is compounded by contractor inexperience, and the insistence of clients on controlling procurement, which is based on the perception that this leas to economies of scale, Kardous said.

Michael Doring, Regional Director, Southeast Asia Operations for Turner Construction, underscored the first issue by describing his experience building the VietinBank Business Center Office Tower, a 360-meter Foster + Partners tower in Vietnam, where the extent of contractor experience until just recently was 20-story reinforced-concrete buildings.  The issue could be aided by better coordination between the architecture-engineering team and contractor, but this is compounded by the fact that the design architect typically works only as far as design development, and then hands over to a local architect of record, which usually means a near-complete loss of control of the project.

“Is it responsible to let [inexperienced architects of record] design a 360-meter tower? I don’t think so,” Doring said. “This model is broken, where A/E of record and Design Architect have a hard split. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Other issues include antiquated codes, which tend to result in over-compensatory seismic design, which raises cost and reduces leasable space. The tendency to use poorly trained, underpaid, and non-unionized labor, which typically involves migrations to live on-site at the project  -- and an almost immediate departure back to their ancestral homelands when it is finished – also results in under-investment in quality and execution, Doring added.

Compressed timescales, the inability to cope with changes in weather and economic conditions, and design changes during construction also compound the difficulties in achieving high-quality projects in developing Asia, said Stefan Krummeck, Design Principal, Hong Kong office, TFP Farrells. Krummeck’s firm is working on a Shangri-La Hotel project for Kerry Properties in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

“Mongolia has no methodology for how to build in winter,” Krummeck said. “Mongolia does not have a close relationship with China, and companies don’t like to use Chinese labor or contractors. Each winter the economic outlook changed. The first year, there was an economic boom and GFA increased during construction. The next year, we realized one of the partners had no urban design in place. The client put a new tower directly in front of our project. We either had to move the building or mirror the other one – so we mirrored.”

Chia Pan, Director, Ronald Lu & Partners, said the difference between working in Hong Kong and the rest of Asia was marked, and offered that the Hong Kong experience could be instructive.

“In Hong Kong, developers and architects work closely together, and many architects in Hong Kong are also developers,” Pan said. “We are involved in every decision. Many architects in Hong Kong are also developers.”  Pan cited the transference of some experience designing a group of 15 70-story towers above an MTR subway station in Hong Kong to a similar project outside Shanghai, at the confluence of its #1 and #5 Metro lines. The increased interest in building transit-oriented projects often means connecting multiple owners’ properties to transit stations through shared basements, which does raise its own set of complexities, but also creates opportunities to collaborate more closely.

While the use of Local Design Institutes (LDIs) in China is legally mandated, and projects are often simply handed over at the beginning of the construction drawings phase, the panelists agreed that involving the LDI at an earlier stage in design has produced better results.

Both the LDI and design architect need to “stay on the project in a more parallel way for longer,” Krummeck said. “We do need the local design institute to manage local issues, and this will ensure better quality.”

Pan noted that Hong Kong developers tend to be very concerned about continuity of work across all phases. As a consequence, his firm produces tender documents, cooperating with the construction manager.

“We are training our colleagues in China to do this kind of work,” Pan said.

In areas where a lack of experience,  code knowledge, or the absence of many familiar codes altogether, such as Cambodia, Doring advised that clients should pay the extra cost of letting an international design-architect-led team take the project through to completion.

“To me, it is worth the money,” he said. “And actually, you will probably save money” by getting it right the first time.

“If clients accept a reasonable budget from day 1, then the team can adjust to that,” added Kardos. “When the initial budget is very low, then it puts a lot of pressure on everyone to cut corners, to make sure the job sees the light of day. One way to add value is to tell the client the truth. We have been told not to convey the bad news, but to tell the decision-maker what he wants to hear. That is something we cannot do.”

Height Panel Examines the Fundamentals
Panelist Speakers (from left to right): Terri Meyer Boake, University of Waterloo; James Parakh, City of Toronto; Peter Weismantle, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture; and Antony Wood, CTBUH.

Of course, many owners initiate projects with the express desire to have some kind of “tallest” designation applied to their projects, which can be difficult to promise when construction periods can be as long as 10 years and many projects are underway simultaneously.

One of the roles of the CTBUH is to be a “voice of reason” as the arbiter of building height claims, and to be consistent in the application of its criteria. Every decade or so, a question that provokes a review of the appropriateness of the criteria comes up. Peter Weismantle, director of supertall building technology at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, is the chair of the CTBUH Height Committee. Along with CTBUH Executive Director Antony Wood; James Parakh, Urban-design manager for the district of Toronto and East York at the City of Toronto; and University of Waterloo Professor of Architecture Terri Meyer Boake mulled over these issues with some lively audience participation in the panel “Has the CTBUH Got Its Height Criteria Correct?”

Weismantle started the panel off by explaining how the three main CTBUH criteria, Height to Architectural Top, Highest Occupied Floor, and Height to Tip came to be, and how Architectural Top has been reaffirmed as the ultimate ranking criteria during several debates over the 45 years of the Council’s existence.

Weismantle illustrated the profound impact of this designation on the design of buildings – which have become more pronounced in their needle-like extremeties in recent years - by recounting his experience at SOM, working with Adrian Smith on the Burj Khalifa. That project began in 2003 and was intended to be 550 meters tall. It still would have been the world’s tallest building at the time, even at this height, but seeing there was close competition from the likes of Taipei 101 and other projects, the design team “added a bunch of toilet-paper rolls” to the building’s buttressed tapering mass to get up to 700 meters, and finally 828 meters, Weismantle said.

Peter Weismantle speaking on the Burj Khalifa
Attendees of the height panel
While achieving landmark status was obviously important to the Burj Khalifa client, not every building can be a landmark, and this is recognized by the best urban planners, who have the interests of the building’s impact on the entire community as their highest priority, Parakh said. The height criteria as they now stand encourage buildings that terminate with something other than a flat top, which gives designers more choices.

“We like to make sure the buildings are integrated – top, middle and bottom,” Parakh said. “The height criteria speak to creating great pieces of architecture.” Of course, a building can terminate beautifully at its crown and present a completely different face to the ground plane. This is why it is fortunate that Toronto, which currently has one of the highest rates of tall-building construction, also requires 1:50-scale drawings of buildings at the street level, Parakh said.

Boake, whose specialty is in architecturally exposed structural steel, said that the pre-eminence of the “architectural top” standard has to do with a long history of humans desiring a “materiality and completeness” in their tall structures, going back to the Pyramids of Giza.

She cited the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong and the Bank of America and One World Trade Center buildings in New York as examples of using exposed steel as their formal expression, but, even when spires seem to complete the form, “their end heights are somewhat arbitrary and of questionable function.”

Playing the devil’s advocate, Wood offered that when the decision was made to count spires as part of a building’s height, with the awarding of “World’s Tallest Building” title to the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, in 1996, “the world of tall buildings was a different place.” At that time, most tall buildings had flat tops with equipment on top, but a resurgence in spire construction was beginning.

“A spire is part of the architectural form of a building – no one would deny that is the case with something like the Chrysler Building,” Wood said. And yet, the prominence of antennae atop many buildings, such as the Willis Tower, have come to define their forms, and even as they have actually changed height over the years, it would make the building seem essentially different if they were suddenly removed.

 The essential question, as always, is “are we measuring our ability to put materials, man, or architecture above the plane of the earth?” Wood asked.

A straw poll of the room revealed that, among this admittedly small and self-selecting group, the Height Criteria as they now stand are correct. Still, Wood said he was concerned about the “Architectural Top” designation, as the entire evaluation of the building’s height revolved around the word of one person – the architect.

The panelists and audience generally agreed that maintaining data on all three criteria sets was important, but that subjective declarations of valuing one over the other should be treated with kid gloves.

“These are big investments that take a long time to get to fruition, so it is important to have some stability in the rules,” Weismantle said.

Green Walls Guide Launched
Chairs and speakers of the "High-Rise Greenery" session with authors and contributors of "Green Walls in High-Rise Buildings." (from left to right): Ronald Wood, Director, Innovative Plant Technology; Richard Mann, Ecosystem Architecture; Elena Giacomello, IUAV Venice and CTBUH 2013 Research Seed Funding Recipient; Antony Wood & Dan Safarik, CTBUH; Mun Summ Wong, WOHA; and Stephan Reinke, Stephan Reinke Architects.
The Shanghai Conference provided the ideal venue to launch the latest in the CTBUH Technical Guides series, Green Walls in High-Rise Buildings. In the session “High-Rise Greenery,” where contributor Elena Giacomello, PhD, Building Technology, IAUV Venice, shared the results of her year-long study of Bosco Verticale, the Milan residential tower that ambitiously deploys full-size street trees on balconies throughout its height on all sides. The study was funded by the 2013 Research Seed Funding program, announced at the CTBUH “Height and Heritage” London Conference last year. Bosco Verticale is on the cover of the Green Walls guide and is one of its 16 intensive case studies.

A group representing the book’s authors, editors and contributors assembled to have their photo taken in front of the CTBUH Skyline Backdrop, taking the opportunity to showcase the first CTBUH book to be released in two separate English and Chinese editions.

Closing Plenary Draws Lines Between, and Paves Way from China to New York
Speakers (from left to right) David Malott, KPF; Carol Willis, Skyscraper Museum; James von Klemperer, KPF; and David Gianotten, Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA)
The closing plenary of the Conference transitioned from the subject of sustainable vertical urbanism, while examining some of rough edges of the dialectic between the public’s sense of ownership of tall buildings and the hard-nosed economics that create them in the first place.

David Gianotten, Partner, Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) used the examples of Shenzhen Stock Exchange and CCTV Headquarters to illustrate how building form and the spaces it creates plays into the resolution of this tug-of-war – or at least presents it in a new light.

The hypertrophic growth of Shenzhen provided the platform for an interpretation of the capitalist imperative in what is still called “the People’s Republic.” Given a very conventional design brief for a tower with a podium, OMA chose to raise that podium 36 meters off the ground, creating a public plaza around and underneath the building.

“The building can be read as an emblem of the stock market: the speculative euphoria that drives the market lifts up the podium,” Gianotten said. “But, as the building supports interaction with the city, the building is designed not only for the Shenzhen Stock Exchange but also for Shenzhen.”

The much-discussed CCTV building also provided a platform for dialogue, showcasing the television-making process as a “loop” that was meant to be viewed on a continuous path for the public, almost like moving through a diorama, factory tour or series of zoo exhibits. The “loop” has yet to open, but the building is already very much a symbol of all that is new, confusing and conflicting about modern China.

“CCTV Headquarters was conceived in the new millennium, when China was juggling with the meaning of its ancient power and new prominence,” Gianotten said. “Since its formal completion in 2012, it has continued to be a site for discourses. The building has been serving its purpose to create public meaning at the metaphorical level.”

In New York of late, a new skyscraper typology may arguably be less interested in public dialogue than state-run media buildings in China. The driving force behind the new “superslim” towers underway in Manhattan is the equation that will result in the greatest number of prime views for residents willing to pay the highest price.
Carol Willis, founder, director and curator of the Skyscraper Museum, explained the economic justifications and engineering acrobatics used to satisfy the math of what she called “The Logic of Luxury.”

“Slenderness is a strategy” behind the towers that have width-to-height ratios as high as 1:23 and contain apartments that sell for up to $100 million, Willis said. “It keeps floor plates small and enhances the exclusivity of residences. It also keeps number of elevators low. It keeps the maximum allowable floor area ratio (FAR) as high in the sky as possible – these buildings are essentially periscopes.”
Carol Willis, Skyscraper Museum
Average condominium prices in New York are now seven times what they were in 1980 and twice their 2000 level, demonstrating the exponential increase in value in just over a decade, Willis said. This has made the towers taller and slimmer, but though the phenomenon is newly extreme, these towers are part of a long tradition of buildings shaped by the idiosyncrasies of New York zoning laws, including setback requirements and the predominance of a “cap-and-trade” system of FAR that incents the use of purchased air rights in order to gain height.

Kohn Pedersen Fox, (KPF), a New York-based architecture firm, is no stranger to achieving extreme height in locations around the world, including its home city. James von Klemperer, Principal at KPF, described the challenges of meeting the requirements of shareholders and public stakeholders simultaneously in his presentation, “Urban Density and the Porous High-Rise: The Integration of the Tall Building with City Networks and Public Space.”

To illustrate how skyscrapers can and have fit well into the urban grain, von Klemperer described complexes such as Rockefeller Center, a collection of low-, medium- and high-rise buildings that share a common basement and a visual language.  Most importantly, the spaces they enclose are both intimate and fluid, and have become part of the “local mythology,” such as the skating rink used daily for TV broadcast backdrops, and as natural locations for large-scale art pieces.

He described the Jing An Kerry Centre in Shanghai as an “inheritor” of Rockefeller Center’s legacy, with its graduated scales and its displacement of rectangular elements into a “meandering maze,” which, among acres of retail, ironically includes the birth house of Mao Tse Tung.

Transitioning to New York, again, the Hudson Yards development currently underway is a “cast of many” designers, and will have an as-yet undetermined large-scale public art piece by Thomas Heatherwick at its core. It also picks up the Manhattan grid, reinforcing it sharply in the east and becoming gradually more diffuse as it advances toward the river and the High Line weaves into the compound.

Alluding to the theme of the 2015 New York conference, “Global Interchanges,” von Klemperer pointed out that the cantilevered observation deck proposed for 30 Hudson Yards was “not really a New York prototype” but has come from an intersection of global expertise.

Continuing the theme of projects strengthened by their underground connectivity as much as their height or façade design, von Klemperer last pointed to the One Vanderbilt project set to rise across from, and provide a new entrance to Grand Central Terminal. The One Vanderbilt project “gives back” to the public by offering a public observatory at the top, and by serving as an extra lobby for Grand Central, which is about to experience new stresses after a new rail connection to Long Island dumps more commuters into the east side of Midtown Manhattan.

The presentation closed with the skyline of Shanghai’s Pudong reflected in the East River below Manhattan, which von Klemperer said symbolized the “acceleration of learning that happens with the dialectic” between global cities.

The power of that dialectic was underscored by a vibrant video presentation from CTBUH, launching the 2015 Conference – the call for abstracts closes Jan. 30, 2015 – by flashing news headlines about international investments that appeared to follow no other pattern than the path of greatest opportunity.

At least one delegate has already confirmed for New York – the winner of the WSP Group Tall Building Quiz, Milton Vicentelo, International Operations Director, Rene Lagos Engineers, Santiago, Chile, correctly answered nine of 10 questions, earning him a complimentary VIP guest pass, travel, and lodging to the Conference, at a value of up to $4,000.

Closing Reception Provides a Moment of Rest to Reflect
Although the rain threatened throughout the week finally came to pass on the final night of the Conference, forcing the planned reception on the riverside lawn of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel indoors, spirits remained aloft in a lavish underground ballroom. A serene performer plucked away on a gujeng (a traditional harp-like instrument) while delegates got a moment to catch their breath and share their impressions of the whirlwind days that had come before.

David Malott, CTBUH Chairman-elect, gave a few words of welcome and thanks to the sponsors of the reception, CITIC Pacific. Delegates then melted away into the warm night, anticipating the next day’s technical tours, many of which would take place at projects featured throughout the Conference program.
Closing reception at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Performance at the reception
September 15, Pre-Conference September 16, Day 1
September 17, Day 2 September 18, Day 3
September 19, Technical Tours September 20/21, Regional Tours