Science, Tech & Environment

Why China is turning to Chicago for advice on its new skyscrapers

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The Shanghai Tower soars above its neighbors on the Pudong skyline in Shanghai. When completed next year, the 2,073-foot-tall tower will officially become the world’s second-tallest building.

Credit:

John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

The earliest skyscrapers were a uniquely American creation. More specifically, a Chicago thing. The first skyscraper appeared there in 1884. 

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It was just 10 stories high. Since then, they've grown taller, of course.

And many of the newest and tallest buildings in the world are now being built in China. But Chicago is still playing a big role.

Architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, Blair Kamin, writes about China's building boom in his story, "Designed in Chicago, made in China."

"Remember the movie 'Ghostbusters,' you know, if you've got a problem, who do you go to? Ghostbusters!" Kamin says. "Well, if you want a skyscraper, and you're in China, you go to the experts and they're in Chicago."

Kamin says Chicago is where the skyscraper was invented and that it's where the world's tallest buildings continue to be designed.

"Chinese developers lack the expertise to do great skyscrapers," he says. "During the Cultural Revolution their architectural profession was decimated. It really became more about purely engineering. So if you're a Chinese developer, you go to Chicago."

A key aspect of the American architectural savvy is creativity. But, how do you take a building that is going to house fairly ordinary functions, hotels, offices, etc., and how do these become symbols for a city?

"In China this is very important because China is undergoing massive urbanization," Kamin says. "By 2030 it's estimated China will have one billion people living in its cities, that's one out of every eight people on Earth. So when the Chinese are trying to devise symbols of this urbanization, they’re going to the experts and the experts are in Chicago, London, New York, and other western cities."

Kamin says the experience of being in these new urban areas can be a little daunting, especially if you're walking around.

"The new urban areas are oriented toward the car, the roads are wide, it's not a great place to walk, and as a result they don't walk, they drive, and this contributes to the air pollution problem. "

Kamin cites the Chinese architect Wang Shu (the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner) who said, "We used to have great cities in China, now people just sell off land to a big developer, the developer constructs high rise housing blocks, wide roads, and every Chinese city turns into a big suburb."

China has also gone for height. Shanghai for example will soon have the second highest tower in the world, the Shanghai Tower which is currently now under construction. Kamin went and visited the tower and says it was an incredible experience to go up to the top.

He even ventured out on a wire mesh construction platform, 111 (of an eventual 120) stories up and to gazed straight down 200 feet.

"I think it’s safe to say OSHA (Occupation Safety and Health Admin) would not have approved this."

Fast moving urbanization and looming skyscrapers dominate China's urban landscape. What's does the future hold for China's cities?

"I think the future for urban areas in China really has to do with focusing less on iconic buildings, individual structures that stand out, and realizing that great cities have to do with texture, human scale, they have to do with the spaces in between buildings, not just buildings as objects, standing there as trophies."

Kamin says China has much to learn not only from the US but from their own traditions of urban design.

"I think people there are hungry for a more pedestrian oriented type of city, a more liveable city, and that's really what this is about," he says. "When you're designing cities that are going to be home to one out of eight of the world's people, you want them above all to be liveable places, places that encourage creativity, where parents aren't afraid to send their children out, because of bad air pollution."  

Kamin says the Chinese can learn in part from mistakes made by earlier generations of American city planners and architects.

"We have made these mistakes. It's foolish for them to make them again and at such an amazing scale."

[Video: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune]