On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Adrian D. Smith, a well-known architect in the Chicago office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, was in a meeting with Donald Trump. The hyperbolic New York City developer was in Chicago to go over the design of a proposed Trump residential tower in that city that he had decided should be--what else?--the tallest building in the world, around 2,000 ft. In the midst of their meeting, the two men got word of the first plane that hit the World Trade Center. "When the second plane hit, we all rushed to the television to see what was happening," says Smith. "That was the end of the meeting." And also the end of the 2,000-ft. tower. A few weeks later, Trump's people came back with a revised proposal--at 900 ft. or so.
The skyscraper was born in the U.S., and for most of the 20th century, it flourished here. Fifteen years ago, nine of the world's 10 tallest buildings were in the U.S. (The 10th was in Toronto.) Now just two are: the Sears Tower in Chicago and the Empire State Building in Manhattan. All the rest are in Asia. A combination of factors--a sluggish commercial real estate market, skepticism about the profitability of very tall buildings even in good times, the rise of urban thinking critical of skyscrapers and the psychological fallout from 9/11--has discouraged today's American developers from going very, very high.
More subtly, for some time before 9/11, the tall building had been losing ground as a symbol of power, wealth and importance, at least in Western countries, where museums, shops and restaurants became more significant status indicators. But elsewhere in the world, extreme verticals are still entirely in fashion, especially for developing nations looking to announce themselves. Just this year there was a new claimant to the title of world's tallest building, the 1,670-ft. Taipei 101--named for the number of its floors. After it was completed, Chinese authorities and the developer, who were determined not to let their least favorite neighbor get ahead in the vertical space race, not only green-lighted a much delayed project, the Shanghai World Financial Center, but insisted on additional stories so that the building will have more occupiable floors than the tower in Taiwan.
The Pacific Rim is not the only place where the new "supertalls" are going up. Coming soon is the Burj Dubai, in Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates. It was designed by the same Adrian Smith who did Trump's tower. In 2008, when the Dubai building is complete, he says, it will rise to a height "of well over 2,000 ft." He won't say just how high. His clients don't want to tip their hand to other builders who have projects in the planning stages. If the others knew where the bar was set, they could easily pump their towers up a few feet higher--or more than a few feet. Architects and engineers agree that it's only a matter of time before a tower rises somewhere in Asia or the Middle East to 3,000 ft.--more than twice the height of either tower of the World Trade Center.