The Most Wondrous Asian Skyscrapers

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Taipei Financial Center (C.Y. Lee and Partners, Taipei, 2004)

Expected to capture the title of world’s tallest building when completed in 2004, the Taipei Financial Center will present a new model for the Asian skyscraper, one explicitly evocative of traditional Chinese architecture. Designed as a segmented shaft of eight outward sloping segments, the tower resembles a giant glass pagoda. The green tinted glass cladding is meant to mimic the color of jade. The segments, consisting of eight floors, lean out slightly, creating the distinctly stacked or tiered silhouette.

The tower is dressed in ornamental motifs drawn from traditional Chinese architectural sources. Large scale ornamental elements and auspicious emblems cap each segment. Medallions grace the center of the tower, while decorative features protrude from the corners. An elaborate, stylized spire, 1,667 feet (508 meters) high, will top the structure. Lee’s architecture employs botanical as well as traditional architectural themes. Each eight story segment has been likened to a segment of a bamboo stalk, and the whole project evokes, in the words of the architect, a sense of “petal-like” blooming, giving the tower a sense of “upgrading and fullness.” Which are important concepts in Chinese culture.

Despite its historical references, the tower introduces a number of pioneering technological innovations. A giant pendulum suspended from the ninety second floor acts as a passive mass damper, reducing the building sway at the top of the tower, and counteracting the lateral forces induced by high winds and earthquakes. Other technical innovations include high speed pressurized elevators that will travel at record breaking speeds. They will reach the observation deck in just thirty nine seconds.

Lee’s designs strive to give symbolic form to the expression of contemporary “Chineseness.” His philosophically inspired concepts for bridging past and future and building in harmony with nature, tend to manifest themselves in the application of ornamental motifs and symbolic formal

translations of building tradions. The combination of traditional Chinese dressing and a contemporary structure creates an unusual and idiosyncratic edifice.

Jin Mao Tower (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Shanghai, 1997)

This eighty eight story building was designed by the Chicago based firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for Shanghai’s Pudong District. One of many skyscrapers built in Shanghai’s special economic zone, the building is a showcase project. Declaring the emergence of Chine as a new economic superpower, Jin Mao tower’s distinct pagodalike profile makes it a new landmark for Shanghai and for China.

The tower’s signature profile is made up of a slender shaft of articulated setbacks. As the building rises, it steps back in multiples of eight, evoking the profile of a traditional Chinese pagoda at an exaggerated scale. Clad in glass and stainless steel, the curtain wall is designed with a cage like system of decorative rails. The heavily articulated façade gives the tower a distinctly ornamented exterior that recalls the decorative carvings of a traditional Chinese structure. The density of external cladding members gives the tower a rich texture, and privileges the external appearance over the interior views. The tower is crowned with a machinelike lotus blossom pinnacle.

Anchored to the ground by a large podium housing retail, conference and exhibition facilities, lobby spaces, and a food court, the building is a veritable city within a city. The tower itself houses offices, a hotel, and retail and conference facilities. Offices occupy the lower fifty floors, and a 555-room hotel occupies the upper half. The hotel is organized around a thirty story circular atrium, creating a vertiginous interior void in the middle of the shaft. A public observation deck occupies one of the top floors of the tower, providing panoramic views of the urban landscape below.

Attempting to mediate between the local design tradition and a global building type, Jin Mao Tower’s heavily ornamented and historically unique form results in an unprecedented cultural monument, appearing simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic. The “Orientalist” architectural vocabulary of Jin Mao Tower raises difficult questions about the design of tall buildings in an Asian context, where references to traditional architecture on contemporary building types result in contradictory cultural iconography on a monumental scale.

Petronas Towers (Cesar Pelli and Associates, Kuala Lumpur, 1997)

Declared the tallest buildings in the world when completed in 1997, these 1,476-foot (450 meter) twin buildings placed Kuala Lumpur in the global collective consciousness. The twin monuments powerfully embody the symbolic potential of the skyscraper to declare Malaysia’s arrival on the global stage. Designed by Argentinean-American architect Cesar Pelli, the buildings seeks to give form to a contemporary Malaysian skyscraper, regional in derivation and global in aspiration.

Built on the site of the former Selangor Turf Blub, the towers’ plans are derived from traditional Islamic geometric principles, consisting of two rotated squares in-filled with semicircles. The extruded towers step back as they rise, giving them a distinctly minaret-like silhouette. A two story sky bridge links the twin towers at the forty second story sky lobby creating what the designer has called a portal to the sky.

Employing traditional motifs and craft traditions, the architects sought to create linkages to the buildings’ cultural context. The towers are clad in reflective glass and horizontal stainless-steel sunscreens that filter the intense tropical sun. Interior spaces are articulated using traditional patterns and local materials. The paving pattern on the ground floor is derived from “Pandan” weavings and Pertam palm wall mattings. The lobby storefronts are decorated with hand carved wooden screens.

The completion of this project, and its claims of “World’s Tallest,” signaled a symbolic shift in high rise building activity, from North America to Asia. The interpretive strategies employed by the architects to localize the design of the building have raised questions concerning local or regional references in skyscraper designs. Applied ornaments and references to vernacular traditions seem superficial and nostalgic for a structure of its stature and global visibility. Appropriate or not, the Petronas Towers demonstrate the tremendous symbolic power of the skyscraper, and the explicit role they can play in establishing a national and cultural identity.

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