Stefan Al’s Thoroughly Excellent ‘Supertall’

In Michael Ovitz’s very excellent 2018 memoir (review here) Who Is Michael Ovitz, the entertainment legend provided fascinating insight into why CAA was much more than a talent agency. Arguably a major reason for its greatness was its tireless culture that started at the top. There was nothing CAA wouldn’t do for its clients, which meant work there was all consuming. Notable about the culture is that there was seemingly no excess. Because there wasn’t, Ovitz made plain that if an employee didn’t show up for work, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for the tardy employee to hear from Ovitz himself. CAA once again had clients to serve, and they could best be served via the collaborative work culture that prevailed inside its I.M. Pei-designed headquarters.

It was Ovitz’s memories of CAA, the late Steve Jobs’ design of Apple’s present headquarters with random meet-ups top of mind, and my own experiences as a Goldman Sachs employee that caused me to quickly reject the popular coronavirus-era view that offices and office buildings were yesterday’s news. Not a chance. Such a view implied that in the past, the world’s greatest companies spent enormous financial and human capital on headquarters just because. Not really. The more realistic truth is that the best corporations nearly always have brilliant cultures born of time spent working together at the office. When asked in interviews if the days of going “into” work were in the rearview mirror, the answer was always no. City skylines would expand, not shrink. That’s still the view here.

It came to mind a lot while reading architect Stefan Al’s fascinating and extraordinarily worthwhile new book, Supertall: How the World’s Tallest Buildings Are Reshaping Our Cities and Our Lives. Al’s book is as the title suggests: about tall buildings that continue to grow in terms of height and purpose. And Al knows of what he speaks. As an employee of design firm Information Based Architects, Al was part of the team picked to design the 1,982 Guangzhou TV Tower. In 2010, it was the world’s tallest building.

Which is kind of the point. It isn’t the world’s tallest building now. Al contends that we’re in the “era of supertall,” and statistics don’t reject his assertion. While there were only four “supertalls” in 1996 (buildings taller than 984 feet), as Supertall went to print there were over 170.

The legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright (Al confirms that Wright saw a legend when he looked in the mirror; once referring to himself as “the world’s greatest living architect”) was the first credible designer to envision a world of supertalls. His idea for Manhattan had it being “razed to ‘one large green’ with only a few mile-high buildings.” In the architect’s imagining, ten incredibly tall buildings could hold the island’s “entire office population.”

Wright even held a press conference to talk about his proposed “Sky-City” that would have landing spaces for one hundred helicopters, 15,000 parking spaces, and 528 stories reached by the building’s 100,000 occupants via “76 yet-to-be-invented ‘atomic-powered’ elevators, each capable of racing up to sixty miles per hour.” The barrier to all this, as readers can likely deduce, was still-primitive technology; including concrete not yet refined enough to withstand the weight of a building with mile-high height. About building weight, Al reports that “when you double a building’s height, the volume and weight increase eight times.”

All of which speaks to the beauty of progress born of savings and investment. What read as somewhat delusional in the 1950s is within humanity’s grasp now. Al reports that Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, “currently the tallest building on earth, stands twice the height of the Empire State Building, measuring more than half a mile high.” Where it becomes exciting is that the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia is expected (if completed) to measure a kilometer in height, or two-thirds of a mile. It seems only a matter of time before someone somewhere announces the first building that will break the mile barrier, after which let the next supertall race begin!

In contemplating a future defined by buildings that stretch over a mile into the air, it’s perhaps useful to remember that they’ll be much more than places for individuals to office. At least as Al envisions it, the supertalls of the future will be redefine how we exist. In his words, “Imagine a world where streets, plazas, blocks, and entire buildings are absorbed into a single structure.” Basically cities will be built within structures that stagger for their height and multi-purpose nature.

Will it work? No doubt some reading this review are shaking their heads. They are for a variety of reasons, including not insignificantly their own disdain for such a lifestyle theoretically defined by a controlled climate. All of which speaks to the courage and genius of those intent on building a very different, and taller future. Their buildings will produce abundant information, including (potentially) information that says the people (the marketplace) don’t envision what the builders of supertalls do. Every commercial endeavor is quite the speculation, and in building the perceived structures of the future, intrepid architects are taking the ultimate leap. The future is fascinating.

So is the technology. Indeed, the biggest factor that vivifies what was blurry when Frank Lloyd Wright imagined supertalls is that among other things, the cement of today “has become quite the sophisticated blend.” Al goes into detail of the “MPa” variety in describing the power of today’s cement, but what goes over your reviewer’s head will not be poorly explained here. Beyond lacking the proper understanding to explain it, the bigger truth is that doing so would be excessive. What matters is the “blend” that Al refers to. It very happily speaks to an increasingly specialized world.

Figure that every market good right down to the prosaic pencil is a consequence of global cooperation. In which case, imagine the global inputs and engineering that go into the making of cement so powerful that it can easily hold up the fully-formed cities built a mile or more into the sky! We will move rapidly through these structures in elevators that are “lighter, bigger, and move faster across thinner cables, up to 47 miles per hour.” What an amazing world we live in. And it’s only going to get better. Al writes that “Automation, ‘smart devices,’ and artificial intelligence” will “help achieve faster construction times, bigger operational efficiencies, and easier maintenance of massive buildings.” Underlying what Al is saying is the happy, old as humanity truth that automation and robots don’t put us out of work as much as they save us from wasted effort, and in doing just that, free us individuals to specialize in brilliant fashion.

Think about it. If several individuals working together are exponentially more productive than one individual working alone, imagine what we humans can achieve a year, ten years and one hundred years from now if robots and other forms of automation more and more replace human effort. The progress ahead staggers the mind, and it includes (assuming the market supports it) buildings that will extend well beyond one mile.

Al plainly sees the connection between people around the world working together, and amazing progress. Some will call this “globalization” in sneering fashion, but such a troglodytic view of cooperation ignores just how primitive and cruel our existence would be absent the interconnectedness of humans, and yes, the interconnectedness of humans and machines. About all this, Al informs readers of concrete’s origins, and the remarkable advances in concrete produced within the Roman Empire; advances that explain why so many structures built so long ago still stand today. We subsequently stand on the shoulders of giants as it were. Considering the aforementioned Burj Khalifa, it wouldn’t exist in anything like its grandiose present form absent hands and minds of varying country origin; the Burj Khalifa a combination of “Roman engineering, American rebar, and a German pump, all the in the Arabian desert.” Work divided by specialized individuals the world over is the path to staggering progress.

Indeed, the Burj Khalifa is not just a study in oddities whereby it’s 11 degrees cooler at the top of the building than the bottom, or that the sun sets at the top several minutes later than the building’s base such that local clerics have decided that residents above the 80th floor should end their Ramadan fasting two minutes later each day. The Burj is similarly not just a study of superlatives for its half-mile height, the highest (143rd floor) nightclub in the world, and the highest (148th floor) observation deck.

What makes it most remarkable in an economic sense is the beautiful truth that it’s as previously mentioned a consequence of “an accumulation of inventions from all over the world.” Brilliant advances in concrete are at the core of the progress necessary, but the reality is that a structure as tall as the Burj wouldn’t have been possible even with the modern blends of concrete born of “human imagination” absent an ability for developers to pump the concrete upwards at high speeds. The pumps greatly reduced the cost of constructing the Burj, and cost plainly looms large in any project like this. As Al very interestingly observes, buildings have an “economic height,” and “given the higher construction costs for taller buildings, profit diminishes.” It turns out vanity and branding play roles in tall buildings such that the Empire State Building would have been more profitable had it been 54 stories shorter. Al ads that Jeddah Tower similarly won’t yield big returns for its own height, but will prove a moneymaker for it boosting the value of the land around it. Same with the Burj. But that’s a digression. As readers can probably imagine, there’s more to the concrete aspect of the mere construction of these amazing structures.

With a building as tall as the Burj, there existed the challenge of pumping concrete without it hardening on the way up. Enter Germany-based corporation BASF and its admixture called Glenium Sky 504 that “keeps the mix soft for three hours upon arrival.” Concrete hardening solved, but what about the pumping? For the Burj it was taken care of by another German innovator, Putzmeister. Its Putzmeister BSA 14000 SHP-D did the job for the world’s tallest building. Al notes that Putzmeister is a “world record holder for volume of concrete pumped.” Cooperation promises a bright future, including housing that is both incredibly luxurious and wildly cheap. More on that toward review’s end.

For now, it’s worth asking which country’s capitalists are presently rushing the majestic future of supertalls into the present? The answer is China. That it’s China brings to mind interviews conducted during Donald Trump’s presidency about Trump’s stance on the country. When asked what might cause Trump to change his mind about tariffs and other barriers to divided work, my answer was always that if Trump would just spend time in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and other shimmering Chinese cities, he would see that the Chinese people share his worship of skylines. As Al notes, in the 1970s Trump “paid $5 million for the air rights above a landmarked building on Fifth Avenue.” His cobbling together of these rights (Al writes that “In New York, air is invisible land” that is sometimes more valuable than land) made possible Trump’s construction of Trump Tower. Again, there’s a shared fascination with Trump and the Chinese for soaring buildings. Could it have been a bridge? Just a thought, or question, and perhaps a wasteful detour.

The main thing is that Al has numerous interesting statistics about China’s economic rise. About it, it’s worth leading with the simple truth that the State couldn’t plan this kind of expansion. Not a chance. Though China is led by the Chinese Communist Party, its remarkable growth is strong evidence that the country is no longer communist.

Al notes that in 1980 when China was still for all intents and purposes communist, its business sectors produced 80 megatons of cement. By 2010, the previous number had soared to 1.9 gigatons. Regarding the construction of supertalls or close to supertalls, Al reports that in 2019 China added 45% of the world’s buildings taller than 200 meters. That the Chinese construct so many tall buildings for a population that’s increasingly urbanized explains why at “7 million and counting,” China has the most elevators in the world. Of note about these millions of boxes that have so profoundly shaped the modern global economy (imagine how different the world and world economy would be absent the elevator), they too are a global endeavor. This is particularly notable when it comes to China in that while Japan is still seen by many Chinese as the enemy, the elevators in China’s tallest building (Shanghai Tower), the elevator cables, and the engines that move the elevators were all made in Japan. All of this matters from the angle of cooperation that informs this review, but it’s also a reminder of how economically crippling it will be if the U.S. shuns the abundant opportunity that presents itself in China. The Chinese are producing in feverish fashion precisely they’re buying with equal fervor.

Better yet, in building the supertalls, the Chinese can provide the U.S. and the rest of the world with crucial information about how to go about the building. Indeed, it’s in the Shanghai Tower that elevators travel 67 feet per second; 55 seconds from top to bottom. Progress is beautiful! Al writes that when Elisha Otis first installed an elevator in a New York City department store in the 19th century for $300, the primitive box traveled ½ of a mile per hour.

What will all this mean for the presently paused Jeddah Tower? Will the elevators meant to move passengers exceed Shanghai Tower’s 47 mph? The easy answer is yes, but Al is clear that there are limits to speed. By that, he doesn’t mean that innovators couldn’t come up with ever faster machines, but that the “ultimate limit for elevator speed may be human. Some believe the limit lies around 54 miles per hour, when people would not have enough time to adjust to the air pressure when they get out at the top.”

Sadly, when it comes to Jeddah, its construction as mentioned is paused. Al is somewhat skeptical that the pause will ever end. Which is unfortunate mainly because these major leaps produce information necessary for even bigger ones. With Jeddah, Al notes that it was initially planned as Mile High Tower only for “unfavorable soil reports” to doom the supertall of supertalls. Still, a kilometer would have been something, and in succeeding or failing with its battle against Mother Nature (Al writes that supertalls “flirt more dangerously” with nature than other buildings), the Jeddah Tower could have set the stage for an intrepid soul (or souls) to exceed one mile.

If there’s a weak chapter to the book, it’s oddly enough the one your reviewer most looked forward to. It’s the chapter about air conditioning in buildings. Al is at least honest that “if we were suddenly to pull the air conditioner’s plug, our modern world would grind to a halt.” So true. Al notes that the tall buildings would microwave their inhabitants absent climate control, which means ACs are as crucial to buildings as elevators are. Without buildings, creativity would necessarily decline based on what Al refers to as Allen’s Curve, named after MIT professor Thomas Allen. His curve says “collaboration increases as a function of proximity,” and there would be much less proximity without climate-controlled buildings. They’re here to stay, and contra the coronavirus alarmists, skylines will grow.

The challenge for Al is his connection of a warming global climate to the increased cooling of the earth. The view here is that Al’s alarmism is overstated. Indeed, as evidenced by the ever-increasing movement of the humans who populate the earth to coastal locales, the “marketplace” isn’t as pessimistic about the world’s future as Al is. No doubt brilliant scientists and architects like Al believe as they do, but can Al et al really believe that their knowledge exceeds that of humanity’s collective knowledge, not to mention the movement of so many businesses to the coastal areas allegedly threatened by global warming? Can billions of people, businesses, and investors all know so little such that they blindly put so much wealth where it will be extinguished, and scientists really know so much about earth’s pending doom? Color me skeptical. Assuming warming is the risk that Al plainly believes it to be, the bet here is that the very progress Al chronicles in his remarkable book will include advances that slow the warming that Al fears.

Why was the air conditioning chapter weakest? It was simply because Al spent so much time on global warming, and less on exciting advances in air conditioning. His book is full of interesting facts, and I’d hoped to read about falling costs for building-capable air conditioners that continue to advance in terms of performance. This wasn’t included, even though it’s likely Al has this information. It seems he let his policy views step on a subject that rates a more optimistic presentation.

Here’s one prediction based on increasingly sophisticated building techniques: these intrepid architects of supertalls will eventually solve the affordable housing problem, and this will be true even in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Those who solve it will become staggeringly rich for doing so, the producers of plenty invariably do, but inequality is the “price” we pay for progress. And it’s a bargain. Too bad Al seemingly has such a negative view of inequality. Your reviewer thinks he misses the simple truth that without inequality, there wouldn’t be a proliferation of supertalls nor the eventual building that will render out-of-reach housing a yesterday concept. Al describes why it can be cheap thanks to incredibly tall buildings and cities built on exponentially smaller squares of land.

Rather than cheer the progress described without reservation, Al has an apologetic tone. He clearly loves being an architect, and being part of the supertall boom, but there’s always “sorry” within his happy story about, for instance, “the plutocratization” of skylines: whereas 86% of the world’s tallest towers were office buildings from 1930 to 2000, Al halfway laments that as of 2020 just 36% of the supertalls were office. The superrich are buying floors and multiple floors in slender buildings way high up in the sky to get away from the rest of us. Ok, that’s the seen. The “unseen” Al doesn’t spend enough time on is that the rich generally get that way by democratizing access to formerly inaccessible luxuries. In time, this will include amazing housing on a level that will stagger for its opulence.

Concrete that is increasingly powerful will presumably be at the core of the seeming oxymoron that is affordable luxury housing. Al knows this, it seems, but he’s again of mixed feelings. He writes that concrete “is both a blessing and a curse” based on Al’s presumption that the environment is hurt by progress, which means he wants more building; albeit with “new recipes, new technologies, and new alternatives that improve on concrete.” Which is Al’s way of saying in his most essential of books that the very progress he fears will produce the resources necessary to fix any downsides to progress that Al perceives.

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