In the last decade or two, we’ve seen the rise of the Marketing Tower: Supertall skyscrapers that reach soaring new heights, make headlines all over the world, and bring worldwide recognition to skylines previously unknown.
More often than not, these massive structures are found in countries not seen as major players on the world stage, or whose participation in global events is only a recent development. Of the top 10 tallest buildings in the world at the moment, two are American, two are Middle Eastern, and the rest can be found in East Asia. Expand to the current top 20, and you get proportions that are nearly the same.
All this is new. With just one exception, the oldest structure on the top 10 list is from 1998, and a brief perusal of upcoming plans reveals that a crowded next generation of skyscrapers will battle for supremacy for the title of world’s tallest structure. We have entered a new arms race, and the battleground is in the sky.
But you know what? They’re all boring.
Though I marvel at the technological achievements and ingenious design solutions these buildings require, I can only view them as interchangeable megastructures that serve little purpose other than to show off to the world, if only for a moment, until the crown is yanked away by the next country with an oil boom and a Napoleon complex.
Except for Taipei 101:
Located in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, and named in part for its 101 floors, Taipei 101 instantly became an internationally recognized symbol, and, for six years, was the tallest building in the world. It still ranks as #4, as of 2013.
But a number of factors, from engineering achievements to design aesthetics, set Taipei 101 apart for me. I can watch architecture documentaries all day long (I often do), but this one is different. It’s not just another massive skyscraper meant to catch the attention of newspapers and photographers all over the world; it’s an engineering marvel, sure, but it’s also an integral part of the landscape, which is something I’ve not seen from other supertall skyscrapers that have sprung up lately.
Taipei 101 Facts and Figures
Let’s start with the plain and simple facts about Taipei 101: It’s absolutely massive, by any measure, and its comparatively unobtrusive surroundings mean it can be seen from all throughout the city. Upon completion, it set a number of records, and has some other impressive numbers as well:
- Height: 508 m (1,667 ft)
- Floors: 101 (hence the name)
- Floor area: 193,400 sq m (2.08 million sq ft)
- Total weight: 700,000 tons
- Construction time: 6 years (2004 to 2010)
- Crew: 2,000 workers
- Cost: $1.8 billion
It also has the world’s fastest elevators (though soon to be surpassed), which ascend at speeds of 16.83 meters per second (55.22 ft/s). But they’re also astoundingly smooth; demo videos show passengers balancing a coin on its edge while on the ground floor, which doesn’t fall over by the time they reach the top.
Taipei 101 is also highly energy efficient, and received LEED Platinum Certification in 2012, which is the highest award for sustainable construction, which also made it the tallest green building in the world.
It took 8 months just to analyze the soil to determine whether the site was suitable for a building of this size, and a further 15 months just to complete the foundations.
Other interesting numbers include its massive amount of electrical cabling, which could reach New York and back if stretched end to end, and the 40,000 people who come in and out of the building each and every day. It’s practically a city unto itself, which necessitates a massive logistical infrastructure, such as public transportation and electrical requirements, that reach far beyond the building and into the city. Anything this size is guaranteed to impact the surrounding area; and, of course, the reverse is also true.
Taipei 101’s disaster prevention features
Taiwan is a horrible place to build a skyscraper. Not only is it right on the Ring of Fire, but its capital city lies right on top of multiple fault ones, one of which is just a few blocks away. Awkward.
Check out the earthquake map:
Notice the dates? This is only from a 15 year period.
And then you’ve got typhoons. These massive storms batter the entire East Asian coastline with unrelenting wind and rain, strong enough to bring down entire buildings. Constructing a skyscraper of this size, particularly with no other structures nearby to dilute the force of the wind, is just asking for trouble.
I was there during a minor typhoon, and yes, those winds are strong enough to knock you down. It takes a concerted effort just to walk in a straight line. But if I fall down, I get a bruise. If a skyscraper falls down, well…awkward.
That’s why Taipei 101 has some of the most innovative safety precautions of anything ever built, requiring a challenging combination of strength and flexibility, which allow it to withstand winds up to 216 km/h (134 mph), and earthquakes of a magnitude of 9.0. It has higher safer ratings than Taiwan’s nuclear power plants.
Double stairstep corners
The original design exhibited some worrisome patterns when run through a wind simulator, severe enough to necessitate a design change. But the solution is practically invisible; the edges were given a “double stairstep” design, almost like the fluting of Greek columns:
They may seem humble, but those redesigned edges reduce the potentially dangerous oscillations caused by high winds by about 30-40%, allowing the structure to stand, even under the force of relentless typhoons. And by now, they’ve become a recognizable design element of the structure. Plus they provided the added bonus of increasing the number of people who can have a corner office. Win win!
Tuned mass damper
One of Taipei 101’s most famous engineering features is its tuned mass damper, which is the secret weapon behind its disaster survival techniques. It’s essentially a giant pendulum, which swings in the opposite direction of the sway of the building, preventing it from swaying too far.
As you might imagine, for a building this size, the counterweight has to be huge, too; it’s the world’s largest, at 5.5 meters in diameter (18 ft), and the heaviest, at 660 metric tons (730 short tons).
But it doesn’t just swing back and forth on its suspension cables; it’s hydraulically controlled so its movements correspond precisely with the movement of the building, rather than swinging freely. Here it is:
The trial quake
Many of Taipei 101’s disaster prevention techniques were put to the test, when a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck the building, partway through construction. Cranes collapsed, five construction workers died, and the city suffered major damage; but Taipei 101 was just fine, and after a thorough inspection, the crew got right back to work. Since then, Taipei 101 has faced typhoons and earthquakes, and still stands.
Few other structures have to contend with the forces of nature endured by most East Asian skyscrapers, and although other structures have incorporated plenty of ingenious engineering techniques to combat these obstacles, Taipei 101 in many ways led the way for later designs. From concrete pouring techniques to the lifting of massive objects to disaster reduction methods, many later skyscrapers have built on the innovations that allowed Taipei 101 to reach its unprecedented heights.
And I bet half the reason China built all those massive skyscrapers in the first place is because thorn-in-their-side Taiwan beat them to it.
And yet…101 is cooler.
Symbolism in Taipei 101
You’d think building a building this size would allow for nothing beyond mere structural requirements, but Taipei 101 is actually filled with deliberate references to numbers, symbols, colors, and other elements relevant to Chinese culture:
- The 101 in the name refers to the number of floors, as well as the idea of renewal, going 1 step beyond the traditionally “complete” number of 100; it also represents the new year, which occurs on 1/01, as well as representing the digital language of binary.
- The eight upside-down trapezoidal sections are split into eight floors each; the number eight symbolizes prosperity and good fortune in Chinese cultures, and it also represents going past the end of a seven-day week, thus representing renewal once again. Eight also represents a single byte, which is composed of eight bits.
Classical Chinese elements:
- The building’s eight trapezoidal sections mimic several forms; a multi-sectioned stalk of bamboo, which is also why the windows are tinted green, and the sycee, an ancient Chinese form of currency, while also resembling an upside-down pagoda. They do not, as is often believed, represent Chinese takeout boxes. This is merely a happy coincidence.
- The giant circular protrusions on each side are actually based on ancient Chinese coins, which had a section cut out in the center so they could be tied together on strings.
- The curly decoration on each of the eight subsections represents the ruyi, an ancient ceremonial scepter, which symbolizes strength and good fortune.
- The building itself is a giant sundial, casting a shadow over the adjoining park, which allows residents on the appropriate side of the building to estimate the time.
- As mentioned, the slight green tint of the windows is meant to further mimic the appearance of bamboo, which is a symbol of growth.
- In the evening, the tower displays one of the seven colors of the rainbow, a symbol of renewal, while also corresponding to the seven days of the week (and providing color-coded reminders to forgetful people).
For a massive structure with all sorts of technical requirements, they still managed to design something filled with locally-relevant symbols and forms, with an appearance that echoes the design elements of their most ancient structures. And that’s what I like most about it.
Why Taipei 101 is my fave
Of all the skyscrapers on the planet, Taipei 101 might be the only one that belongs exactly where it is.
Skyscraper construction is increasingly homogenous; as structures reach ever upward, they succumb to a convergent evolution of boring similarity. A skyscraper in London might not be distinctly British, and a skyscraper in Tokyo might not be distinctly Japanese.
Just take a look at some of these buildings and see if you can tell where they reside, simply by looking at them:
As you may have guessed from some of the names, these are all from China. But is there anything about the appearance that would suggest this heritage?
Now it’s not that there’s anything wrong with simply building a gorgeous building, and I enjoy the aesthetics of plenty of skyscrapers all over the world, and many do in fact incorporate local symbolism into their final form (though sometimes you have to be told what it is to realize it). And again, I can appreciate the technical wizardry that went into their construction, and the engineering innovations that subsequent structures could later incorporate. We are learning from their techniques, and moving forward.
It would be hard to imagine someone mistaking Taipei 101 as anything but Asian.
In a world of ubiquitous Western fashion, mass manufacture of interchangeable goods, and disappearing languages and customs, global culture often feels like it’s replacing local traditions with a singular, amalgamated, boring new world.
This is especially evident when visiting modern, recently-built megacities, which often look completely interchangeable, even across vast oceans and cultures. So when a monument like Taipei 101 proves that a modern structure can move undeniably into the future, while unmistakably bringing its ancient heritage right along with it, it’s an uplifting reminder that we need not lament the death of cultural individuality just yet. Perhaps never.
Taipei 101 is thus unlike any other skyscraper in the world, and a brief perusal of the upcoming projects underway across the globe shows it’s going to hang on to that title for quite some time. It may not be the tallest, but just one look at Taipei 101 proves that’s not the only contest worth winning.
It makes for a great fireworks show, too: