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Going up down under: the future of skyscrapers

Melbourne in Australia played host to a conference last week on a subject which many consider will be at the forefront of architecture for years to come - tall buildings. Peter Murray was there for the AJ

The tall building will be the most important building type of the twenty-first century, according to Bill Pedersen of Kohn Pedersen Fox, designer of the Shanghai Financial Centre. The 96-storey tower is under construction and likely to become, for a time at least, the tallest building in the world.

Pedersen was giving the keynote address at the Sixth World Congress of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CBTUH), held in Melbourne last week.As speaker after speaker confirmed, the centre of activity in tall buildings has shifted away from the US and into the hyperdense cities of Asia.

Deyan Sudjic, editor of Domus, put the new Asian city into context. His slides having been impounded by Australian customs, Sudjic was obliged to speak without visual aids - prompting chairman Daryl Jackson to compare it to a radio talk 'like Alastair Cook's Letter from America'. Instead, Sudjic gave us a letter from Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta. He saw the meteoric growth of these conurbations as a distant reflection of the expansion of the cities of northern Europe and north-east America in the nineteenth century.

But conurbations such as the Pearl River Delta with 40 million inhabitants will need new techniques to define them, he said. The new cities have taken the place of the nation state. 'What provides a sense of identity in this formless landscape? Can the giant city survive?

Will they operate as cities or disfunctional agglomerations? It is too soon to tell, ' said Sudjic, with true Cookian rhetoric.

Tall buildings clearly have the ability to provide a sense of identity to cities. The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur were designed to create a new and aggressive image of the Malaysian economy. However, their reign as the world's tallest is under threat. Gossip at the conference was that Grollo Tower in Melbourne's Docklands, designed by Denton Corker Marshall, was back in the frame after a previous postponement. At 530m and 130 storeys it will overtake KPF's Shanghai building if it ever does get built. Also staking a claim to the title is the Taipei Financial Tower, designed by C Y Lee, at 508m and 101 storeys. The Grollo corporation is marketing the 88storey Eureka building (architect Nation Fender Katsalidis) on Melbourne's recently regenerated south bank as the 'world's tallest residential tower'.

According to Dennis Corke of cost consultant Rider Hunt, it makes sense to push up to such dizzying heights as cost increases reduce once you get past 80 floors, where hoists are at their peak and two-tiered pumping and cranage are required. Once you have that infrastructure in place the increases level off.

There are, of course, other drivers for tall buildings. Ego was cited by a number of speakers: the Eureka Tower's marketing material boasts large photos of developer Bruno Grollo hugging a man-sized model of the building. Hazel Wong, the designer of the Emirates Towers in Dubai, told the conference that the brief for the twin buildings was that they had to be 'twice the height of the World Trade Centre built by the Sheikh's father 10 years previously'.

In his opening speech Pedersen questioned how architects can reconcile the clients' demands for large floorplates with the fact that most ecological solutions for tall buildings require shallow space.

Ken Yeang, currently designing a 'green' tower as part of Lord Foster's masterplan for London's Elephant and Castle, described most skyscrapers designed by architects as 'concrete trays stuck on top of each other'. Yeang called for greater bio-diversity in buildings: 'Lowenergy design is a lifestyle issue.'

Some of the most interesting responses to accommodating the demands of users with the demands of the environment came from the technologists. Peter Droege, from the University of Sydney and organiser of the International Energy Agency Solar City Program, described the development of negative emissions towers in a future where photovoltaic cells have reduced in cost to a level that competes with standard cladding systems.

Werner Sobek, director of the Institute of Membrane Structures at Stuttgart University, showed his work on advanced glass technology with switchable glass, glass that changed colour and opacity and textiles that automatically heat and cool in response to external temperatures.

Costs of such smart glass currently put them out of reach of most projects, but as John Nott of Arup in Australia pointed out, investment on a global level in new materials is essential to advance their availability. There are probably few groups which better represent the global building industry than the 300-odd architects, contractors, engineers and cost consultants of the CBTUH who were gathered in Melbourne. If they got their act together they could really provide a response to Pedersen's question.

Peter Murray is managing director ofWordsearch

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