Special Report

Kissing the Sky

Eight of the ten tallest buildings in the world are now located on the continent of Asia.

By 1.6.05

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On New Year's Eve 2005, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian officially opened the world's tallest building, Taipei 101. The bottle-green, 1,667-foot, $1.8 billion structure was designed by native architect C.Y. Lee to reflect a distinctly Chinese aesthetic, calling to mind stacked pagodas or, according to some, a stick of bamboo.

"Chinese people love bamboo because it's very strong and very flexible," says Cathy Yang, vice president of Taipei Financial Center Corporation, the company that owns the building. "Bamboo is hollow inside. Chinese philosophy teaches us that the hollow bamboo reminds us to be modest and humble inside."

Well, perhaps it's a symptom of cultural myopia, but when this Western eye takes in Taipei 101, this Western brain does not register humility. And when factoring into account that eight of the ten tallest buildings in the world are now located on the continent of Asia, very different theories begin to take shape.

A little research reveals that most skyscraper construction in Asia took place in the late 1980s and 1990s, when many economies in the region became inexhaustible dynamos of wealth production. While the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, and Central Plaza in Hong Kong -- all among the world's ten tallest skyscrapers -- were built in the 1990s, the two remaining American buildings on the list -- the Sears Tower and the Empire State Building -- were completed in 1974 and 1931, respectively. Asia's Edifice Complex likely came about when the continent's newly minted billionaires looked longingly at gleaming American cities like Chicago and New York which, until that moment, had skylines unsurpassed in anyone's imagination.

Argentine-American architect Cesar Pelli, designer of the Petronas Towers, puts it most elegantly: "Very tall buildings touch us intimately, in deep chords of our psyche. It's a very old human urge to point toward heaven."

Many might easily be convinced that Pelli's distinct, Islamic-influenced concept for the Petronas Towers -- intended to evoke an Arabesque, he says -- resulted in a structure that inspires the soul. The same could be said of many less thoughtfully imagined buildings that are still awe-inspiring as creations of man.

But at least one Asian skyscraper compels the psyche in a decidedly different direction. The Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, rumored to have been conceived in the mind of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il himself, is a 1,082-ft., 105-story monstrosity whose jagged form looms over the rest of the city like the ghost of Stalin. Its sinister 75-degree angles and hulking girth are reminiscent of a vampire sarcophagus.

Indeed, one can assume that the estimated $750 million it took to get the project off the ground in 1987 -- some two percent of the country's GDP at that time -- literally sucked the life's blood out of many of the country's starving citizens. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this nightmare vision is that the Ryugyong Hotel remains unoccupied and unfinished -- many experts even suspect that it is structurally unsound. Recent satellite photos show that its windows have not been fitted with panes. The sound it likely produces when the wind blows must curdle the neighbors' blood.

But the Asian building spree continues unabated elsewhere, with billionaires seeking immortality through structures that kiss the sky. Although the vast majority of the seekers are men, there was a case of female Edifice Envy when, in the mid-1990s, diminutive Hong Kong businesswoman Nina Kung Wang set her sights on building a 108-story structure that would have become the tallest in the world. A sometime artist, the eccentric widow (at age 66, she still maintains a fondness for mini-skirts and pig-tails) painted a traditional Chinese silk-screen of her proposed "Nina Tower" in 1996. The image depicts an impossibly tall edifice piercing a tiny, distant, glowing red sun.

Alas, the government of Hong Kong put an end to Ms. Wang's fantasies when it determined that the proposed tower's proximity to the island's airport would make it a hazard to low- and not-so-low-flying planes alike. The Shanghai native's appeal to the mainland did little to sway Hong Kong authorities, and the project remains but a twinkle in Ms. Wang's eye.

But in the end, the title of "world's tallest building" could return again to these shores in 2009, when construction on the new World Trade Center and its centerpiece, the Freedom Tower, is scheduled to be completed.

"A tower is a spiritual quest," says Daniel Libeskind, master-plan architect for the project. "Whether it's San Gimignano or the Freedom Tower, it's about the ancient poetic desire to reach the sky."

And there can be no more fitting tribute to the American psyche than that.

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