“Building skyscrapers over a thousand meters high may seem obscenity or extravagance”, said the Austrian architect Harry Seidler in 1963, “but do not doubt that it is perfectly feasible and that, sooner or later, someone will end up doing it. The destiny of Humanity consists in imposing grandiose projects and carrying them out”.
Today we know that, had it not been for the collapse of the real estate market in Saudi Arabia, Seidler’s old prophecy would already have come true at least a year ago. It was planned that the Kingdom Tower of Jeddah, whose works were paralyzed in the spring of 2018, would exceed that babelic kilometer in height in 2021 to become the tallest human structure on the planet. A thousand meters, the distance that separates Madrid’s Puerta del Sol from the Almudena Cathedral, from a vertical structure of steel and concrete rising one kilometer above sea level in the middle of the Arabian desert. It would take a professional athlete to cover that section just over two minutes. It would take a high-level climber several hours to climb to the top of a vertical wall of that length.
The towers of Babel in China, Dubai, Kazakhstan or Malaysia
The tower of Jeddah can, as Seidler pointed out in his day, be considered an eccentric and almost obscene act of human arrogance. But neither is it much taller than the current architectural summit of the planet, operational since it opened in 2010, the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, which measures 829 meters.
In the words of the British architect Peter Cook, “projects like this are born from that old drive to explore our limits as a species and rise towards the sky, something that is already found in myths such as the Tower of Babel.” They are also born from the competition between elite architects at the service of emerging economies or feudal satrapies.
The United States has not completely withdrawn from a race that it led for decades, but it is China, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates or Kazakhstan that are currently competing most vigorously in the stratospheric 1,000-meter league. By comparison, the tallest building in Western Europe, London’s Shard of Glass, is a minutiae of just 309 meters, 60 more than the summit of the Iberian peninsula, Madrid’s Torre de Cristal.
Old Europe is competitive, yes, in a minor league for the moment but which is beginning to gain traction lately, that of wooden skyscrapers. Here the figures are more modest. We are not talking about hundreds of meters, but tens. But the progression is beginning to be striking in recent years.
From the Vancouver student tower to the Norwegian skyscraper
In 2017, the news was that a Canadian student residence made of laminated timber (CLT), the Brock Commons Tallwood House in Vancouver, had risen to 53 meters, just inches more than the apartment tower. Treet of Bergen (Norway). At this point, its only competitors in the high-flying timber league were already religious buildings from another era, relics from a time before the modern dictatorship of concrete. Orthodox cathedrals such as the one in Almaty or the ancient pagoda of the Fogong temple in China, built in the 11th century and which also exceed 50 meters.
Among contemporary competitors, the strongest was the HAUT building in Amsterdam, whose 21 floors were to take it to a new frontier, that of 75 meters high. However, that project is still under construction, and when it opens it will already have been surpassed by bigger rivals. The first of these was the HoHo building in Vienna, a hybrid wood and concrete skyscraper that reached a more than respectable 84 meters in 2019, which meant raising the bar 31 meters in just two years. Very shortly after, Mjøstårnet would arrive, the Tower of Lake Mjøsa, in the small Norwegian municipality of Brumunddal, which holds the current record with its 18 floors and 85.5 meters high. Not only does it measure one and a half meters taller than the Viennese tower, but it does so without resorting to the complementary use of concrete, which reinforces its character as the tallest wooden skyscraper in the world.
Zurich and Milwaukee time
However, everything indicates that the Norwegian tower is destined to be an ephemeral feat. In March 2020 it was confirmed that a hybrid wood apartment complex, the Ascent MKE in the American city of Milwaukee, was going to add five additional floors to its original project, reaching 87 meters in September of this year.
In Europe, in parallel, an even more imposing wooden monster was beginning to take shape. The Rocket & Tigerli complex, in the Swiss city of Winterthur, very close to Zurich, will have four buildings, and one of them will rise up to 100 meters. A round number that right now constitutes the main claim of this project “of a rabid, exquisite, exclusive and light-filled modernity”, as described by the journalist Amarachie Orie in a chronicle for CNN.
For those responsible for the project, the Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects (SHL), “breaking a height record is always an incentive, because it is a fact that remains for history, a wonderful cover letter for the building that ensures its uniqueness ”. But the 100 meters are not an end in itself. In his opinion, it is rather a question of “demonstrating that there are very few practical limits to what can be done with wood, that we are not talking about a flimsy or not very versatile construction material, but rather an organic and perfectly viable alternative to concrete or almost every other component.
Kristian Ahlmark, partner and design director of the Danish studio, adds that “wood not only has notable aesthetic qualities, it also offers little-explored technical possibilities that are fully compatible with the demands of modern architecture.” In addition, it is much more respectful of the environment.
The future of green architecture
Oscar Holland, a journalist specializing in trends and design, explains that the laminated wood towers “were, until not long ago, theoretical architecture projects with which the most advanced studios tried to raise awareness of how unsustainable it is to continue building large masses of cement ”. For Holland, “it is scandalous that the construction industry is responsible for 40% of the planet’s energy consumption and at least a third of carbon emissions and until now we have not taken seriously the return to the massive use of materials less contaminants, such as wood. The expert cites a very striking fact: “The builders of the Ascent tower have published that their project, by replacing concrete with wood, represents savings in emissions equivalent to taking 2,100 cars off the road.”
For Irene Jimeno, architect, conservationist and head of the informative blog Toca Madera, the figure provided by the promoters of Milwaukee is plausible: “Above any other consideration, building with wood is excellent business for the planet.” From her point of view, it is a material that has multiple advantages from the point of view of design and construction, starting with speed and precision. “But the main thing is that it fits perfectly into circular economy models that reduce energy waste and carbon footprint.” The impact on the forest mass “is very positive if responsible and sustainable forest management is carried out”.
It is about replacing the specimens that are cut down following a policy of continuous repopulation such as the one promoted in Spain by the Spanish Association for Environmental Sustainability. In his opinion, “the best guarantee that the forest mass is preserved is that it is exploited commercially with those criteria of responsibility and efficiency.”
For Jimeno, it is evident that “wood is a construction material with tradition and cultural roots and, furthermore, very valid”. There is hardly anything that cannot be made with wood. Monumental architecture or high-rise construction are no exceptions. “Despite everything,” she qualifies, “I am not very much in favor of generating competitive dynamics and starting to add plants arbitrarily to residential projects to break records.”
From his point of view, this trend contributes to trivializing architecture, making it enter into a speculative dynamic and, ultimately, making it less responsible and sustainable. Regarding projects like Rocket & Tigerli or Mjøstårnet, Jimeno values above all that “they are technical achievements and very eloquent examples of the virtues of the material they use.” Although he adds: “That they have a couple of plants more or less and that this raises them a few meters seems irrelevant and a bit toxic.”
The next evolutionary leap
For Oscar Holland, the wood revolution will be unstoppable in the coming years thanks to a decisive factor: costs. “While the price of other construction materials has increased a lot, that of wood has fallen thanks to the mass production of CLT, the product that some already call the concrete of the future.” Being a relatively new material and increasingly in demand, the number of producers is multiplying and they do everything possible to offer it at competitive prices. It is clear to Holland that projects of the ambition and enormous scale exhibited by HoHo or Rocket & Tigerli are to some extent a consequence of this change in market trends. For the expert, the more than 100 meters high that the Swiss tower promises “could be very little in the short term.” Specifically, two projects still pending final approval are proposed to pulverize records. One of them is the Oakwood Tower in London, an 80-storey skyscraper that would form part of the Barbican residential complex and would reach 300 meters.
The other, proposed to the city of Tokyo in 2018, has been provisionally named Project W350, would have a wooden structure reinforced with 10% steel to make it more resistant to earthquakes and windstorms, and would reach 350 meters. Construction is expected to start in 2024 and be ready in 2041. By then, if the forecasts come true, cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Perth or Eindhoven will house wooden skyscrapers over 100 meters tall. They will be able to look into the eyes of her cousin Hyperion, a sequoia in the Redwood Natural Park in California, which measures 115 meters and is known to be the tallest tree (and living thing) on the planet.