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Sun, Jul 04, 2004 - Page 12 News List

From Taipei 101 to Freedom Tower: a fight to the top

The building that begins construction in the US today will replace Taipei 101 as the world's tallest ... for a little while

By David Ho  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The World Trade Center site as seen from the Millennium Hotel on Friday. To the rebuilders of the World Trade Center site, the 20-tonne hunk of granite that will mark the foundation of a 1,776-foot (541m) skyscraper today represents promise and progress. An inscribed cornerstone at the southeastern corner of the tower's foundation will begin a construction project that officials say will help the city reclaim its skyline, nearly three years after losing the twin towers in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

The US is re-entering a long-abandoned race to the top of the manmade world today, as ground is broken for Freedom Tower on the scarred earth of Ground Zero.

The tower, meant to fill an aching void in Manhattan's skyline left by the destroyed World Trade Center, would rise to 1,776 feet (541m). The symbolic height honoring the US' Independence Day might make it the tallest building in the world.

But since planners unveiled the design in December, building experts have debated whether it will qualify as tallest, since the upper reaches are mostly vacant, filled with support cables and power-generating windmills.

Any record also may be short-lived -- buildings are planned in the United Arab Emirates and South Korea that would dwarf the Freedom Tower by hundreds of feet.

America once dominated the ranks of the world's "supertall" skyscrapers with New York's Empire State Building and Chicago's Sears Tower the reigning champs for decades at a time. Now eight of the world's 10 tallest buildings are in Asia, thanks to a building frenzy begun in the early 1990s.

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in Chicago, a recognized arbiter, in April awarded the tallest title to the Taipei 101, a 508m tall pagoda-like tower in Taiwan. It surpassed Malaysia's twin Petronas Towers, completed in 1998, and bumped the 1974 Sears Tower to fourth place.

In Asia, "a lot of it has to do with the local governments wanting to put their flag in the ground and say, `We have arrived as an economy,'" said Ron Klemencic, the building council's chairman and president of Magnusson Klemencic Associates, a structural engineering firm in Seattle.

If skyscrapers were trees, then the supertalls would be redwoods -- an elite group that typically rise higher than 80 stories. Besides national pride, reasons to build so high include elevating broadcast antennas and satisfying the ego of a developer "with a checkbook that can make it happen," Klemencic said.

Typically, economics rather than engineering limit skyscraper height.

Practical matters

The cost of materials and moving people up and down restricts height, as does the space available for a building's footprint. In US cities with established urban layouts, it hasn't made financial sense to build extremely tall.

Supertall construction is more practical in places like the Middle East or China where there is no street grid and "you can just build it in the middle of the desert," Klemencic said.

Skyscraper building also has an apparent link to economic cycles, and the Asian construction trend reflects that, said Carol Willis, an architectural historian who founded the Skyscraper Museum in Manhattan.

"The tallest buildings always come at the end of a boom cycle and generally before a crash," she said, noting the building craze of the late 1920s.

Plans arise during good times when space is needed and rents promise profits, but buildings are often finished years later, adding excess office space to economies on the decline, Willis said.

However, the Freedom Tower, which may be completed before 2009, is an exception to all the rules, Willis said.

"Everything about Freedom Tower is driven by the extraordinary conditions of the World Trade Center tragedy and the desire to repair lower Manhattan's economy," she said.

The destruction of the twin towers in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, also has influenced builders, who are using new security features such as filtered air systems and lower levels hardened against car bombs.

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