China reaching for the sky with skyskrapers

The Chinese worry that the next 'world's tallest building' may be a bad omen, writes Bloomberg's ADAM MINTER


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As recently as July 1, cattle apparently grazed in the fields intended for the world's tallest skyscraper in the rural outskirts of Changsha, in China's Hunan province. That wasn't the original plan: Sky City, as the concept is known, was scheduled for completion earlier this year after a mere 90 days of construction.

Understandably, few people inside or outside China believed such a deadline was possible. It wasn't. Work never even started on the project, which was delayed in part by the government- approval process.

But reporters and micro-bloggers took notice three weeks later when Zhang Yue -- chairman of the Changsha-based Broad Group, which is developing Sky City and, for what it's worth, owns a pyramid in the Hunanese countryside -- touched down on the alleged construction site in his helicopter. The occasion was the long-delayed Sky City ground-breaking, and Mr. Zhang made up for his own 10 minutes of tardiness with a dash across the fields to the podium for his big announcement.

The building, he explained, will be built from prefabricated steel and concrete modules and will rise 202 stories. That will make it 2,749 feet high -- about 30 feet higher than Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's current tallest building. It will come complete with malls, residences, schools, a hotel, a hospital and a vertical garden sufficient to feed 30,000 residents. It will also be capable of sustaining a magnitude-9 earthquake.

Sky City, 2013 edition, apparently will require a modest nine months and roughly $850 million to complete. Burj Khalifa took five years and $1.5 billion. But if any developer deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to cost and timetables, it might be Mr. Zhang: Last year, his company built a prefabricated 30-story hotel in 15 days. Sky City will be built using the same energy-saving methods.

Despite the project's ambition and its potential to be a model of fast, sustainable development, it has met with quite a bit of skepticism. This is to be expected: The Chinese economic slowdown, combined with a host of empty mega shopping malls and newly built "ghost towns," has sapped the public's taste for ostentation on the part of real-estate developers. On Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblogging platform, such skepticism has at times turned in an apocalyptic direction. Jiang Ruxiang, a Beijing-based management consultant and frequent commentator on economic and business issues for Chinese television, offered this over-the-top message: "An economic crisis is coming! 838 meters tall, 5.25 billion yuan! Offices on the sixth to 15th floors, apartments of different sizes on the 16th to 170th floors. Hotels on the 171st to 202nd floors. U.S., Japan and Dubai all built 'tallest' buildings before their economic crises. China is not an exception. Take care, Chinese companies! Economic crisis is coming!"

Mr. Jiang may not be an irrefutable scholar of architectural history, but his general point has been floating around Chinese newspapers and social media for weeks, as rumors of Sky City's resuscitation circulated. On June 10, journalist Chen Zhilong, more negative than most, went so far as to post on Sina Weibo that Chinese history has been dogged by a "magnificent buildings curse," whereby the construction of grand works like the Great Wall spurred human resentment and divine retribution.

China's newspaper commentators -- many of whom write for Communist Party-owned venues -- aren't quite ready to cite Sky City as evidence that the country is due for divine retribution. They also don't exactly share Mr. Zhang's enthusiasm for skyscraper innovation.

This is somewhat new: For years, China's news media have been slavish boosters of the country's pursuit of bigger and faster (if not better) infrastructure, buildings and events, uncritically promoting them as symbols of the country's economic and diplomatic ascendance. The privately developed Sky City hasn't enjoyed such praise. Rather, the project appears to have become a convenient symbol of everything wrong with China's pursuit of international recognition at the expense of more sensible development.

The official Weibo account of People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, recently offered a cautionary voice when it posted, "As China urbanizes, blindly opposing skyscrapers isn't rational. But neither should we worship these increasingly high landmarks as if they're totems."

Likewise, Wang Qi, writing for People's Daily Online, distilled these undercurrents into a piece of social criticism that stretches far beyond Mr. Zhang's 202 stories: "The obsession with being No. 1 is actually a manifestation of a lack of confidence. For example, in Europe and the U.S., no matter how vigorous their economies, they don't madly pursue 'the tallest building.' The reason is that their strength does not need to be proved via 'the tallest building' and 'the largest project' because they've already won the respect and admiration of small countries."

This sensible utilitarianism is laudable. It is also too late and arguably misguided -- at least in the case of Sky City.

Unlike many of China's other super-tall skyscrapers that are under construction, Sky City is a vanity project that, if successful, could transform high-rise construction into a more sustainable enterprise that uses fewer construction materials to achieve super-tall results. That's a big, mostly untested "if," with the potential to turn into further delays, a debacle or something much worse.

As one Shanghai-based Weibo user posted the other day: "You can read the news in a few years: World's tallest building collapsed."

opinion_commentary

Adam Minter, Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg News' World View blog, is writing "Junkyard Planet," a book on the global recycling industry.


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