BEIJING – The 121-story Shanghai Tower is more than China's next record-setting building: It's an economic lifeline for the elite club of skyscraper builders.
Financial gloom has derailed plans for new towers in Chicago, Moscow, Dubai and other cities. But in China, work on the 2,074-foot (632-meter) Shanghai Tower, due to be completed in 2014, and dozens of other tall buildings is rushing ahead, powered by a buoyant economy and providing a steady stream of work to architects and engineers.
The U.S. high-rise market is "pretty much dead," said Dan Winey, a managing director for Gensler, the Shanghai Tower's San Francisco-based architects. "For us, China in the next 10 to 15 years is going to be a huge market."
China has six of the world's 15 tallest buildings — compared with three in the United States, the skyscraper's birthplace — and is constructing more at a furious pace, defying worries about a possible real estate boom and bust. It is on track to pass the U.S. as the country with the most buildings among the 100 tallest by a wide margin.
"There are cities in China that most Western people have never heard of that have bigger populations and more tall buildings than half the prominent cities in the U.S.," said Antony Wood, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
China is leading a wave of skyscraper building in developing countries that is shifting the field's center of gravity away from the United States and Europe.
India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia have ultra-tall towers under construction or on the drawing board. In the Gulf, Doha in Qatar and Dubai — site of the current record holder, the 163-story Burj Khalifa — each has three buildings among the 20 tallest under construction, though work on all but one of those has been suspended.
The shift is so drastic that North America's share of the 100 tallest buildings will fall from 80 percent in 1990 to just 18 percent by 2012, according to Wood. He said by then, 45 of the tallest will be in Asia, with 34 of those in China alone.
"So 34 percent of the 100 tallest buildings will be in a single country. That has only happened once before, and that was with the USA," he said.
In China, skyscrapers are going up in obscure locales such as Wenzhou, Wuhan and Jiangyin, a boomtown north of Shanghai. It is building a 72-story, 1,076-foot (328-meter) hotel-and-apartment tower that will be taller than Manhattan's Chrysler Building.
China's edifice complex is driven by a mix of demand for space in a crowded country with economic growth forecast at 10 percent this year and local leaders who want architectural eye candy to promote their cities as commercial centers.
Dozens of midsize Chinese cities are building new business districts to replace cramped downtowns. They look to the model of Shanghai's skyscraper-packed Pudong district — China's Wall Street — created in the 1990s on reclaimed industrial land.
"Governments are encouraging these iconic buildings in order to give a very clear message to the outside world: Please pay attention to our city," said Dennis Poon, managing principal of Thornton Tomasetti, the Shanghai Tower's structural engineers. The New York-based firm also is working on the 115-story Ping An International Finance Center in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, and other Chinese projects.
China has four of the 10 tallest buildings under construction, versus two for the United States — and work on one of those, the 2,000-foot (610-meter) Chicago Spire, has stopped.
The Shanghai Tower will be China's tallest office tower, surpassing the neighboring Shanghai World Financial Center in Pudong. The 2-year-old WFC passed the Jinmao Tower, also in Pudong, for the title.
China accounts for 65 percent of Gensler's worldwide revenues from projects that involve buildings 35 to 40 stories and above, according to Winey.
The firm is working on some 50 projects in China that total 80 million square feet (8 million square meters), the equivalent of San Francisco's entire stock of commercial office space, he said. China revenues are rising by 30 to 35 percent a year and its staff of 140 people in offices in Beijing and Shanghai should expand to 500 in the next seven years.
The boom has drawn a Who's Who of star architects and given Chinese firms their first shot at designing a skyscraper.
Shenzhen's Ping An tower was designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox; the New York firm's other projects include the 116-story East Tower of the Chow Tai Fook Center in Guangzhou, also near Hong Kong. Chicago-based Skidmore Owings & Merrill designed Beijing's tallest building, the 75-story China World Tower III, and the 76-story Tianjin World Financial Center in Tianjin east of Beijing, due to be completed next year. Jiangyin's Hanging Village of Huaxi was designed by China's A+E Design.
Tianjin, a port and oil-refining center with ambitions to be a finance and tech hub, is building four towers of at least 75 stories. One of them, the Goldin Finance 117, will be 117 stories and nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) tall.
Instead of Western-style single-use office or apartment towers, many developers diversify their revenue sources by making buildings a mix of hotel and office space, with a shopping mall in the base and luxury apartments at the top.
The new space is hitting the market just as Beijing tries to cool a boom in construction of luxury housing and shopping malls. Regulators warn that a supply glut could leave lenders with unpaid loans if developers default.
But demand for high-end office space is so strong that the skyscraper market should face no such problems, said Danny Ma, director of China research for real estate consulting firm CB Richard Ellis. He said the new buildings should fill up quickly because many are the first in their cities to offer high-quality facilities required by foreign and major Chinese companies that are expanding there.
"More and more tenants are keen to move to such buildings," Ma said. He said developers are signing up tenants in advance for 50 to 60 percent of the space in new projects, enough in many cases to make them profitable.
China is helping to propel development of skyscraper design and urban planning as developers face government pressure to make buildings environmentally friendly and integrate them into busy cities.
The Shanghai Tower will have a double-layer glass exterior to insulate it and cut heating and cooling costs, an advanced feature that might be rejected as too costly in the U.S. or other Western markets, Winey said.
"You can do a lot more experimentation here," he said. "It's an amazing place to be, because you can do things here that you can't do anywhere else in the world."
Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats: www.ctbuh.org
Thornton Tomasetti: www.thorntontomasetti.com