Consider the value of tall buildings

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Consider the value of tall buildings

The race to build a super tall skyscraper in Seoul is on between Lotte with its 123-story Lotte World and Hyundai Motor, which plans to build a 105-floor high-rise on the huge plot of land it bought from the Korea Electric Power Corporation last year. The Seoul metropolitan government is also considering redeveloping Yongsan District into a state-of-the-art urban center modeled after Roppongi Hills in Japan. But many people are not happy with the planned changes to Seoul’s skyline. Safety concerns have already risen over the second Lotte World. Here are contrasting views from experts.

What sounded like a wild idea in the 1990s when a few local companies vied to build super high structures of more than 100 stories has become a reality. The much-hyped and much-criticized 123-floor second Lotte World is near completion. Hyundai Motor, which stunned many by purchasing the Seoul headquarters of the Korea Electric Power Corporation for $10 billion, plans to build a skyscraper in the bulky lot. Why did they choose a skyscraper - which is much more costly to build - than a complex of smaller buildings? Critics say it’s all self-indulgence to show off their corporate might.

In architectural history, the value of the high-rise has been in its height. Since the 77-story Chrysler Building was completed in 1930 on the east side of Manhattan, building “the tallest” became a kind of absolute criteria and goal in skyscrapers.

When the fad caught on in the Middle East, it became a part of the national identity. Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, at 829 meters high (about 2,700 feet), raised the bar to a new level. Or so they thought, until Saudi Arabia announced it would put up a tower that would be nearly twice as high, at 1,600 meters.

China, which hasn’t been shy about displaying its newfound riches since the early 1990s, has also become obsessive about its megasize buildings. The 88-story Jin Mao Tower went up in Pudong, Shanghai, and people began to look at the height and rank the tallest building when a new skyscraper joined the block. They have landmark value, and become a tourist attraction once they join the world record list.

But with tall buildings so common these days, they seem to be built for a country, a city or a company’s vanity. It is true that tall buildings can shape a city’s skyline and bring symbolic status, as seen in Manhattan and Chicago. But not many cities can afford urban development like those two. We must consider the competitive value in skyscrapers in our cities. We must think about it in the context of broader development of our capital city. If we attach too much importance to height, the social and economic cost could be too heavy.

First of all, construction costs are too extravagant. Even if it is funded by a company or the local government, the repercussions on the national economy may not be small. Reckless development of tall structures could also cause problems.

A skyscraper can contribute meaningfully to a community when it can play a role as a symbolic landmark in tune with the functional role and identity of the community. Otherwise, it could be just a monstrous white elephant. So tall buildings should be pursued as part of broad design of the city. If they go up without a plan, they could do more harm to the city.

There are many merits to tall structures. But they must be constructed within an overall architectural outline and urban development. Just look at 101 Tower in Taipei - it awkwardly stands tall and is out of tune with the rest of the city.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of the Korea University Department of Architectural Engineering.

by Yeo Young-ho

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