Tall Tales: Three Unbuilt Skyscrapers

With these concepts for high-rise living, the sky’s the limit.

Image © SOM | Crystal CG

An architect’s work brings a special reward: the opportunity to eventually see designs built in the real world. For designers of supertall towers, the privilege is especially grand — their work can define city skylines. Yet, for a variety of reasons, sometimes even the most compelling concepts do not end up getting constructed. In anticipation of Skyscraper Day on September 3rd, we celebrate three inventive unbuilt towers, each of which seeks to elevate supertall design to even greater heights.

Thin is in: Al Sharq Tower​

Image © SOM

SOM’s design for Al Sharq Tower, created in 2008, pushes the limits of engineering to maximize the potential of a tiny plot of land — albeit one with a prestigious address. The tower was intended to rise on a 36-meter-wide site fronting Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s main boulevard, which is lined with luxury skyscrapers.

At 360 meters tall, Al Sharq Tower would have an aspect ratio of 10:1 — ten times as tall as it is wide. “It’s impossibly thin — you wouldn’t do this unless you had to,” said Gary Haney, a design partner at SOM.

Model photo © Jock Pottle | Esto

While a number of super-thin towers have sprouted up in recent years — notably in New York, where market forces and zoning laws have combined to produce improbably slender designs — Al Sharq remains different from any other high-rise yet built. Its unprecedented engineering concept is visible in its facade, formed by structural post-tensioned cables, which connect to the tower’s concrete core. The system works “sort of like a vertical suspension bridge,” Haney said. The result is a skyscraper free of interior columns, providing an open floor plan for the apartments inside, and uninterrupted vistas high above the desert.

Typical floor plan (left) and typical unit layout (right). Image © SOM

Cooling the furnace: Chongqing River Tower

Image © SOM | Crystal CG

Designed in 2010, another unbuilt tower rethinks the residential high-rise by responding to the climate in Chongqing. This megacity in southwestern China is known as one of three “furnace cities” on the Yangtze River Delta, due to its sweltering summer heat. SOM considered how to design a 300-meter skyscraper in a way that would provide natural ventilation. “The concept grew out of the idea of making a porous, breathable tower,” said Michael Duncan, a design director in charge of the Chongqing River Tower project.

Duncan and his team worked from the premise that a central void would pull air through the building by natural convection. When testing this design, the team found that staggered openings in the facade would further improve ventilation.

Images © SOM

The tower’s design is based on repeatable modular units, which would make it easy to construct. “It’s one of those great marriages between structure and design intent,” Duncan said. “There are three standard residential floor plates. The variety comes when you rotate them — like a Rubik’s Cube.” These plan rotations generate the texture of the building’s facade, punctuated by openings that not only allow for airflow, but also serve as outdoor terraces. Combining across multiple floors, the terraces create amenity spaces that foster a sense of community among the tower’s residents.

Image © SOM | Crystal CG

Block party in the sky: The High Life

Image © SOM

SOM pushed its thinking about the residential high-rise even further with a recent design concept that was exhibited during the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial. A team led by design partner Brian Lee, working with the architecture studio CAMESgibson, contemplated the most common housing type in the Chicago region, and across the country: the single-family house. In a recent survey, more than 80 percent of Americans expressed a preference for living in detached homes.

An illustration from a 1909 issue of Life magazine, later published in Rem Koolhaas’ “Delirious New York,” provided a reference point for The High Life concept.

“We started by asking the question, ‘What does it mean to live in a house?’ What are the qualities that this type of residence offers, in terms of quality of life, privacy, and adaptability?” Lee said.

This investigation led to the team’s design concept, dubbed The High Life. It envisions a high-rise structural core, not unlike a tree trunk, with branches that support a variety of housing types including single-family residences. “We took a typical Chicago block and basically made a vertical street, demonstrating how you could create greater density,” Lee said. “It allows the residents to have the benefits of city living, but also to enjoy the qualities of a single-family house.”

Image © SOM

The concept uses leading-edge technology to take the traditional streetscape into the sky. The structure combines 3D-printed trusses with tension elements, providing the necessary strength and wind resistance for structure that could be quickly built and expanded. The houses themselves are conceived as prefab flat-pack units, which their future residents might select out of a catalogue.

“At SOM, we’re always trying to imagine the future,” said Lee. “Our work with 3D printing is helping us to do this. Working closely with engineers and architects together as a unified team allows us to create innovative solutions.”

Image © SOM