How to build supertall: designers of the world’s tallest towers share their secrets


The tallest building in the world casts a long shadow. For more than a decade, the 828-meter (2,717-foot) Burj Khalifa has dominated Dubai’s skyline and collective architectural consciousness. He didn’t just break the record; 62% higher than the previous Taipei 101, it wiped out. Its legacy has been remarkable, and very useful to the man who designed it.

Adrian Smith created the Burj Khalifa as an architect at Skidmore, Owings and Merill (SOM), but by the time the tower opened in 2010 he had formed his own firm, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, along with Gill and Robert Forest. Known as AS+GG, it specializes in designing supertall and megatall skyscrapers, buildings of at least 300 meters and 600 meters respectively.

Supertalls are still relatively rare, with only 173 completed worldwide, and megatalls, with only three standing today, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). Many more have miscarried at various stages. For anyone working in this field, “you don’t have a lot of examples to look at,” Smith said in a video interview with Gill and Forest.

“When the building is finished it’s the ultimate learning experience,” he explained. “Other than that, it’s paperwork.” This is why skyscrapers like the Burj Khalifa remain so important.

“To go back and see something that was made 15 years ago, and how it weathers, or how it works, and how people experience it or how the building works is essential,” Gill added. “There is no substitute for that.”

Over the past 15 years, AS+GG has built a portfolio of skyscrapers in Asia, North America, Europe and the Middle East. These designs are now titled “Supertall | Megatall: How High Can We Go?” have been collected in a new book called

Street view of Central Park Tower, the 472 meter tall skyscraper in New York, designed by AS+GG and completed in 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Michael Young/Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

The hefty tome is intended as a practical guide for both students and practicing architects. It is full of technical drawings that illustrate innovations based on skyscrapers, from New York’s Central Park Tower (472 meters) and the upcoming Chengdu Greenland Tower (468 m), in China, to concepts over a kilometer high. It’s architecture on the bleeding edge, charting a path where skyscrapers can go next.

“It’s amazing how few people on the planet really know how a supertall is going to work,” said Smith, who describes the subject as “more or less unknown.”

So why is the company so happy to share its secrets?

A brief history of the world’s tallest buildings

A great idea is never wasted

AS+GG’s most famous design is the Jeddah Tower (formerly known as the Kingdom Tower) in Saudi Arabia.

The height of the Jeddah Tower will be more than 1,000 meters when completed, which would make it the tallest building in the world. Scheduled for completion in 2020, the building had 58 floors as of 2020, per “Supertall | Megatall”, and has experienced delays.

Smith said the builders have “protected everything they need to protect” and “the building is not deteriorating.” In response to questions about the reinstatement, Gill said “Never say never.”

The Jeddah Economic Company, responsible for the Jeddah Economic City where the tower is located, did not respond to a request for comment on the condition of the building by the time of publication.
A composite image of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, pictured in 2013, and a rendering of the Jeddah Tower, a skyscraper in Saudi Arabia that would surpass the Burj Khalifa as the world's tallest building when completed.

A composite image of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, pictured in 2013, and a rendering of the Jeddah Tower, a skyscraper in Saudi Arabia that would surpass the Burj Khalifa as the world’s tallest building when completed. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images/Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

One of the longest entries in the book is dedicated to the innovations gathered in the design of the tower, from extensive wind tests with a 1:4,000 scale model, to solar radiation mitigation strategies, to a condensate recovery system with 14 collection capabilities. Olympic water pools in the building every year.

But “Supertall | Megatall” also notes that the Jeddah Tower’s structural system was built on top of the Burj Khalifa and refined, with a three-wing Y-shaped design for maximum stability — seen in early designs such as WZMH Architects’ CN Tower. in Toronto Smith also said that the Burj Khalifa and Jeddah Tower were inspired by the stark, all-glazed Friedrichstrasse skyscraper, an unbuilt design by German-American Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the 1920s.

Mies’ the building is “a perfect example of an unrealized design that still has value,” Gill said. This perhaps explains why “Supertall | Megatall” also has AS+GG skyscrapers that have never been built.

Meraas Tower, designed by AS+GG in 2008.  The proposed skyscraper would be 526 meters high.

Meraas Tower, designed by AS+GG in 2008. The proposed skyscraper would be 526 meters high. Credit: Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

Many of them are from Dubai (in fact, it has more entries than any other city in the book). As a city with a burning desire to grow, the emirate has been a petri dish for bold projects over the past two decades. The proposed AS+GG skyscrapers include Meraas Tower (526m), Za’abeel Signature Tower I (598m) and 1 Dubai Atrium City (1,000m). It’s wonderful to imagine what the city’s skyline would look like with their addition, but, like der Rohe’ Friedrichstrasse, their absence is not a total loss.

“That’s why we talked about those projects that haven’t been implemented in the present (book),” said Foster. “It’s not a graveyard of unused ideas.”

“Tons” of lessons from these buildings have already found application in other AS+GG designs, Gill said. For example, the design development of Dubai’s one-kilometer-tall ‘vertical city’ 1 prompted discussions about mechanical systems, structural efficiency, elevators, fire safety, ventilation and lighting, among other things, Gill said, “which led the way. greater conversation about height.”

In the final pages of “Supertall | Megatall,” we see the evolution of 1 Dubai’s three slender, interconnected towers into a set of design prototypes for the mile-long skyscraper that uses three separate towers connected by a central structure for stability.

“I don’t think a great idea ever goes to waste,” Gill said.

Left: A rendering of 1 Dubai, an unbuilt skyscraper over 1,000 meters tall.  His likeness can be seen in one of the company's concepts for a mile-high skyscraper (shown in a rendering next to the Jeddah Tower design).

Left: A rendering of 1 Dubai, an unbuilt skyscraper over 1,000 meters tall. His likeness can be seen in one of the company’s concepts for a kilometer-long skyscraper (shown in a rendering next to the Jeddah Tower design). Credit: Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

Designing for the invisible

For cities trying to build a global reputation, supertalls can help establish a reputation. “There’s no hiding these buildings,” Forest said. “Regardless of the owner, it becomes a symbol of its location.”

What worked for Dubai became a blueprint for Jeddah. But height isn’t everything, and it’s not necessarily the company’s primary concern (the mandate to make the Burj Khalifa the world’s tallest building came from client Emaar, Smith recalled).

A rendering of a section of the facade of the Biophilic Tower, a 668m skyscraper proposed in Suzhou, China in 2012.  The design featured many elements inspired by forms found in the natural world, and incorporated flora into its interior.

A rendering of a section of the facade of the Biophilic Tower, a 668m skyscraper proposed in Suzhou, China in 2012. The design featured many elements inspired by forms found in the natural world, and incorporated flora into its interior. Credit: Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

For AS+GG, the height becomes the starting point of some problems to be solved; a scale that requires and incubates innovation. The book suggests that supertall and megatall buildings can update ideas about energy efficiency, reduce carbon footprints, and bridge the built environment and the natural world through biophilic design. “We have an economy of scale where we can introduce ideas that sometimes stick,” says Gill.

The Biophilic Towers, a 2012 design for Suzhou, China, departs from convention, including a 119-story vertical spiral forest and sunshades inspired by the structure of leaves and honeycombs. But innovation is often hidden from public view, Gill suggested.

“Sometimes I think people look at buildings and can’t quite tell what they’re seeing,” he said. “That’s because we’re often designing for the invisible…things that people never see and never engage with. But they’re doing science and design. And that’s what makes buildings better.”

Computer model of 1 Dubai testing the structure under various conditions.  A lot "Supertall |  Megatall" it consists of technical drawings and graphics of the inner workings of skyscrapers.

Computer model of 1 Dubai testing the structure under various conditions. Much of “Supertall | Megatall” consists of technical and graphic drawings of the inner workings of skyscrapers. Credit: Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

With “Supertall | Megatall”, the invisible finds its way into the spotlight. “The educational component of this book should not be overlooked,” said Smith, who, like his partners, is pleased to see AS+GG’s designs find a second life as industrial resources. “As professionals, we have a responsibility to share our knowledge,” said Gill.

Supertall’s secrets, it turns out, don’t want to be secrets at all.