Vertical City Conference in Tianjin, China

Vertical City Conference in Tianjin, China

By Richard Register

I’m just back from a conference in Tianjin, China called the Vertical City Conference where I had the chance to dig a little deeper into the notions of Kenneth King and the approach to city design seen from the point of view of the tall building builders. Last month I wrote about the three-dimensional city taken from three perspectives, one of the three, the idea of Kenneth King to link very tall buildings by joining them together at a number of levels with horizontal structures he calls “sky lobby extensions.” These are something like horizontal planes serving like bridges between towers but bridges wide enough to also function as active neighborhood centers on several layers uniting clusters of tall buildings. These extensions of lobbies that also serve as elevator transfer stops in very tall clustered towers in his scheme support a wide variety of activities from basic shopping and dining to small area sports and parks in the sky.

Now – and timely since I recently returned from Ken’s conference in Tianjin, China two weeks ago – I’ll dig a little deeper into the idea of Ken King’s, that towers could and should be linked in what he takes us way beyond lone spires to the sky into being small cities in three dimensions.

Ken is a kindly gentleman semi-retired architect of steely determination for his Vertical City idea – he’s hardly retired considering his intense on-going work for his concept. He’s lived in New York City for much of his life and is now residing in Shanghai. His one and one half day conference attracted about one hundred and fifty people in Tianjin and featured eleven guest speakers including myself. My topic was “The Role of Vertical Cities in History and Evolution” describing the approach to three dimensional thinking in organizing city structure he takes a step in the evolution of cities “in balance with nature.”

The Vertical City Conference was sponsored by Ken himself and four universities: Tianjin, Nankai, Tsinghua, and Peking. The chief organizers were Ken King donating considerable money to get it all off the ground, the Research Institute of Architectural Design and Urban Planning of the Tianjin University and the Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University. The official title of the conference was “Vertical City for Jing Jin Ji.” Those last three words: Jing is from Beijing, Jin is from Tianjin, and Ji represents the overall region adding Hebei Province, Ji being an ancient name for the province in the Han Dynasty, 206 BC to 220 AD.


Ken King speaking at his conference, “Vertical City for Jing Jin Ji” in Tianjin, China, October 13 and 14.

From vertical to 3-D

Imagine Ken King wandering the streets of Manhattan, towers surrounding him, and spending much of his life there and up in the tall buildings practicing architecture, mostly designing hospitals, structures, not irrelevantly dedicated to healing the individual if not yet the Earth he’s striving to help now. To him it must have seemed natural, those tall buildings, but you get a sense of his hankering to have something of the calm and wildness of nature and earthly productivity of farming too far away to satisfy the yearning for something… missing. Ken is obsessively fixed on all that agricultural land covered in sprawl and fearful of plans afoot in China to turn almost the whole region of Hebei into a gargantuan city, especially the area that runs from Beijing to the coast with the Bohai Sea, the coast of Tianjin with Tianjin Eco-city tucked in just north on the salt water port of the very big city Tianjin itself. Where would the food production then come from? Where any semblance of the “natural” remaining in our lives? That area that Ken likes to remind us is called by some the Jing Jin Ji would seem to represent not just future China misdirected but much of the rest of the world cascading into an unfathomable catastrophe for humanity and nature.

The solution: go vertical. The insight: towers are one dimensional vertical, the least efficient from for development if standing completely alone – bridges linking would make them into the kind of three-dimensional structures with the potential of being ordered for full complex efficiency and the variety that makes economic and cultural life richly varied and creatively productive. Towers clustered but linked only at ground level are far better than sprawl built for the needs of automobiles as compared to the needs of people, as we see in his hometown, Manhattan, being approximately twice as energy and land area efficient as the average United States city, and probably four or five times more energy and land efficient than the extreme sprawls like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth, though the leadership in most such cities is beginning to catch on, promoting new downtown density in mixed uses, transit oriented development (TOD) around major transit stations and adding metropolitan transit and a few rare pedestrian streets as a kind of add on to sprawl, helping a little.

I think Mr. King’s approach is fascinating not only because it eliminates automobiles completely as useless in such structures as he promotes, but also because it starts with the geometric purity and the challenge of the super tall structure that requires heroic engineering and the kind of scale that you can’t get away from. You somehow have to stare at a very tall building because it is simply always there and you can’t get rid of it from your range of view. It blares out, “Look at me,” and raw curiosity attracts like staring at a snake coiled and ready to strike. Let’s face it, for most of us the super tall buildings are little short of terrifying due to the dizzying heights and always fatal falls if one falls, though, like Ken, one can also get used to buildings dozens of times higher than the almost always fatal fall from the forth story or higher. You can adjust to them and see them as actually quite normal just as most of us navigate down sidewalks with cars hurtling by just twelve feet away at speeds three times what it would take to kill us.

Meantime I see little point in building two or three times as high as the Empire State Building or even just that high. But as a child of about six years old, one of the few things my fuzzy memory retains from around then is a visit to the top of that long standing (1931 to 1972) “tallest building in the world.” I might mention the oddity too that when 21 years old and seeking out funding for my efforts to organize my peace group called No War Toys I approached the wealthy parent of a former high school class mate and the by far largest check to date, equivalent of $2,300 today, came in from an office in, of all places, the Empire State Building.

Ken rather abstractly posits one mile as a goal for vertical cities and champions mile high vertical cities throughout his book, Vertical Cities – a Solution for Sustainable Living. I asked him why one mile and not say one


Richard Register and architects James Jao, Chien Chung (Dedi) Pei and Dennis Poon at the Vertical City Conference in Tianjin. Richard tries to design ecologically healthy cities. Dennis, meaningfully looking up, is the designing engineer for the tallest building in the world, now under construction.

kilometer, which is 62% as high and certainly much cheaper per square foot to build and maybe even one mile would be just way beyond any practical limits. He responded, a little sheepishly I thought, saying shorter would be OK too. One of our speakers, designer of super tall buildings Dennis Poon, mentioned that going much higher than the currently under construction Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for which he is the designing engineer, is one kilometer tall. The downward pressure in building much taller would be so great as to pulverize any conceivable concrete in a concrete and steel structure at its base. The alternative – all steel – could go higher but the price would be exceedingly expensive.

In fact more than one speaker said that the only economic justification for super tall buildings was as attractors of investment in the cities where the towers are located. Iconic buildings attract investment and taxes can go up while the whole community lives partially on the percale down of iconicism, which I know isn’t an accepted term, but it fits here. It used to be that large companies could field the construction of very tall buildings, but soon, by the early 2000s, they became so tall and expensive city governments had to get deeply involved and provide considerable subsidies. Then with the super talls, like Poon’s Kingdom Tower, Saudi Arabia’s bid to reach higher than the currently constructed tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa of Dubai, whole nation sates had to become involved in subsidizing and playing a large role in the construction project. The iconic value was incontestable but essentially the investment had to be spread among people with an enormous collective income base – including those prospering through the sale of some high demand product like oil, with extreme profits percolating down to a broad population base and then back up to super tall towers. The requirement for subsidy to build, despite the generally higher rents the higher you go, if you can rent the high places because they cost so much and so few people or companies can afford such digs, brings the economics into some comparisons with the space program. Ironically the super tall buildings have other parallels with the space program, rising up so far off the ground, for example.

What are Ken King’s motives for working so hard for Vertical City, writing much of, conducting the interviews for and publishing the enormous volume called Vertical City – a Solution for Sustainable living? He is convinced we are facing a massive catastrophe in loss of agricultural land to urban development. He sees the vertical city as taking people up off the ground before the surface is rendered far short of sufficient to feed the world’s population, which would then lead to a collapse unparalleled in history – if we don’t go to vertical cities.


But let’s diverge briefly into a technical issue: elevators. We had Karl-Otto Schollkopf of the elevator company ThyssenKrupp delivering his talk on “ropeless elevators.” Ropes, in the industry, are actually steel cables these days, though in the early elevators they were actually hemp ropes. Tall buildings began their upward climb after Elisha Graves Otis unveiled his invention of his “safety elevator” at the 1853 New York Exposition at London’s Crystal Palace. A hemp rope held the elevator aloft, but also was attached to the box of the elevator by way of a compressed a spring so that a steel brace on each side of the elevator was ready to snap outward should weight be taken off of the rope, should it break, in other words. Ever the showman and promoter of his good ideas, Otis climbed into the elevator box and had it hoisted about three stories over the floor of the exhibition center. He then had an assistant cut the suspending rope before an apprehensive audience and immediately with the weight of the elevator box, with Otis on board, and with weight taken off the rope, the spring pushed a gear-like wedge on both sides of the elevator car into two toothed wracks of metal notches that ran the height of the elevators shaft on both sides of the elevator car, all the workings clearly visible to the audience. Just as the fall from the “broken” rope was beginning, the spring snapped the wedges outward, they engaged the wrack of teeth, or cogs, on both sides of the elevator and it fell only an inch or two. The revolution of tall buildings really began at a five story tall new department store in New York City in 1857 with the installation of one of Otis’ elevators.


How horizontal transfer could work for elevators in a loop system accommodating multiple elevators spaced something like a metro rail system but mostly vertical rather than horizontal.

At our conference Karl (he uses the first part of his hyphenated first name Karl-Otto) described his company’s new ropeless elevator currently in development and ready for deploying to actual architecture in a year or two. He pointed out that with long vertical lifts the weight of the hoisting cables themselves become so great you have to switch to another elevator about half way up the Burj Khalifa. But if the elevator box itself could be powered to lift itself up the elevator shaft like an independent vehicle… The idea is to have each cab, or car, or box… hoist itself picking up power from the elevator shaft, something like a maglev systems for trains, but vertical. Safety with no ropes? Electric back-up systems with multiple redundancy should work fine freezing it in place with powerful magnetic attraction anchoring the cab to the walls of the elevator shaft.

Other concerns: in very tall buildings how long can the passenger stand being in an elevator box on a long vertical commute, including stops for other people on different floors, before he or she gets so irritated he or she would definitely work hard to get out of that building and into another one more friendly. The answer is no more than 15 minutes at the most for a total commute one way, and one transfer, and not too much time waiting for your elevator car to arrive and not too many stops for other passenger en route… or the rider is at his or her wits end.

Another recent innovation: how about several cars in the same elevator shaft going the same direction, getting power from the shaft itself while maintaining distance between cars, very much like trains do in electric metro systems, but moving vertically? You would then need two elevator shafts, one up and one down connected by a horizontal shaft over to the adjacent vertical down shaft, something like the illustration below.


A ThyssenKrupp illustration of elevators that can move both vertically and horizontally.

Other considerations come into play: it is windier and colder the higher you travel. In very hot climates that might be a great relief, getting a few hundred feet higher, even a couple thousand, temperature wise anyway. The higher winds might dictate a more interior life rather than the open recreational spaces envisioned for the highest extended sky lobbies. A lot of the wind, though, could be mitigated by glass or high strength plastic wind screens. Then there is the problem of “ears popping” and related headaches. One thought is that if you lived half way up a mile high building or near the top you would have all your necessities within a vertical 500 feet or so, so seldom would you have to experience that differential pressure on your ears moving vertically.

On the positive side, with a small amount of energy driving a modes set of fans in air ducts in the vertical city, cool air near the top can be transferred to lower parts of the structure to cool in hot weather, and vice versa, warmer air near the bottom can be assisted upward to colder areas when the lower zones are a bit hot and upper a bit too cold.


A vertical city illustration for lakeside in Chicago from Ken’s book.

All this brings me to a discussion of engaging limits to most anything. Children play around the limits of their parents’ permissiveness, to “see what they can get away with.” Are we pushing the limits in a similar way seeing what we can get away with, seeking the thrills and proof of our abilities to build awesome structures? Is it an ego trip? Is it the way we will actually have to go to relieve pressure on the surface of the Earth from our expanding consumption and needs for farmland for a massive and growing population? Or is it a way to declare that humans have triumphed over nature and can do practically anything, such heights being declarations of pride and expressions of primordial power? We are complex creatures so it is hard to disentangle all those motivations. And what about Ken King’s motivations to do the best he can to rescue the Earth and the happiness of people with what time is left in his life, an ambition I presume to attempt to share with him too? But in all cases, it is clear that sprawl development is responsible for a large share of the global heating problems and extinction by displacement of habitat of hundreds of species around the world. Something has to be done about it.

r6Penacle@Duxton in Singapore, an existing smaller scale near-vertical city. From above, on the left, and from ground level, on the right.

My point is, many things have to be done about it all at once. The more important issue to me is getting a sense of the whole system we are part of. If population actually shrank back some would we need extreme verticality? That’s a question beyond “can we actually afford that much expensive steel built into the base of buildings,” whether simply vertical or vertical linked horizontally too, proportionally more and more the total effort of raising the edifice as it rises, simply to hold it all up. Much of Europe and the United States too is in population decline except for the incoming immigration. That’s a good sign – the trend needs to be accelerated – the gradual population reduction, not the immigration. China has had a population limiting consciousness born of horrendous famines as recent as the 1960s and population restraining policies that only recently, by clamorous popular outcry of an ever more prosperous and demanding populace, been eased some. The two, physical footprint of your average city per person and total population, does have everything to do with the pressures exerted on the agricultural enterprise, which also implies massive use of water for high production for food for us humans. The kind of diet too and whether the agriculture is monocropping with high energy consumption and highly mechanized or high-production organic on the other hand makes an enormous difference in how much acreage is taken from natural habitats and other creatures besides ourselves. All those systems are interrelated and it seems to me, if we don’t understand we are too close to the limits and courting disaster in all cases – too many people, wrong kind of agriculture, destructive city layout and design and if we don’t coordinate actions in all those systems at the same time we are in deep trouble.

The other very closely related system is one not of a physical nature but of a mental, psychological and spiritual nature: generosity. We need to give back to the natural world that gave us life and awareness in the first place. We need to slack off a little on showing off, mainly through wasteful proof of how cool and accomplished we are, through living splendidly, and let’s be honest about it, actually greedily in many cases. This too relates to all the physical systems: our reproductive fecundity such that 31+% of all mammal flesh on the planet’s surface is human beings and 66+% is our food animals leaving less than 3% of the mammals on the face of the Earth wild and free any more, and most of them endangered by us appropriating so much of nature’s living flesh and product of plants soaking up sunshine and converting it through chlorophyll to useful “food and fiber” for ourselves only.

Perhaps we need to see that the vertical dimension element of the three-dimensional city ­– and the three-dimensional city for people on foot is the best of all possible cities in my estimation ­– also has limits as the heights begin to defy reasonable structural investments at the base. The super tall towers give over an enormous proportion of the footprint of the building and of each floor plate of the building simply to getting up and down: elevator shafts. Ken King will rightly point out that vertical elevator dependence and requirements for space in the structure goes way down if the vertical is connected every so many stories with horizontal access by bridges or extended sky lobbies. But still, if things are not taken to extremes if there’s restrain and coordination of all the crucial elements at once ­– the clearest set of relationships seen here as the relationship of population, agriculture and built infrastructure each to the other two in just the way Ken King has identified as a profound problem – we stand a good chance of a real catastrophe, exactly the kind that Kenneth King fears.

Those familiar with my new book World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build will recognize this thinking as my offering of a kind of formula relating those factors just mentioned in a whole system, each one relating to all the others. The Vertical City Conference was to me a review of one approach that, being followed energetically and with a very serious contribution, brings the thinking and admitted technical accomplishments of the tall building builders over from building one-dimensional vertical towers into the whole topic of three-dimensional cities just by connecting the towers in the horizontal dimension. If this is an entre in their thinking leading to a more “organic” “like a living organism” analogy of cities to living organisms, it could be something of a wake up call to all those involved in the construction of structures based on the same games and notions of Saudi Arabia’s ego and income boosting Kingdom Tower – maybe. And of course Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country or Jeddah the only city in the game. Kenneth King’s book and the conference might be very helpful in this way, if the power brokers who design physical structures as money magnets for their further wealth and power, begin to see the limits inherent and begin to realize we are nearing those limits as we are in their world nearing the physical limits of the heights of their buildings. In fact drawing back from the extremes of height, of sprawl, of population, of religious righteousness, racism and ethnocentrism, extremes of consumption, of ego… Maybe a settling into the lessons of the integration of the various “uses” of the three dimensional built community might begin to regain the value of attaining a balance with nature, with everything. Maybe the ideal of the genuinely thriving of nature and thriving ourselves as cultural animals, us humans, can be something more attractive than the snake eyes transfixing we experience as we look at the tallest building in the word and say not, “wow, that’s pretty amazing,” but rather, “gee that’s kind of sad when so many other things need our attention if the world is to thrive again, nature first and us in harmony with it.”


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