There are buildings that quietly serve their function utilitarian and sometimes even elegant. There are buildings that push the envelope with their design striking onlookers with their unique perspective or form. And then there are buildings that cement a legacy. Whether achieving their greatness out of daring, innovation, or sheer scope, these are the buildings that will follow their designer’s name in all future records. They are the kind of buildings everyone can name: the Sydney Opera House, the Chrysler Building, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. If all goes to plan, Adrian Smith’s Kingdom Tower could very well be this kind of building.

More Than Computing in the Clouds

When it comes to skyscrapers, Adrian Smith seems to be only in competition with himself. Having already dazzled with the super-tall [2,722 feet] Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which stretches into the clouds like a sumptuous, self-contained luxury city, Smith is now eyeing a site in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to one-up himself yet again. The proposed Kingdom Tower would entail more than a slight nudge at the world’s tallest marker, however. It’d be yet another giant leap into the clouds.

With its pilings just completed in December, the Kingdom Tower promises to stretch to a full kilometer [more than 3,200 feet] in height, with 167 floors, 50+ elevators, and more than 3-million square feet of floor area. [Formerly known as the Mile-High Tower, the building has since been scaled down and converted to metric.] Construction is slated to take anywhere from three to six years and began in earnest in April. The project will reportedly require half a million cubic meters of concrete and 80,000 tons of steel. Just getting the concrete pumped to such heights has already proved to be challenging in theory.

Commuting by Elevator

With a Four Seasons hotel as its primary tenant, the tower will also include luxury apartments, office space, and the world’s highest observation deck. Elevator transfers will be required to reach the highest floors, as no single elevator could make the journey from the bottom to top. At that length, the cables would simply be far too heavy. In fact, elevator rides may constitute significant commute times. Some estimates put full-building journeys at twelve minutes of elevator time. Much faster and the trip up would be uncomfortable due to change in air pressure.

Even in the design phase, it is hard to not be impressed by the Kingdom Tower’s ambition and scope. The renderings depict a giant, slightly asymmetrical shard rising above the clouds, culminating in a pointed spire. The building’s profile is triangular with concave sides to reduce wind resistance, feeling simultaneously precise in its geometry and plausibly naturalistic.

One of the most striking features of the building’s design looks like something straight out of science fiction: the aptly named ‘sky terrace.’ On the 157th floor and connected to the building’s penthouse, the sky terrace may be the world’s most prestigious balcony. Jutting out from the building, smooth and disc-like, it looks like a landing deck for some yet-to-be-designed aircraft.

At a preliminary estimated cost of $1.2 billion, the Kingdom Tower is an investment that must pay off. However, with Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi royal family and one of the wealthiest men on earth as the driving force behind the project, the Tower’s construction is said to be moving forward without delay, having finally secured its finances in 2012. Surprisingly, the building’s cost is actually lower than its shorter predecessor, the Burj Khalifa, thanks to lower labor costs in Saudi Arabia.

Kingdom Tower will not only be a feat of architecture, however. It is also an ambitious step forward in urban planning. First, with a diverse array of tenants and features, the building promises to be yet another “vertical city.” Second, the very project speculates a city that does not yet exist. The site for the building is relatively isolated, and Kingdom Tower survives on an “If you build it, they will come” ethos. As the anchor tenant for the future Kingdom City (one of a number of planned cities around Jeddah), the Tower will essentially be responsible for driving the proliferation and success of its surrounding region. However, as Jeddah serves as the principal gateway to Mecca, planners predict that the city will only expand and gentrify in the future.

Super-tall skyscrapers like the Kingdom Tower may not necessarily be the future of architecture. The footprints required to build so high are enormous, and most urban areas don’t have the available real estate. However, Adrian Smith’s experiments with hyper-dense living may have a profound impact on how we look at cities. And one thing is for sure: if the Kingdom Tower goes up as planned, it will be an icon. It may even be Adrian Smith’s legacy.

Originally Published in:

THE NETWORK / JUNE 2014 – Amazing Buildings