Fast Company

Building Offices

Last night, the first episode of the new PBS series Innovation: Life, Inspired focused on "Building to Extremes," or the global race to develop the world's tallest building. Narrated by the nearly passionless Billy Crudup, the hour-long program focused on the historic role of skyscrapers as icons of commercial and engineering prowess.

It also addressed a handful of the most recent attempts to scrape the sky, but just a little higher. While the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, currently claim the crown, Leslie Robertson (who also designed the World Trade Center) is working on the Shanghai Tower, and C.Y. Lee and his team are designing and building Taipei 101. The race, once America-bound, has stepped overseas.

Some of the more interesting portions of the show touched on anti-earthquake and -wind technologies, including a large, pendulum-like damper housed high up in Taipei 101. But, perhaps given Robertson's role in the documentary, the show also considered the ways the terrorist activity of 911 has affected architecture and skyscraper design. "The attack on the World Trade Center is not something an architect can design buildings for," Robertson says. "We have to keep designing buildings for people."

That said, global designers responded, redesigning 2 International Financial Center in Hong Kong mid-construction to address possible terrorist activity. Other run computer models and simulations to see what might happen to their buildings. And the Taipei 101 team continues, deciding that their earthquake-proof superstructure was protection enough.

One architect, David Dumigan of IFC Development, said, "We can't go about designing buildings to deal with every kind of catastrophe. Where do we stop?" Well, a good place to start is taking a look at evacuation procedures and how well building designs enable evacuation. Architects are now building in better evacuation routes, running simulations, and adding design elements to better assist fire and rescue interventions.

While some work to improve the race to the bottom of the buildings, developers continue the race to the top. In New York, the developers of Freedom Tower aim to build the tallest builder. As does a developer in Dubai.

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