Following five years of construction and media buzz, the Burj Khalifa (formerly Burj Dubai) - now the world's tallest building - officially opened this week with a fireworks display befitting the mind-boggling structure. Although a thoroughly 21st century building in terms of its sheer size, structure, mechanical systems and amenities, the Burj has a mid-twentieth century precedent (at least on paper): Frank Lloyd Wright's audacious plan for the Illinois ("Mile High") building, a skyscraper-to-end-all-skyscrapers envisioned for Chicago.
While there are many differences between Wright's Mile High and Adrian Smith's Burj (for SOM), they share a fundamental approach to the super-tall building: bundling masses together to produce a meta-form that strategically diminishes as it ascends - in effect, bundling individual towers together into a mega-tower. Such a form is perhaps most familiar in the American consciousness in the Willis Tower (Sears Tower), with its stepped, blocky massing resembling a larger structure arrested in construction. While this approach is, at the end of the day, a structural consideration to combat wind and torsion loads in these structures, both the Mile High and the Burj take inspiration from the natural world. Wright's tower appears to be inspired by crystalline or splintered wood forms, while the Burj reflects an inspiration from the form of bundled reeds, an element of Middle Eastern vernacular architecture dating back to Ancient Egypt. Moreover, the Burj, glittering techno-tower though it may be, has a plan based in nature; its spiraling "Y" plan, with masses exfoliating out from the center along a matrix of circles fused with hexagons, was inspired by the Hymenocallis, a desert wildflower - a nod to Wright's organic architecture. I can't help but think of Wright using a Prairie flower to demonstrate the core-and-cantilever structure of his Price Tower (Bartlesville, OK) - the only one of his various skyscraper designs ever built.
The Burj Khalifa has shattered the world record for tallest building, surging past the previous record-holder, Taipei 101, by over 300 meters. Still, the Burj would be dwarfed by Wright's Mile High (literally a mile high or 5,280 feet), had it been built. It may not be fair to compare the built and the unbuilt, but Wright's vision may not be a flight of fancy for long. The Jeddah tower, proposed by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, would hit Wright's mile-high mark if constructed. And Eugene Tsui's Ultima Tower would be an incredible two mile high "sky city" contained within one structure. For the moment, these concepts remain in the realm of utopian fantasy; but, with the completion of the Burj Dubai, it may be only a matter of time (and money) before skyscrapers break the mile-high barrier.
Click HERE for an amazing digital simulation of Wright's Illinois building, created by Harvard Graduate School of Design students - the closest you may ever come to taking that elevator ride to the 500th floor...