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The Man with his Head in the Clouds

Chicago architect Adrian Smith designed the world’s tallest building. Now he has created one that will reach even farther—a full kilometer into the sky. How high can he go?

Published June 7, 2016

Above: A rendering of the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, expected to be erected by 2018

Maybe because my father was an architect, I sweated the whole World’s Tallest Building thing pretty hard when I was a kid. It mattered to me. That was the ’70s, and it seemed to matter to everyone. I remember standing with my pops in the World Trade Center observatory, whining that we weren’t in Chicago at the Sears Tower, which had just become the new world’s tallest. I wanted to be at the very top. “That’s not going anywhere,” my dad told me. “Besides, they can always go higher.”

Back then, I could tell you the top 10 skyscrapers in the world. I drew them once, to my own vague scale, standing side by side. Tallest to shortest, left to right. Next to those, I drew the 17-story Midtown Tower, which my dad helped design, in my hometown of Rochester, New York. Next to that, I drew our house. So the Sears Tower was the alpha. And my house on Vick Park B—pretty tall, as houses go—my very own omega. For me, everything begins with the tall.

Now, after two decades of ambitious building in the Middle East and Asia, the former Sears Tower is 14th on the list. Buried. Renamed. The new tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, sits on the other side of the planet, in Dubai. At 2,717 feet, it’s more than 1,200 feet higher than Chicago’s one-time titleholder. An astounding difference.


The towers I loved as a kid have been dwarfed. People build. Higher. It seems certain the list will never be fixed or finished. Some ask: How high should we build? How high is too high? But these towers, and their persistent climb, stand on a distant edge of architecture’s horizon, buildings that ask and answer a better, beautifully human question: What’s possible?

The man leading the upward push is Adrian Smith, the legendary Chicago architect who designed the Burj Khalifa, completed in 2010. Now he has designed the next world’s tallest, the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia. When the exterior is completed in 2018, it will top out at more than a full kilometer (or 3,281 feet, for those who live in a country that thinks it’s too smart for the metric system). That’s an entirely different scale of endeavor, its height pushing just slightly short of three John Hancock Centers (if you lose the antennas) stacked one on top of the other. Smith is also working on another massive creation, the 2,087-foot Wuhan Greenland Center in China, which will rank fourth. That’s right, Adrian Smith will soon have to his name three of the four tallest occupiable buildings in the world.

Here in Chicago, Smith, who spent almost three decades at the iconic firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill before striking out on his own with SOM colleague Gordon Gill in 2006, is best known for signature pieces like the AT&T Corporate Center (now Franklin Center), NBC Tower, Trump International Hotel & Tower, and Millennium Park. But it’s his overseas structures that have made him the go-to guy for sky-piercing construction.

At 71, he’s the Prince of the Precipice. The Godfather of Verticality. Still, when we meet at his firm’s offices in the BMO Harris Bank complex, we are a mere 23 floors above the streets of Chicago, far below the surrounding rooftops.

Smith in front of one of his Chicago creations, the Trump Tower
Smith in front of one of his Chicago creations, the Trump Tower Photo: Chris Strong

Talking to architects can be a tangle. Conversations littered with words like “parametric” and “curvilinear.” Mentions of the Miesian and the Corbusian. References to mullions and muntins. Sometimes it’s better just to pretend you understand.

So it’s startling when Smith drops the uncomplicated “supertall” to signify the 92-floor, 1,389-foot Trump Tower. He uses the word like a noun. “Trump is a supertall,” he says, as if describing a well-stacked pastrami sandwich.

Supertall? Really? Surely there’s some multisyllabic Latinate term for a structure that thrusts more than a thousand feet into the air, straight to the heavens. Even “skyscraper” is better.

Smith stares back at me blankly.

I mean, do you like that word?

“Yeah,” he says without apology or hesitation. “And I think I may have invented it.” This notion seems to amuse him. He looks out over his glasses as if he can see his memory right there for the checking. “Yes,” he says. “The first time I remember hearing it was when I said it.”

So credit Adrian Smith with the building of a word, too. But understand it was an even taller classification of buildings—ones that soar more than 2,000 feet—that he basically shepherded into existence. “Those are called ‘megatalls,’ ” he says, flopping out an equally pedestrian moniker for what may be the greatest monolithic assertions of civilization in human history.

Each one that goes higher becomes an engineering feat, demanding the reimagination of conventional facets of design and construction. “Every one of these towers is a completely different problem in itself,” Smith says. “People don’t seem to understand that. Other architects don’t seem to know. It’s an evolving science.”


The limitations on how high these structures can go sometimes lodge themselves in the smaller components. Take the elevators. “The cables are massive, created at record lengths,” says Smith. “There’s not enough room to coil them at the top of the elevator shaft. When Burj Khalifa was designed, 423 meters was the highest one elevator could go.” The solution devised since then? A flat cable that coils tighter. “It’s made of carbon fiber and stuff—you know, new materials,” Smith says. “In the Jeddah Tower, a single elevator can run 575 meters.”

But this, in turn, creates new issues. Though the flat cable is lighter, it still represents a massive weight at that length. This demands the development of a new wheel, pulley system, and motor. These all must be engineered. And there will be something like 57 elevators in the Jeddah Tower. “If everybody were building these megatalls, there might be warehouses full of what we need,” says Smith. “But these buildings are so infrequent that firms don’t really want to invest in the R&D to create new elevator motors specific to the project.”

Often natural elements pose the biggest challenges. The Jeddah Tower was originally supposed to be a mile high. But the composition of the desert sands underneath the Saudi city of Jeddah forced the project to be scaled down. “In Chicago, you drill down and hit rock at about 150 feet,” Smith explains. Builders can rest the support piers of their towers on this rock bed. “But in Saudi Arabia, you drill down and keep going, going, going, and you won’t be able to find rock.” So builders instead employ friction piles. These are long cement pillars that use the surface friction of the compacted sand to remain steady. “You build an awful lot of them under a megatall,” Smith says. In the case of Jeddah, 270.

“The danger,” he says, “is that there are a lot of empty aquifers in a desert.” These dried-up water tables create empty subterranean spaces at irregular intervals. To avoid them, you have to bore down into the soil and test it to make sure you don’t hit a pocket when you dig. “There are buildings,” Smith says, “which have started sinking. There was a hotel in Riyadh that they saved by digging down and pouring in cement. They put 200 million cubic yards of cement into that aquifer before it was full.” He gives that prospect a little grimace. Disaster is not a comfortable subject in the business of building higher.

The ground is not even the trickiest element to contend with. “The wind always governs,” says Smith. He places a model of the Jeddah Tower on the desk in front of him. “When the wind blows at a building, most people assume that it is simply going to push the building.” But the real danger, in terms of engineering, occurs on the opposite side. “The wind hits the building, has to get around it, and as it does, it speeds up,” he says. He illustrates with his two meaty hands, twirling his fingers on the other side of the model. “Eddies, vortexes occur along the back side of the building. They’re like little tornadoes. They actually have force. They pull the building. You can’t let them organize vertically.”

How do you stop it?

“We give the wind different routes,” he explains. “We might penetrate the tower with open spaces. I did the Pearl River Tower in China, and we placed turbines in spaces in the tower to capture the wind and create energy for the tower. And we reshape the exterior continually [as the building is being designed]. Small changes in angle have an extraordinary effect. We perform all these wind tunnel tests. We have people who spend all their time dealing with the wind. It’s a huge job.”

Smith picks up the tower model, spins it, then returns it to his credenza. “These really tall buildings are a science.”


He looks out through the window at the local landscape. “We didn’t know that when we started these buildings. Like John Hancock Center, which is sloped, but not for any reason having
to do with accelerated movement [read: the wind]. And even so, that building does shake and shiver. But over time, you learn. It’s trial and error as you try to find the answer.”

He claps his hands untheatrically. “Would you like a tour?”


Even when he stands, Adrian Smith remains extraordinarily still. Solidly built, white haired, he is, as they say, a presence. He maintains an edge of Euro style and a quiet swagger that make him somehow hard to apprehend, even in his own office. Collarless linen shirt, vest of some sort. Chic, loose-fitting pants, sensibly torqued-up clear-framed spectacles. He might have come from the near future. Or maybe the Shire. It’s hard to say.

There’s no panoramic take on the sky, the lake, the city, from his window. His office itself is sparse and baldly white. It feels transient. Even a touch janky. He laughs as he points out the space heater plugged into the wall in one corner. “It’s all single-glaze construction, which was the standard 50 years ago,” he says of the windows throughout the building, which was completed in 1958. “You’d never build single-glaze now.” The seals on the windows are going bad—some are hard and brittle. “That’s part of the life of any building,” he says. “The façade can only last so long, whereas the structure, the cement and steel, might be many times that.”

It’s the same with the buildings he’s creating now, which use cutting-edge windows for light and heat and to reflect, mirror-like, the surroundings. In 50 years, they will be obsolete. Still, he speaks with enthusiasm about this window technology: photochromatic glass, photovoltaic glass. The former is used to control heat produced by sunlight, the latter to gather this energy to power the building. Each window essentially acts as a sort of solar panel. Amazing. In turn, I tell him my thoughts on the space heater, since I had one just like it when I was a graduate student in an apartment in Tuscaloosa. Expertise is relative.

Maybe Adrian Smith can live with a little cold. He was born in Chicago into a family that relocated to Southern California when he was 4. “I was raised by people from Chicago, but we grew up basically on the beach. I was probably too young to really remember the tall buildings in Chicago. But you know, I was playing with sand and doing what kids do with shovels and water and sand. Building. In California, the beach is conducive to building these towers with wet sand. Taller, always taller.”

His interest in art and drawing led him, at his mother’s suggestion, to architecture and drafting. In his early 20s, he interrupted his studies at Texas A&M to go to work for SOM in Chicago. “I basically did anything I was asked to do. In those days, there was a lot to print, so I’d often just carry things to the printer and stand there, wait for it, and bring it back. Eventually, someone would give me a section of a staircase to draw. Or I’d draw window after window after window and study the proportions for someone.”

Menial work, maybe. But work that helped develop his problem-solving skills. “Basically, I was far ahead when I went back to school because, well, they didn’t know anything,” says Smith, who finished his education at the College of Architecture Design and the Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He laughs. “I think staying away from school for a while just helped me to learn what I needed to know.”


We tour. There’s a large workspace outside Smith’s door, with maybe 20 stations, a youngish architect or designer sitting at each, crouched up, working the latest design software. It all seems a little gloomy. Dickensian. There’s no music or banter. It’s all mouse clicking and earbuds and the dim tones of cell phones ringing.

How many employees does he have?

Smith shrugs. “About 100? We tend to fluctuate.”


At this point, only two or three staffers are still working on the Jeddah Tower, which was conceived and funded by a Saudi company headed by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the richest people in the world. “The design was a competition, supposed to take about two months,” says Smith. “But it dragged out for nine months, and there was no payment for us unless we were selected. At the end of the day, we put at least $2 million into the development of the design. It was a lot of risk for us.”

His firm won the bid, of course—but at a cost, Smith says, that initially would have generated no profit: “Ours was a fledgling firm. The tallest building in the world really means something. We thought it would do us that much good. Eventually, we got ourselves into a position where we made a profit, because they changed their mind so much.” You don’t have to be related to an architect to know that change orders are an architect’s best friend.

What are the Saudis like to work with? “Before we got the job, they treated us a little like the janitors. But once we got the work, everything changed. They were excellent clients. They listened. And they were very involved.”

He waves me forward, away from the stylish sweatshop, around the corner to a central meeting area and its menagerie of presentations, models, and mockups. Aluminum towers, Styrofoam towers, plexiglass towers, balsa-wood towers—all produced in-house on a highly advanced, computer-controlled milling machine. They’re beautiful and conjuring, these models. Wickedly fun to look at. Smith pauses over many of them to tell a story, to point out an idea at work in several desk-size landscapes of places in China, Korea, Dubai, India, Chicago, even South Bend.

When we get back to his office, he pokes at some of the work he’s left there. The desk is littered with anachronistic tools of his generation—legal-size sketchpads and a splay of pencils. I pick up a roll of tracing paper, and Smith answers before I can ask. “Yes, I still use that stuff.”

He settles in at his desk, turns to face me. “I can’t use the computer,” he declares. Then he corrects himself. “I mean, I can use the computer for emails and stuff, but my real work is still on paper. All the young kids don’t even know how to draw.” He pauses. “It’s probably an overstatement to say they don’t know how to draw. But they sure don’t know how to letter.”

Most of us will probably never see either of Smith’s two Middle Eastern megatalls with our own eyes. Meaning me, of course. And probably that’s what’s behind my hectoring Smith about the dearth of such construction in the United States. Why not in Chicago?

There have been some missed chances. “When we started on the Trump building, we were talking about building something in the 2,000-foot range. A true megatall in Chicago,” he says. “And then, on the morning of 9/11, Trump’s people came to Chicago for the presentation of three different variations.” News of the attack broke just before the meeting. “I walked in and said, ‘We can go through this, or we can watch the television because something has just happened.’ That was the end of the meeting.” Smith never got to present the 2,000-foot concept to Donald Trump directly. “A week later, he said, ‘Let’s reduce the height down to about 1,000 feet. I don’t want to be a target.’ ”

Smith and Trump have tangled now and then in the press. The biggest fuss stemmed from the massive letters spelling out Trump’s name that were added, amid widespread criticism, in 2014. Smith publicly stated that the sign was never in his plan. Not surprisingly, Trump fired back: “I had more to do with the design than Adrian Smith did. The best thing that ever happened to Adrian Smith is Donald Trump.”

I ask Smith about the clash. “I have always been against signs on any buildings. That’s just how I grew up as an architect, thinking that buildings should not be billboards.”

Does the Trump sign still irk him? “I hate to say it,” he says, smiling, “but I kind of got used to it.”

Chicago is rife with opportunities untaken, ideas that never came to fruition, models and mockups still tacked to the walls, designs that never saw the light of day. Smith casts his gaze out the window. “See that gray building right there? The glassy, gray-skinned one? That was the site for a building that I designed back at SOM—a 2,000-foot tower called 7 South Dearborn.” This was a late-’90s project that was very nearly backed by Trump. “Didn’t happen.” The development was delayed, and funding began to dry up. “It fell apart, as often is the case.”

Smith is unapologetic, immodest even, in hoping that a megatall will come to pass in Chicago. “If you can build an 800-meter tower in Dubai, why can’t you do it here? If we’re wanting to be a great city, we have to act on it.”


The day before my final conversation with Smith, an Arab developer announced plans for a structure in Dubai, by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (you may remember him as the designer of Chicago’s ill-fated Spire), that would be a hair taller than the Burj Khalifa. Bad news for Smith?


“Not at all,” he says. “It’s an observation tower.” Because it’s not 50 percent occupiable, “it won’t be eligible for the title,” he explains. “And it doesn’t feel very real to us.”


“These things don’t always happen,” Smith says. “The real purpose of these supertall buildings is sometimes pure ego. You know, someone says”—and here he puffs out his chest a little and drones—“ ‘I wanna build the tallest building in the world.’ But the ones who say that first are the ones who usually fail.”

These soaring towers don’t go up in a vacuum, he says. They work best when they can serve as a focal point for the growth of a city or region. They might sit partly empty while the area beneath them sees robust development. “These towers need a surrounding context,” Smith says. “[As the developer,] you need to own that land around the tower and develop that, too, to make it work. If people don’t understand that, they’re usually going to fail.”

Finally, I just ask what’s been on my mind from the start: How high can we go?

“Now that we’re at a kilometer, a mile is probably the next benchmark,” Smith says. “We’ve researched it. We know it can be built.”

But can it be built here?

He says yes—that, in fact, he has twice drawn up proposals for mile-high buildings in Chicago. No one bit.

Smith stares out at the skyline through the windows with the aging seals. There’s nothing abstract in his sense of want or abstruse in the way he talks about his work. He delights in them both. He wants to build. Taller, always taller. We can ask and ask, but there’s no telling where it may end.

Top Photo Illustration: Andrew Davis; Rendering: (building) Jeddah Economic Company/Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture; Photo: (clouds) istockphoto


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