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News of contracts for Jeddah's 1km high Kingdom Tower is welcome

Orlando Crowcroft.
Orlando Crowcroft.

RELATED ARTICLES: International firm wins housing contract in JeddahNew Jeddah mayor calls for update on city projectsWorld's tallest tower contract award due this Sep

Seven years after the kilometre-high tower was first proposed for Saudi Arabia’s coastal hub in 2003, future plans remain elusive. This latest announcement is the first of substance since developer Emaar Properties was appointed to oversee construction in 2009.

That news, in turn, broke a two-year silence marked only by the departure of US-based engineering firm Bechtel from the development in 2007.

Delays are by no means unfamiliar in the wake of the financial crisis, even when you are dealing with the tallest building in the world, but the news from Kingdom Holdings Company (KHC) is unlikely to get anyone excited.

The kilometre-high tower seems as far off now as it did two, five, eight years ago, and it is likely to be many more before Jeddah makes an appearance on the supertall map.

It is a difficult time for building tall. Firstly, at 828 metres, the Burj Khalifa is a hell of a building to beat, and secondly, the financial uncertainty of recent years has not exactly got developers flocking to multi-billion dollar glory projects.

As many recent great-on-paper projects reveal, tall tower developments are the first to be abandoned when the going gets tough.

That said, if it is going to happen anywhere it may as well be Saudi Arabia, which recently completed the world’s second tallest building – the Royal Mecca Clock Tower – almost overnight, and which has multi-billion dollar projects coming out of its ears.

If the King Abdullah Financial Centre and Burj Rafal show anything, it is that Saudi, and its developers, are not lacking in ambition.

And while common sense would dictate that building tall would be on the back burner in 2010, a number of tall buildings have come online in the last few months, and not all of them in the Gulf. India, Jordan, Turkey and Shanghai now either have tall towers or are building them, and while they may not be in the kilometre-high class, the towers are enormous relative to their surroundings.

Construction is already underway on the 117-storey World One tower in Mumbai, which is estimated to cost around US$450 million with luxury flats starting at 47.5 million rupees.

The development as a whole will provide 1.85 million m2 of residential property, something that is lacking in the city, which contains around 17 million people. Meanwhile, work was recently finished on the Sapphire Tower in Istanbul which, at 261m, is a tiddler compared to Dubai’s giants. It is, however, the tallest building in Europe.

At the end of the day, the viability of tall buildings has to be judged on an individual basis, and while kilometre-high projects were abandoned or delayed in Dubai and Kuwait, tall towers are going ahead in India, and increasingly in China. Progress on Jeddah’s Kingdom Tower may be moving at a glacial pace, but Saudi Arabia, with its money and drive, is perfectly placed to turn that around in 2010.

The case-by-case analysis does not just apply to countries either. The success of the Burj Khalifa is partly due to the fact that it is surrounded by downtown Dubai, where the revenues of nearby hotels, housing and the massive Dubai Mall are raised because of their proximity to the tallest building in the world.

Similarly, in Jeddah, the plan is for the Kingdom Tower to be surrounded by 23 million m2 of luxury homes, hotels and offices.

Those behind the Burj Khalifa will probably be hoping that they can retain the coveted 'world’s tallest' mantle for some time, and it is highly likely that they will.

Of the three possible contenders to the Burj's crown – Dubai’s Nakheel Tower, Kuwait’s City of Silk and Jeddah’s Kingdom Tower, all of which measure more than one kilometre – the first has been abandoned, the second would be a miracle and the third, as we have seen, is plagued by delays and uncertainty.

But, as Istanbul, Mumbai and Shanghai have shown, building tall is by no means out of fashion in 2010, and it follows that despite the financial crisis, the era of supertalls is certainly not over.

Orlando Crowcroft edits Middle East Architect.

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