Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill on skyscraper architecture and energy-efficient buildings

Chicago architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill like to take up challenges because “to do something conventional would be a complete waste of efforts”.

by Vladimir Belogolovsky Dec 19, 2019

I met with Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill for the following interview on the topic that these two architects have become synonymous with – the skyscrapers. I sat down with the two founding partners of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG) to discuss beauty and science behind their iconic buildings. The open-plan, entirely see-through office of now 70 people occupies one of the lower levels of the elegant 1957 Inland Steel Building in the heart of Chicago’s Loop. It was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm where both designers made their careers prior to starting their current practicein 2006. Since his 88-storey Jin Mao Tower was completed in Shanghai in 1999, Smith has become the go-to authority on high-rise construction. Other buildings designed by Smith prior to starting AS+GG include 71-storey Pearl River Tower (design with Gill, 2011, Guangzhou), 163-story Burj Khalifa (2010, Dubai), and 98-story Trump International Hotel and Tower (2009, Chicago). Among currently at least 20 under construction buildings designed by Smith and Gill, and mostly obtained through design competitions, there are Jeddah Tower, to be the world’s tallest building, exceeding 1,000 meters in height; 1,550-foot tall Central Park Tower in New York; and two other supertalls: 97-storey Wuhan Greenland Center and 101-storey Chengdu Greenland Center, both in China.

All of these tall buildings are very attractive but what sets AS+GG apart from other leading architecture practices in their field is the architects’ groundbreaking research, extensive experience and singular dedication to achieving first – intelligence, second – efficiency, and third – beauty, as a consequence of the first two primary goals.  

Model of Samsung Togok Tower, Seoul designed by Adrian Smith, Design Partner at SOM | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
Model of Samsung Togok Tower, Seoul, designed by Adrian Smith, Design Partner at SOM Image Credit: Courtesy of James Steinkamp Photography

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Do you mind telling me about your responsibilities in the firm?

Adrian Smith (AS): Gordon and I are both Design Partners and we design most projects jointly, as we have done since working together at SOM. Even when I was experimenting with the Samsung Togok Tower in Seoul back in 1994-95, I was working with Gordon. At that point we were already working on minimising waste and maximising efficiency through understanding how to utilise the 111-storey height by incorporating wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, double climate wall exterior skin systems, open air atria for wind reduction, tapered and soft corners to mitigate vortices, and even stack effect power generation using the exterior wall cavity space as a chase. That project did not move forward, but we learned so much by exploring its potentials.

VB: You are referred to as the ultimate skyscraper architects. How do you see yourselves?

Gordon Gill (GG): We see ourselves as very able architects in developing very complex buildings. Skyscrapers surely define our practice. The development of this building type preoccupies over half of our time. We work hard to challenge the skyscraper typology. We continuously push the performance and functionality limits, as well as possibilities for hybrid programs. We do a lot of self-initiated research. We analyse density, energy efficiency, vertical transportation, livability, new construction techniques and materials and so on. Our capabilities are very wide – from any building type to master plans. We focus on finding unique solutions for cities. We love skyscrapers – supertalls and even megatalls – but what interests us most is addressing very complex urban problems.

  • Central Park Tower, NY | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
    Central Park Tower, NY Image Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
  • Central Park Tower is a mixed-use supertall skyscraper | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
    Central Park Tower is a mixed-use supertall skyscraper Image Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

AS: We are architects and city planners. We see no limits either in scale or complexity. Our expertise is broad, and we believe we can meet most challenges, large or small. But when we just started in 2006, we were known primarily for tall buildings. Our expertise is unique – many of our buildings are 300 meters tall and much higher. Architecture at this height is rare and it is in this space that our practice is different from most other architects. If you look at our portfolio you will see immediately that when it comes to skyscrapers, and the amount of research that we have undertaken to engineer them, there are very few other firms in the world that can compete with us. We understand how to build very tall buildings successfully, which means that our tall buildings are not just beautiful sculptures, they are performance-driven, well-engineered, meticulously planned and programmed, self-sustaining, environmentally intelligent structures.

VB: Is there one of these projects that stands out for you as a particular discovery?

AS: Clearly, that would have to be Pearl River Tower, which we designed at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It defined the two key directions for us. The first is large, complex, and tall buildings, and the second is on how to ensure that these buildings are outstanding performers. Pearl River Tower is a particularly strong case that works toward the zero-carbon model. The building’s unique shape was derived from the behaviour of natural elements on the site and was optimised for local solar and wind patterns, harnessing energy with the help of two sets of wind turbines that integrated into two mechanical floors.

GG: Our buildings are designed based on their aerodynamic performance. That’s what shapes them the most. We also discovered that with or without wind turbines, supertall buildings that have voids in their façades save huge amounts of money because they greatly reduce wind forces and therefore save energy to resist them. They also save costs in the materials used. These buildings must be efficient.  

Pearl River Tower designed by Adrian Smith, Design Partner at SOM | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
Pearl River Tower designed by Adrian Smith, Design Partner at SOM Image Credit: Courtesy of Tim Griffith Photography

VB: We started talking about high-rise construction and immediately you brought into the conversation the issue of energy efficiency. Is this the number one concern today in building high?

AS: It is high on our list of important criteria. Carbon efficiency, the function of the building to suit its intended use, and beauty are all very important to us.

GG: We compare our buildings to a human body. The more fit you are the healthier and more efficient you become. We don’t separate aesthetics from efficiency and overall performance. So, we focus on structure, circulation, quality of light, comfort, energy efficiency, environment, and, of course, beauty, which is very important to us. We mix all of these ingredients. But for many people what is hard to understand about our practice is that we don’t base our decisions on aesthetics, not primarily. They think we do because they look at our work and they see that it is beautiful. But that beauty comes from the desire to tune our buildings to optimised performance. What we focus on is to put our buildings in the most beneficial position from the performance standpoint. It is each location that makes each piece beautiful, not the other way around. Nothing is imposed or forced by our willfulness or something that we bring from another location.

  • Dancing Dragons Tower, Seoul designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill as the design architects of the project and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture the design firm | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
    Dancing Dragons Tower, Seoul designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill as the design architects of the project and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture the design firm Image Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
  • Dancing Dragons Tower, Seoul – 450-metre-high towers with glass scales designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill as the design architects of the project and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture the design firm | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
    Dancing Dragons Tower, Seoul – 450-metre-high towers with glass scales designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill as the design architects of the project and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture the design firm Image Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
  • Dancing Dragons Tower in Seoul contains offices, apartments, a hotel and shops | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
    Dancing Dragons Tower in Seoul contains offices, apartments, a hotel and shops Image Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

VB: You said you are not sculptors here, but, as soon as one walks into your office, there are dozens of beautiful models all around – they are clearly your proud trophies. This is not an engineering office. These buildings are exquisitely chiseled and not to recognise their beauty, would probably offend you, no?<

GG: You have discovered some of our perceived contradictions, specifically from those looking at the firm from the outside. However, none of these buildings are purely sculptural. The design is driven by performance parameters. Our projects are driven by context, not just visual site conditions, but zoning envelop requirements, in other words, how much you can build on any given site, and by the environmental context. So, we deal with required setbacks, solar footprints that we can have on the surrounding existing sites and buildings. First, we try to maximise our allowable gross floor area, then we try to maximise value. That’s what every developer would want to achieve. The balance is a blend of performance and beauty. Zoning requirements and volumetric constrains define our massing design. Then we analyse our forms and refine them, let’s say, as a series of definable arcs rather than random splines. We simplify the geometry to make our buildings easier to construct. Sure, we are architects, we work on achieving beautiful forms, but they are not arbitrary by any means.  

AS: They are sculpted to meet specific criteria and they are also site-specific. They are shaped through environmental analysis. We do experiment with ideas such as skin design and we often take a particular component designed for one of our buildings and develop it further for another project.

  • Jeddah Tower designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill as the design architects of the project and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture the design firm | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
    Jeddah Tower designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill as the design architects of the project and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture the design firm Image Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill
  • The sleek, streamlined form of the Jeddah Tower is inspired by the folded fronds of young desert plant growth | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
    The sleek, streamlined form of the Jeddah Tower is inspired by the folded fronds of young desert plant growth Image Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill
  • Jeddah Tower designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill as the design architects of the project and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture the design firm is planned to be the world’s tallest building | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
    Jeddah Tower designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill as the design architects of the project and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture the design firm is planned to be the world’s tallest building Image Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill

VB: You casually mentioned ‘other architects’ who also have done towers. I assume these are SOM, KPF, Cesar Pelli, Norman Foster, Herzog & de Meuron. Gensler did the Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world and Zaha Hadid designed Leeza Tower in Beijing with the world’s tallest atrium. You don’t see them as your competitors?

AS: I think that is an accurate list. Because we have built many towers, we have also developed very specific, refined research. As architects, we all shape our buildings but AS+GG has amassed huge knowledge and experience that I don’t think can be matched by other architects. We work directly with the forces of nature. But there are still certain aspects about tall buildings that we are still learning. It is a process. Still, we have covered many more possibilities than anyone else. We often work with different engineers and we learn a lot from them, so we know enough to ask them many specific questions, which is unusual. Since my design of Jin Mao Tower at SOM in the mid-90s, every time a client wanted to do a supertall, I would get the call.

  • JinMao Tower designed by Adrian Smith, Design Partner at SOM | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
    JinMao Tower designed by Adrian Smith, Design Partner at SOM Image Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Smith
  • The JinMao Tower is an 88-storey landmark skyscraper | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
    The JinMao Tower is an 88-storey landmark skyscraper Image Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Smith

VB: How high can we go now? What are the limits?

AS: Above 600 meters, the design parameters become complex. One begins to ask the question, why do you want to go beyond that height? Even the Burj Khalifa’s highest occupiable floor is just at about 600 meters tall. Above that mark you need to climatise the space differently, and rethink vertical transportation systems. Just constructing such a tall building straight would be quite a challenge. But structurally, we think current technology can build to a mile high. The best contractors in the world think they know how to do it. Still, we are not quite there.

GG: In China, we have designed several towers between 600 and 700 meters but the Shanghai Tower by Gensler, which is 632 meters tall and was finished in 2015, unleashed a competition among many municipalities for constructing taller buildings. That race for taller buildings made many officials somewhat uneasy, so there is now a new unspoken limit of 500 meters. None of our clients will go beyond that limit, at least for now. For example, we have designed our building in Wuhan to 636 meters, but it is going to be built to 498 meters. The decision to reduce the height was made already after a third of the building’s height was constructed. So, we were forced to redesign the top and reduce the building by about one fifth.

Trump Tower, Chicago designed by Adrian Smith, Design Partner at SOM | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
Trump Tower, Chicago designed by Adrian Smith, Design Partner at SOM Image Credit: Courtesy of James Steinkamp Photography

VB: How would you describe what you do as architects? What is your architecture about?

AS: Architecture must function; it must serve people well. It must be durable. It needs to stand the test of time. It needs to be of its time technologically. It must respond and contribute to the environment in which it is placed. Architecture should be a part of the city and a part of the environment. And it has to be beautiful. Yet, there is always a need for rational. Again, we are not sculptors, we are architects. Yet, we love making beautiful buildings and often we are brought to projects, especially in China or Middle East, where clients own very large developments and they want to create a centerpiece, a landmark that gives an identity to their project or the entire city.

GG: I am always concerned about how to bring the built environment and natural environment together. Architecture can do that. We have a need to be connected to nature. That’s where most people find themselves happy. We all want to smell the sea, stand in the rain, climb the mountains. I was always wondering about this impulse of people and I was always interested in bringing architecture and nature together. No matter what building type we work on this question always gets addressed. Also, we are not one-liners. We look for depth in our buildings. The idea is to make them unfold, to reveal something new every time.

The Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, 2010 designed by Adrian Smith, Design Partner at SOM | Adrian Smith | Gordon Gill | STIRworld
The Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, 2010 designed by Adrian Smith, Design Partner at SOM Image Credit: Courtesy of Tim Griffith Photography

VB: You mentioned that you try to challenge the skyscraper typology. What is it that you want to challenge the most?

GG: When we start a project, we always ask the same question – how can we make our building special? We often present our clients a different perspective on how to think about certain projects. We offer our vision. It is not unusual for us to present something totally different from what a client may expect. In any case, we are always pushing for something very special, yet, based on deep analysis and economics. Our solutions are very sound. We will tackle anything, and our clients understand all the whys. We have common goals.

AS: We are constantly developing new ideas. If we think of an interesting idea, we initiate our own research that results in books and lectures, and when the right client comes along, we may use these ideas in our projects. We love making things. We love solving problems. We believe that to do something conventional would be a complete waste of our efforts.

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About Author

Vladimir Belogolovsky

Vladimir Belogolovsky

Belogolovsky is an American curator, critic, and a columnist with STIR. He graduated from the Cooper Union School of Architecture (1996) and after practicing architecture for 12 years, founded New York-based Curatorial Project for curating architectural exhibitions. He has written nine books, including Conversations with Architects, curated over 50 international exhibitions and has lectured in more than 30 countries.

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