Why Are So Many of China's Tall Buildings Designed In Chicago?

Chicago has long been a global leader in an interesting export category: Maker of the world's tallest buildings. The world's current tallest building was designed here, as well as the one that will supplant it. Now, the city's architects will add even more towers to their list due to a relationship with the planet's most booming development scene—China.

In this incredibly detailed report called Designed in Chicago, Made in China (if you're not a subscriber try this link), the Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamin and photographer John J. Kim explore a swiftly urbanizing China—and Chicago's outsized role in creating it:

The Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where Adrian Smith once worked, designed the Jin Mao Tower, which reigned for nearly a decade as China's tallest skyscraper and remains one of its most iconic. SOM's Chicago office also shaped the tallest building in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing and was involved in the design of the tallest towers in Beijing and Tianjin, a major northern Chinese city.

Chicago stars like Helmut Jahn have their own striking Chinese towers. And the Chicago office of Gensler, a global firm headquartered in San Francisco, contributed 10 architects to the team that designed the twisting 2,073-foot-tall Shanghai Tower, which, when completed next year, will become the world's second-tallest building after the SOM-designed Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

If these Chicago firms continue to get these choice projects, Kamin's theory might hold true: As China continues to emerge as a supertall superpower, Chicago's architects will have a unique opportunity to design more and more of the world's tallest skyscrapers.

Historically, it makes sense that Chicago has become an expert in tall buildings. The structure that's widely considered to be the very first skyscraper was Chicago's steel-framed Home Insurance Building—built 138 feet tall in 1885. And of course, the SOM-designed Sears (now Willis) Tower shattered records in 1973 when when it became the world's tallest—a title the 1,451-foot building held for an impressive 20 years. In addition to the Burj Khalifa (which was designed by Adrian Smith before he left SOM to start his own firm), SOM also designed One World Trade—the tallest in the U.S. at 1776 feet. Currently, 10 of the world's supertalls were designed by SOM.

Kamin posits that the two cultures actually have a lot more in common: China is the boom country of the 21st century, and Chicago was the boom city of the late 19th and early 20th century. Chicago's population grew from 300,000 in 1871 to 2 million by 1910. Shenzhen has seen population boom from 58,000 in 1980 to 10 million today. Perhaps Chicago can lend some ideas for how to avoid the inevitable growing pains. [Chicago Tribune via Market Urbanism]

The lobby of the Jin Mao Tower, designed by Adrian Smith, by cheesy42