As recriminations and fear over the height of the tallest buildings sweep the United States, nary a second thought seems to have been given the latest grandiose plan for downtown Beijing.
The city, which has approved plans for a 140-story skyscraper as the focal point of a central business district designed by Los Angeles-based Johnson Fain Partners, has bigger worries than terrorism. Shanghai, for one.
"There's definitely a Shanghai-Beijing dynamic," William Fain, a partner in the downtown firm, said of the competitive nature of the two cities. "Clearly, with the (2008) Olympics, the capital city needs a certain amount of prominence."
By year-end, Shanghai, 663 miles southeast of Beijing, will boast two of the world's four tallest buildings. When built, the 140-story tower planned for Beijing would be the largest in the world. For Beijing, security-related fears are secondary.
"They probably feel pretty confident that they could prevent something like (the Sept. 11 attacks) from happening," said Tridib Banerjee, professor of the school of planning, policy and development at USC. "Anyone who's not Chinese is going to stand out."
Hence, plans for the 1.6 square-mile district's tower remain unchanged.
"No one's been approached about (a change)," said Fain, whose firm won an international design competition for the capital city's central business district.
If by chance the Chinese were more concerned about a terror attack of even a terrible accident involving a plane, engineering technology is such that the new tower may not face the fate of the World Trade Center buildings in New York.
While pointing out that Beijing is in an earthquake zone, Nabih Youssef, president of Los Angeles-based Nabih Youssef and Associates Structural Engineers, expects a structure like the 140-story tower to have a number of attributes that would limit the human toll. Liquid and elastic dampening material built into the building's skeleton would cut down any motion caused by ground movement.
As for potential fires, "safe havens" unoccupied fireproof rooms adjacent to stairwells, lobbies or corridors are being integrated into international code requirements for tall buildings. Also, discussions underway to require elevator shafts and cabs to be built to withstand up to three hours of fire exposure have been sped up by recent events.
Having built 35 projects in China, architect Herb Nadel isn't worried about the ability of engineers in China to build a structurally sound building of that height. It's just a question of whether it's worthwhile.
"With eight to 10 banks of elevators, you wind with a building with so much vertical transportation that it becomes impractical," said Nadel, chief executive of West Los Angeles-based Nadel Architects.
The district, which will be located two miles east of Tiananmen Square, will be comprised of 500 buildings, of which about 50 will be high-rises, making up 100 million square feet of commercial, cultural and residential space. About 250,000 people will either work or live in the district.
Fain estimates that the project will cost the Chinese government $5 billion and will be developed over the next 20 years, though "a lot of this stuff will be accomplished between now and the Olympics," he said.
Fain predicted that between 80 and 90 percent of the Johnson Fain plan will be implemented by Beijing's city government, which is in the process of finalizing design and zoning ordinances for the area. "By the end of the year, they will have finished their final document," he said.
Beijing's commitment to the high profile business center comes as no surprise to scholars of Chinese urban development. The combination of the upcoming Olympics, greater freedom of trade, and a healthy competition with Shanghai have spurred on an aggressive attitude toward development on the part of the Beijing government.
"Beijing is under a lot pressure," said Xun Liu, post doctorate fellow with the USC history department. "Shanghai is China's largest commercial center and has seen tremendous growth over the years, and Beijing has lagged behind."
The result is that Beijing has been trying to play catch up over the past few years, often at the expense of the capital city's old world charms. "Some of the historic neighborhoods were taken down in huge chunks and were replaced by mega projects (with) none of the traditional human scale," said Banerjee, who has participated in a number of planning conferences held at Chinese universities.
Beijing officials sponsored an international competition among eight firms to create a central business district that would satisfy Beijing's need for a high profile commercial center while integrating aspects of the city's cultural history.
Johnson Fain, which committed a team of eight designers to the project, won the award and $200,000 in April.
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