Supertall 101

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Of the Southeastern coast of China is the small sweet potato-shaped island of Taiwan. Yes, I assure you, it is sweet potato-shaped not regular potato shape. Taiwan is not recognized by the UN as a sovereign nation, though many people who live there would like it to be, depending on who you dare ask Taiwan could be considered a part of China or a land apart.

Avery Trufelman:
Before I traveled to Taiwan, I’m embarrassed to admit I wasn’t entirely sure where it was.

Roman Mars:
Producer Avery Trufelman just back from Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.

Avery Trufelman:
A lot of people in Taiwan know this, that people like me aren’t really sure where exactly they are or if they’re a country. And this is part of why in 1997, the city of Taipei set out to do something they hope would put them on the map.

Roman Mars:
They set out to build a very, very tall building.

Michael Liu:
Taiwan really needed to let the world see it. Taiwan is such a beautiful island.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Michael Liu. He’s a representative of Taiwan’s tallest building, Taipei 101. He says the city of Taipei started with a plan for a 66-story office building with a high-class, and food court. And 66-stories was enough to make it among the tallest in the country.

Michael Liu:
Then the city government say, “Oh, you know, we should let the world see us so we should have a bigger and more aggressive plan.”

Avery Trufelman:
The city of Taipei decided to change the plans, raising the building to 88 stories, which would make it the same height as the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, which were then the tallest buildings in the world.

Michael Liu:
They were not satisfied, so then one of the developer say, “We should go for more than 100.”

Roman Mars:
And so they decided to make it 101 stories, hence the name Taipei 101.

Michael Liu:
In Chinese philosophy ,100 is perfection. We’re not satisfied with the perfection.

Avery Trufelman:
Taipei 101 rises a 1,667 feet up in the air, which is about 508 meters. It is bonkers high. It sticks so far above the rest of Taipei that it looks a bit surreal. You can see it from almost anywhere in the city, even from neighboring towns, like a benevolent Eye of Sauron.

Roman Mars:
Building something of this size is never easy, but Taipei had extra obstacles. In a city prone to earthquakes and typhoons, they had to design a building that could withstand these conditions, and they had to convince the public that this freakishly tall new building was safe.

Avery Trufelman:
For a while at least, Taipei 101 would hold the coveted title of Tallest Building in the World.

Antony Wood:
I think it’s fair to say that a large part of the story and history of tall buildings is really wrapped up with ego and competition, perhaps more so than any other building type.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Antony Wood, Executive Director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. They are the organization that gives out that official title of “Tallest Building in the World”.

Antony Wood:
We have a very big ruler, and we send someone on site. No, it is all based on drawings, on submitted drawings.

Roman Mars:
It’s important to have a fair and official measurement process, because a tall, tall building always represents something larger than itself.

Avery Trufelman:
Historically a tall building was the embodiment of corporate power.

Antony Wood:
You could see that in the titles of the project, hence Chrysler Building or Chicago Tribune Tower or Sears Tower.

Roman Mars:
But in the last couple of decades the agenda has shifted.

Antony Wood:
The motivation is the same in terms of getting attention and getting branding, but it’s now more likely to be for a city, a people, an economy, a country.

Avery Trufelman:
Which is why projects are now more likely to be named for places like Shanghai Tower, Doha Convention Center, Dubai One, Signature Tower Jakarta, Makkah Royal Clock Tower, and Taipei 101.

Roman Mars:
A tall tower is a way to show the world, “We have arrived.”

Antony Wood:
The question I typically get asked is, “How high can we go?” Most people think that the limits on height are technological, and I can tell you that they’re not, really the height of a tower is the product of its base. As long as you’ve got a big enough area at the base of the tower it’s just down to structural engineering. You can go as high as… as necessary or as high as motivated.

Roman Mars:
Which means the only real limits are resources and will.

Antony Wood:
The main limit is financial, that’s the only limit on tall buildings. It really is, “Who the hell is going to pay for it?” and “should it be done in the first place?”.

Roman Mars:
In Taipei, securing funding for their new building was a huge endeavor. As Taipei 101 representative Michael Liu says, this was a public-private partnership, where a handful of local financial institutions signed on as shareholders.

Michael Liu:
Including Taiwan Stock Exchange, and a lot of local banks, and some telephone company, but local.

Avery Trufelman:
Getting the rest of the city onboard with this plan meant taking a lot of different considerations into account, like commercial flight patterns.

Michael Liu:
When we proposed this, it’s a big, big challenge for the Aviation Department.

Roman Mars:
Taipei’s airport is right in the middle of the city.

Michael Liu:
We went through a very, very difficult time to talk to them, and not only the city, but also the country recognized that we need this to really go for the tallest in the world, and then … in the end, the flight detour.

Avery Trufelman:
They re-routed all the flights. Oh, wow.

Michael Liu:
Because of us.

Roman Mars:
The land was set. The air was cleared. The city of Taipei was ready to create a building that would be the tallest in the world. Now they had to make it look good.

C.Y. Lee:
The important thing is you have to design a building to be really iconic, otherwise it cannot become a landmark.

Avery Trufelman:
That is C.Y. Lee, and he is a bonafide starchitect. He had already designed big buildings in other cities in Taiwan, and all around China when he started planning this project back in the late 90’s. He wanted this new building to be iconic, and to look different from skyscrapers in the West.

C.Y. Lee:
We imitate more the Chinese pagoda, it’s more like a high-rise pagoda.

Avery Trufelman:
A super elongated, multi-tiered pagoda covered in sea green glass.

C.Y. Lee:
We picked a little bit light green, it looked very good.

Roman Mars:
This pagoda is divided into eight segments because eight in Chinese sounds like the word for wealth.

C.Y. Lee:
Because that building is a financial building.

Avery Trufelman:
For even more luck and wealth, there are giant gold coins on all four sides of the base of the building, and for extra, extra good luck the corners of the tower are accented with representations of clouds and dragons.

C.Y. Lee:
The corner will have so many, kind of a small thing, that express the dragon.

Roman Mars:
The dragons are symbolic protectors of the building, and Taipei 101 needs all the protection it can get.

Leonard Joseph:
It is in what I like to call a tough neighborhood.

Avery Trufelman:
That’s Leonard Joseph of the firm Thornton Tomasetti. They provided the structural engineering services on Taipei 101.

Leonard Joseph:
We have both typhoons that are significantly more severe than the hurricanes we see in the Eastern US, and it is at an active seismic zone.

Roman Mars:
The tough thing about having both harsh winds and seismically active grounds is that in an earthquake you want a flexible building.

Leonard Joseph:
You really would like a nice limber structure in an earthquake zone, kind of roll with the flow, but when the wind blows that limber structure sways too much and people get seasick in it.

Avery Trufelman:
One of the ways to lessen that sway is with a tuned mass damper.

Roman Mars:
A wind damper or a tuned mass damper is basically a counterweight to wind.

Avery Trufelman:
Tuned mass dampers appear in many forms, these can be weights on rollers, blocks of concrete suspended in pools of water or oil, or in the case of Taipei 101, a gigantic pendulum.

Leonard Joseph:
By having a tuned mass damper, this big pendulum, as the building sways, and this pendulum is designed to sway at about the same rate, the pendulum will kind of lay behind. The building moves, and the pendulum kind of goes, “Oh, wait a minute, I got to follow.”

Roman Mars:
The damper just slows the sway of the building. The tower would still stand without it, but the people inside might feel seasick or they might just feel unnerved by the fact that their building is swaying.

Leonard Joseph:
The damper is typically intended just to improve occupant comfort.

Avery Trufelman:
Having a tuned mass damper is not unique. There are lots of buildings that have one. What’s unique about Taipei 101 is the way they’ve turned it into an asset.

Roman Mars:
Usually the damper gets treated like another piece of machinery.

Leonard Joseph:
The developer looks at it and says, “Well, if I have to I’ll put it in. I don’t want to, but if I got to, all right. It takes up space. It cost me money. I got to maintain it. I got to buy it.” It’s a thing that they have to pay for.

Roman Mars:
And so, if there’s a damper at all it’s usually hidden away near the top of the building in some sort of machine room or attic space, but in Taipei 101 the wind damper isn’t just visible, it’s the main attraction so of course Avery went to see it.

Avery Trufelman:
This is like the 91st floor. Oh, my God, my ears are popped. Okay, now we are walking in through the tunnel where it says Giant Wind Damper.

Roman Mars:
Avery was there with her friend, Spike.

Avery Trufelman:
Come here.

Spike:
This, this is the big damper.

Avery Trufelman:
This is the big damper.

Roman Mars:
It is a massive, massive pendulum. An orb made of 41 stacks of solid steel, weighing 728 tons. According to an informational video it weighs as much as 132 elephants. It’s suspended by four bundles of thick cables, and all of it has been painted gold.

Avery Trufelman:
It’s really surreal-looking. It’s like … It feels kind of dystopian, like you’re coming to this gigantic golden orb to pay your respects.

Roman Mars:
The damper is on display because seeing the engineering at work makes people feel safe even in Taipei’s volatile climate.

Leonard Joseph:
You don’t need to worry about the typhoon. We have a lot in Taiwan in the summer, but you don’t need to worry.

Roman Mars:
To promote their awesome damper, Taipei 101 went even a step further.

Leonard Joseph:
We hired the Sanrio company.

Avery Trufelman:
The Japanese company that designed Hello Kitty.

Leonard Joseph:
They created these Damper Babies.

Damper Babies:
“Hi! (Made-up cartoon dialog.)”

Roman Mars:
The Damper Babies are little cartoon figures that have a body like the orb of the damper, with a big head, and little arms and legs. They come in black, red, yellow, silver, and green.

Avery Trufelman:
Then you get to this corner.

Roman Mars:
Next to the damper itself you can watch a little video where the Damper Babies explain how the damper works.

Avery Trufelman:
With a damper like this the tower won’t sway in a strong wind. By the way, the Damper Babies aren’t speaking Chinese or Taiwanese or Japanese, they speak their own made-up, cutesy language, but the video is subtitled with all the information about the damper.

Roman Mars:
The Damper Babies decorate the hallways leading to and from the damper itself.

Avery Trufelman:
It’s a whole wall of glowing Damper Babies. This music kind of rules.

Roman Mars:
On different floors of Taipei 101, gift shops sell all kinds of Damper Babies souvenirs.

Leonard Joseph:
We have seen a lot of different kind of products. We have books, we have cups, we have mugs, we have hats.

Avery Trufelman:
I totally bought some Damper Babies stuff, and a lot of other tourists did, which is so funny to me that this huge crowd was geeking out about a tuned mass damper.

Antony Wood:
The fact that it’s been taken a stage further, and used as a tourist object is just smart really.

Roman Mars:
Antony Wood of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat says the damper helped keep Taipei 101 on the global stage long after it lost its title as the world’s tallest building, a position it held from 2004 to 2010.

Antony Wood:
Yes, the world has largely moved on, we now have an 828 meter building in the Burj Khalifa, Dubai.

Avery Trufelman:
The Burj Khalifa in Dubai took the title of Tallest Building in the World in 2010, and as we record this it is still the Tallest Building in the World. It’s over a 1,000 feet taller than Taipei 101.A t 163-stories, it is staggeringly tall.

Roman Mars:
The U.S. may have once led the race for the tallest buildings, but now most of the contenders are in East Asia and the Middle East. According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, Taipei 101 is currently the fifth Tallest Building in the World, but at the rate that super tall buildings are being erected that ranking won’t last very long.

Avery Trufelman:
The Council defines buildings that are taller than 300 meters or 984 feet as super tall buildings. Right now there are a hundred super tall buildings in the world.

Antony Wood:
In fact if we go back five years there were only 50 super tall buildings complete in the world, and that took 80 odd years to come to fruition, and the next 50 super tall buildings were completed in five years, which shows the absolute massive boom that tall buildings have been going through in the last decade or so.

Roman Mars:
Super tall buildings can’t just depend on their height anymore for notoriety, and this is why Taipei 101 tried to rack up all the superlatives it could, including “Biggest Wind Damper in the World”, “Fastest Elevators in the World”, and “Tallest LEED-Certified Green Building in the World”.

Antony Wood:
Which is a little bit of a marketing thing, but it shows this commitment, it shows this commitment to progressing that building beyond just, “Hey, we’re going to build the world’s tallest.”

Roman Mars:
After all the title of World’s Tallest Building is earned slowly and lost quickly.

C.Y. Lee:
There’s a lot of thing pulled together to build the tallest building in the world.

Roman Mars:
It’s a contest that architect C.Y. Lee isn’t planning on throwing his hat into again.

Avery Trufelman:
Do you think you’d ever do it again? Would you design-

C.Y. Lee:
No.

Avery Trufelman:
No?

C.Y. Lee:
No.

Avery Trufelman:
That was quick, why?

C.Y. Lee:
I think that one is enough.

Credits

Production

Producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Michael Liu of Taipei 101; Antony Wood, Executive Director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat; Taipei 101 architect C.Y. Lee; and Leonard Joseph of Thornton Tomasetti, structural engineering advisors for Taipei 101. All images by Avery Trufelman unless otherwise noted.

Music

“Room 34”- Keegan DeWitt
“Multnomah Falls”- Keegan DeWitt
“Périhélie”-
“Cracking The Code”- Keegan DeWitt
“Following Jim”- Keegan DeWitt
“The Hands of a Clock”- Lullatone
“Japanese Whispers”-
“She’s Missing”- Keegan DeWitt
“Shopping for Family Dinner”- Keegan DeWitt
“Brass Practice”- Lullatone
“Water Meeting”- Keegan DeWitt
“The Hands of a Clock”- Lullatone

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