Guangzhou tower: The sky's the limit

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It's the ninth tallest building in the world, with 400ft on The Shard and room for the dome of St Paul's in its atrium. Jay Merrick climbs the Guangzhou tower

The British architect Chris Wilkinson has designed and delivered one of the four tallest buildings in China, and the ninth tallest in the world. Not bad for a 65-year-old designer who had never done a tower before. The 1,439ft Guangzhou International Finance Centre is more than 400ft taller than Renzo Piano's much-heralded Shard, which is now rising slowly above London Bridge station.

The Guangzhou tower is so huge that the dome of St Paul's Cathedral would fit comfortably inside the atrium of the 33-storey hotel at the top of it. But this is not a "mine's-bigger-than yours" story. After all, the rush to build ever higher towers is hardly news, let alone of much architectural interest. What Wilkinson's practice, Wilkinson Eyre, has done is something rare: it has gone big – very big – in a way that makes it possible to think of searing verticality in terms of an almost chaste elegance of surface and outline. No penile dementia here.

The word "seamless" is grossly overused by architects, and is not necessarily a virtue. But this £280m tower, whose final internal fit-out will be completed in November, comes close to being seamless in a virtuoso way. Wilkinson and his project architect, Dominic Bettison, have added something architecturally original to the world of skyscrapers, and not just because the Guangzhou tower won the Council on Tall Buildings' 2011 Asia and Australasia award.

It is when you start to make comparisons that Wilkinson Eyre's achievement becomes obvious. Contemporary skyscrapers are usually big, big toys for big, big boys – shiny corporate suits that have mutated into vertical architecture. And the craving for uniquely erect brandmarks is often painfully overwrought: the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur spring to mind, as does the Shanghai World Financial Centre – think of a vast bottle opener-cum-chisel.

And how about the astonishing stack of glass and steel pagodas otherwise known as the Taipei 101 tower? Even London's Broadgate tower, which won the CTB's European award in 2009, looks horribly fidgety and clunky compared to Wilkinson Eyre's svelte architecture.

Wilkinson and Bettison have made it look pretty effortless. But their entry into the skyscraper big league is a surprise and it could not have been predicted a decade ago – not even after the practice won the Riba Stirling Prize in 2001 and 2002, for the Magna Centre in Rotherham and for the "Winking Eye" bridge over the Tyne. At the start of the Noughties, Wilkinson Eyre was regarded as being among the very best of Britain's high-tech architects – though hardly an international superstar in the making.

But it was also at that time that two young Chinese trainee architects in the practice – Walter Wang and William Chen – began to politely pester Wilkinson and his co-principal, Jim Eyre, to try for commissions in China. Wilkinson told them that he wouldn't go prospecting for work on spec – it would be too riskily expensive – but that he would consider entering specific design competitions. In 2004, Wang and Chen dug out the design competition for the Yue Xiu Group's International Finance Centre. And that was when Wilkinson found that he had caught a tiger by the tail.

His practice was given two days to complete and submit the wodge of competition forms. When Wilkinson found himself – with his engineering partner, Arup – on the 14-strong shortlist, he was then told to submit design proposals within two weeks. This must have seemed like architecture crossed with a riotously busy Chinese dim-sum restaurant. In Britain, even general design proposals can take many months to develop.

When Wilkinson Eyre was told it had got the job, it was given just two months to produce fully detailed design drawings – again, a timescale unheard of in Europe or the US. The practice set up a design office in Hong Kong, which is 90 minutes from Guangzhou by train. The tower team swelled to more than 20 and there were technical meetings in China.

"The design presentations were slightly crazy," Wilkinson says, "at least 30 people, all these Chinese professors, smoking, with two mobile phones on the go. My God, it was complex. They wanted great detail and really big models and drawings three-metres high. So we had a very fast learning curve. There was lots of teleconferencing with Arup so we could learn how to design a really high tower."

Wilkinson admits, graciously, that the involvement of Arup – the world's most legendary civil engineers – may have been his ace card in winning the design competition. But the fascinating thing about this skyscraper is that its form remains very much as per Wilkinson's initial, idealistic vision.

"We thought it should be simple, slender, and beautiful," he muses. "A shape that hadn't been done before, very pure and crystalline. And with a visible structure that's a vision of delight."

That produced a design that was trochoidal – a building with a cross-section like a triangle with curved corners. In elevation, the outline bulges very gently outwards for about a third of the tower's height, then tapers smoothly as it rises.

Arup's engineers loved it. It allowed them to create a linked diamond diagrid steel structure, outstanding in terms of strength-to-weight, and though Wilkinson didn't realise it when he produced his original sketches, the outline shape significantly reduced wind turbulence at the top of the building. Each of the steel diamonds is 12 storeys high and their joints alone – in effect, giant steel Xs filled with concrete – are eight metres high, or about the same height as an entire diagrid diamond on London's Swiss Re building, otherwise known as the Gherkin.

"Towers are a massive intrusion on city skylines and I strongly feel that they need to have a kind of simplicity," says Wilkinson. "You see some crazy geometry. That's OK on smaller buildings, but not on something that might dominate the skyline for 100 years."

That is debatable, of course: in cities dense with skyscrapers, extrovert towers are not so disruptive. Nobody can visualise the Empire State Building but once seen it is impossible to forget the vividly scalloped Art Deco crown of the Chrysler building, also in Manhattan. The same applies to the playfully wrenched facades of Frank Gehry's new skyscraper in that city, New York by Gehry.

When Wilkinson entered the design competition for the Guangzhou tower he was, astrologically, in the Chinese year of the monkey. Seven years on, it is the year of the hare – the perfect symbol for an architect who has got off to an architecturally rapid start in China and is already working on "four or five" new tower projects there.

Wilkinson has proved that he can come up with fantastic tower architecture, chop-chop. But can he come up with another skyscraper as beautiful, memorable or structurally interesting, as the Guangzhou International Finance Centre, with its 70 high-speed lifts and subsurface connections to the Metro and to a shopping mall the size of the White City?

Chris Wilkinson gazes out of his meeting room window in Clerkenwell, towards the glinting planes of the ever-growing Shard, and says how much he admires it. And he talks again about purity of form. But having created a skyscraper that can immediately be mentioned in the same breath as genuine tower icons such as the Hancock and Willis buildings in Chicago, two words must shine like neon that is just a little too glaring: "Follow that."

Towering achievement: Four great towers

John Hancock Center, Chicago It is incredible to think that this most riveting of all towers was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and engineered by the great Fazlur Khan in the mid-1960s. The tapering, cross-braced facades were a revelation then and they are still beautiful today.

Willis Tower, Chicago Anything New York can do, Chicago – and SOM again – can do better. In a building that was known originally as the Sears Tower, the architecture takes the idea of stepped-back facades and plays an awesome game of proportions.

Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong This 1990 building by the great IM Pei was, in effect, China's first corporate-financial brandmark. Pei, a devotee of classical geometry, created a tower that conveys a sharply cut, beautifully crafted precision.

New York by Gehry, New York Frank Gehry's first tower. Its 903 apartments became hyper-des res when the building opened recently. At 870ft it is not quite the tallest stack of apartments in the world, but it is certainly the most wittily crumpled.

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