Guangzhou tower: The sky's the limit

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam