Sky’s the Limit: How the World’s Tallest Buildings Are Made

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Design on Display

For decades, SOM has pushed the limits of building design and engineering—from Chicago’s iconic John Hancock Center to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world’s tallest building. Sky’s the Limit: The Engineering of Architecture offers an in-depth look at how breakthroughs in building design and construction are made. On view at the Utzon Center in Aalborg, Denmark, the exhibition brings into focus the power of collaboration between architects and engineers. At SOM, they work closely together on each project to create buildings whose architecture and structural design are clearly expressed as an integrated whole.

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Building Together

“We don’t have firm barriers,” says William F. Baker (pictured right), a leader of SOM’s structural and civil engineering practice. “[Engineers] never think twice about suggesting architectural ideas, and architects never think twice about suggesting structural ideas. A lot of times, we’ll find something that works better for both of us.”

At the exhibition opening, Baker was joined by Mark Sarkisian, another engineering practice leader at SOM, for a discussion about how collaboration has led to breakthroughs throughout the firm's history.

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In Pursuit of Clarity

Collaboration begins with the conceptual design process. At the outset of a project, architects and engineers work to distill the essence of a structural concept. Here, simple solutions are often the best ones. “Describe your system in words,” Baker advises his design teams. “If it takes too many words, maybe your system’s too complicated.” A series of hand-drawn sketches in the exhibition shows the range of these solutions, each accompanied by a concise name. From “bundled tube” to “buttressed core,” these diagrams illustrate a taxonomy of building concepts used for some of the world’s most advanced structures.

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Design Evolution

Design innovation can give rise to new building types, by providing the ability to build at scales never before possible. In this gallery, visitors can contemplate 26 structural models — from the 65-meter-tall Exchange House, in London, to the 828-meter Burj Khalifa, and even a design concept for an unbuilt 1000-meter-tall tower. The models chronicle seven decades of the development of new structural systems — a snapshot of the skyscraper’s evolution. In extraordinary detail, they reveal each building’s structure, clearly expressing the integrated design that defines SOM’s work.

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Understanding Scale

The sheer enormity of a supertall building can be difficult to fathom, especially when represented in a gallery setting. To offer a new perspective, Sky’s the Limit proposes a playful reversal of the relationship between humans and the built environment. Visitors are invited to imagine their height relative to the models, all of which are built to 1:500 scale. Measured upon entering the gallery and given badges that assign them a new height, visitors stand as giants among the skyscrapers.

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Structure Made Visible

In another gallery, visitors are invited to don 3D glasses and view animated projections of the structural components that underpin some of the buildings they’ve just seen in the model room. Viewed up close and from all angles, at 1:2 scale, visitors can grasp the relative size, complexity, and beauty of these structural joints, which in real life are often hidden beneath the building facade.

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Inside the Studio

The exhibition provides a rare look inside behind the scenes of the design process. Sketches, drawings, and renderings pinned to the gallery walls recreate the atmosphere of SOM’s structural engineering studio, where design ideas are debated and refined.

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Driven by Research

A research gallery allows visitors to explore how ideas are developed and tested. From wind tunnel studies to explorations of algorithmic design, more than a dozen research topics are presented here. The displays give enough technical detail for experts to dig deep into the research, yet also present an accessible and engaging survey for those without a background in design.

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Brick by Brick

The interactive exhibition seeks to inspire and engage budding designers of all ages. “We’ve developed a series of learning programs that encourage kids and students to learn through play,” said Lasse Andersson, the Utzon Center’s director. “They can design and construct their own LEGO high-rises, and also enter a virtual reality experience in Minecraft. The latest addition is a programmable drone that flies through our LEGO model city to capture videos that are posted to YouTube.”​

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View from the Top

Finally, a video installation takes viewers on an immersive tour through the world of structural engineering. Projected on three walls, the panoramic film concludes with a thrilling perspective from the spire of the Burj Khalifa, half a mile above the earth’s surface. The simulated view from atop the world’s tallest manmade structure gives yet another vantage point from which to contemplate the exhibition’s major theme—how architects and engineers work together to reach unprecedented heights.

“I hope that visitors will leave the show with an appreciation for the beauty of structure, as well as the thrill and fascination of building into the sky,” Andersson said.

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What’s Next?

Sky’s the Limit is on view at the Utzon Center through January 15th, 2017. The exhibition expands a show that was first presented at Architekturgalerie in Munich in early 2016 and will continue to travel to additional venues in the coming year. Stay tuned for more details!