Ground was broken for the world’s tallest skyscraper in an empty field in China’s Hunan Province last weekend. It was a festive and audacious occasion: the Broad Group, developer of the Sky City project, promised to build 202 floors stretched over 838 meters (2,749 feet) in a mere 10 months, using pre-fabricated modular, stackable pods that require less energy and materials than traditional construction methods.
The joy was short-lived.
On Tuesday, four days into the turbo-charged construction schedule, Sky City hit a snag: according to a (now-deleted) article in the local Xiaoxiang Morning Post -- it was subsequently quoted widely in national-level Chinese media -- local government officials suspended the project pending completion of a government approval process designed to ensure “safety and legality.” In effect, the Broad Group hadn’t obtained a building permit.
This surprised nobody. China is currently in the midst of an economic slowdown, and it’s widely believed that over-capacity -- in infrastructure and housing, particularly -– is a leading cause. The last thing China needs is another empty shell of a building, and the government has been working to limit the number of new ones.
But even if over-capacity and a slowing economy weren’t a concern, Broad Group’s claims that Sky City will be so well-built that it can withstand a 9.0 earthquake surely is. If ever there was a role for government intervention, it’s when developers –- even those capable of building 30-story hotels in 15 days, as Broad did in 2012 -– claim that they can stack blocks nearly one kilometer in the air and all-but guarantee that they can’t be knocked over.
Yet, despite the on-the-face absurdity of Broad’s claims, the company’s status as one of China’s most innovative and successful private enterprises has given it the benefit of the doubt among some architects in China, and among many environmentalists outside of China, who view pre-fabricated, modular pods as a more sustainable means of constructing humanity’s urban future. More critically, Broad might have the support of Chinese officials with standing to over-rule Hunan Province’s cautious bureaucrats.
That last possibility is the most likely explanation for the company’s defiant claim in Thursday’s South China Morning Post that in fact it has obtained all relevant permits for Sky City, and that news of the suspension was obtained “from an official who is not overseeing the project and who is unfamiliar with the progress.” Meanwhile, an unnamed employee of Hunan’s Housing Department, presumably the local supervising authority, could only muster, “We are very confused at the moment,” when questioned by the paper.
It’s a reasonable response. The Chinese Communist Party has long embraced giant engineering projects as a means of projecting national vitality to its subjects, and the outside world. Nonetheless, it’s rare that those projects are built with an eye to a sustainable future. Sky City may be ostentatious and ill-advised under current real estate market conditions, but as a sustainable technology demonstration project, it’s the kind of risk-taking that Chinese entrepreneurs and their government feel they need to be taking. Let’s just hope it doesn’t topple over.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg's World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)