The Shanghai Tower (right) with a twist in shape is now the tallest building in China and the second-tallest globally. Photo: Xinhua

The Chinese metropolis of Shanghai now boasts one of the world’s most spectacular skylines in its glittering Lujiazui central business district.

What catches the eyes of tourists and city planners amid the boundless stretch of high-rises towering above the city’s Huangpu River is a majestic 133-story supertall with a twisted, spiral shape that epitomizes Shanghai cadres’ ambition to scale new heights.

Piercing the skies at a whopping 632 meters, the Shanghai Tower dwarfs New York’s One World Trade Center and many other prestigious towers and is only second in height to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

The crowning glory of Shanghai’s vertical building spree, the 15.7 billion yuan (US$2.26 billion) Shanghai Tower is also hailed as a symbol of the city’s quest to redeem its former glory as an economic and commercial dynamo in the Far East.

Lujiazui Financial District in Pudong, Shanghai. The Shanghai Tower is on the right. Photo: AFP
An aerial view of the Shanghai Tower and the rest of the Lujiazui CBD. Photo: Xinhua

Yet after the ballyhooed topping-out in August 2013 of the supertall, with maze-like internal floor plans encompassing offices and a boutique hotel as well as the world’s highest indoor observatory, owners of the gigantic landmark spent years finding a way out of the labyrinth of government red tape concerning evacuation and fire safety.

It was revealed in 2017 that the tower had not obtained fire-safety approval for occupation, as China did not have standards for buildings exceeding the height of 600 meters. Some tenants were unable to move in as a result, dealing a blow to the supertall’s already tepid leasing amid a looming oversupply of offices in the city.

Local papers reported back then that the Shanghai Tower was supposed to open in mid-2015, but its size and complexity caused delays in clearing fire-safety regulations.

Bloomberg also noted that owners of the building didn’t allow tenants to move in to fill its prime office space until the very end of last year, after it finally won fire-safety approval.

Simply put, no building codes had existed for some of its features, resulting in the delay.

Its twisting double-skin facade designed to reduce sway in the wind and its fireproof elevators were too much ahead of China’s building regulations, said Dan Winey, chief operating officer of Gensler, the San Francisco-based architectural firm that designed the tower.

The Shanghai Tower dwarfs all other buildings in China. Photo: Xinhua

Use elevators if there is a fire

One new rule laid down specifically for the tower, the highest in China, was to allow tenants to evacuate via purpose-built elevators if a fire broke out, contrary to many existing building-safety regimes across the globe whose No 1 rule is do not use an elevator if there is a fire.

It took the project’s investor the state-owned Shanghai Municipal Investment Group Corporation several years to convince fire-safety watchdogs that allowing people to use evaluators during an emergency in a high-rise of this scale could be the best and fastest way for them to descend to safety.

Even if all elevators are operational, it could still take an hour and 48 minutes to evacuate the whole building with a tenant population comparable to a small town, according to Gensler.

The emergency elevator shafts are pressurized to keep out smoke and have a dual back-up power supply.

But despite finally winning approval, there are still risks.

The Shanghai Tower’s design called for huge transparent open spaces between the glass and inner walls that created a safety hazard by potentially becoming channels for fire that could quickly spread and ignite the entire building.

Part of the CCTV headquarters were in an inferno in 2009. Photo: Weibo

In 2009, the Beijing Television Cultural Center, part of the futuristic yet controversial multibillion-dollar new headquarters for the state broadcaster China Central Television, caught fire after being hit by fireworks during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Read more: Shanghai hints at making a bid for the 2032 Olympics

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