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Can a Skyscraper Soar Above the Clouds?

Fact-checking an awesome rendering of Jeddah Tower, soon to be the tallest building in the world.

Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill

It looks like something from Star Wars, a single shining cloud-city pinnacle rising high through the stratosphere of a great gas giant. But it’s not a skyscraper planned for a galaxy far, far away. This one’s going up in Saudi Arabia.

Construction is underway on Jeddah Tower, formerly known as Kingdom Tower. When it is finished, it will be the tallest skyscraper in the world. It’s the work of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, the Chicago-based architecture firm that has the height game in a headlock. Their work includes the Burj Khalifa, the current tallest building in the world. (Plans for a future skyscraper in Basra in Iraq could knock AS+GG off the pedestal one day, however.)

A recent rendering shows the top of Jeddah Tower soaring above the cloudscape. It looks like a view that you could only get from a jet. Can it really be that tall? Either this is an inconceivably tall tower in the works—or this rendering is a Texas tall tale.

Does Jeddah Tower deserve four Pinocchios? Pants on fire? Frio or fuego? After Googling about clouds for a solid half-hour, I’m ready to render a verdict.

Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill

As National Geographic explains, clouds can reach heights of 20,000 feet. Jeddah Tower rises a kilometer into the sky. But so far, so good: The clouds nearly 4 miles up are all thin, wispy cirrus clouds.

The rendering plainly show the thick and puffy variety of cloud: cumulus or possibly stratocumulus clouds. These clouds can be found between 1,000 feet and 6,000 feet above the surface. So the answer is yes: Yes, Jeddah Tower could rise above the clouds.

However, the cloud cover shown in this rendering doesn’t seem all that likely. What makes it so striking is its familiarity: This is the view that anyone who’s ever taken a window seat on an airplane has marveled at. Commercial airlines fly much, much higher than skyscrapers—at 35,000 feet or higher. From that vantage, you can expect to see thick bands of altostratus or altocumulus clouds.

No one at the National Weather Service rushed to return my calls on New Year’s Eve, so I can’t say how often low- to mid-level cumulus clouds clump this way in Saudi Arabia. This rendering may be boastful, but unlike some of the worst architectural renderings of 2015, it truly fits the project. Building the tallest tower in the world is a braggadocious thing to do!

There’s no reason why a skyscraper couldn’t rise higher than the mid-range clouds we see every day. And as Gill once explained to me, there’s nothing stopping skyscrapers from rising a mile or higher. Economics control the size of skyscrapers. From an engineering perspective, the sky’s the limit.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.