Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill

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

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

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    The Side Pittsburgh Doesn't Want You to See

    Pittsburgh filmmaker Chris Ivey has spent over twelve years documenting the lives of the people displaced so that the city can achieve its “cool” status.  

  2. Transportation

    If You Drive Less Than 10,000 Miles a Year, You Probably Shouldn't Own a Car

    Up to one-quarter of all U.S. drivers might be better off using ride-sharing services instead.

  3. Design

    The Problem With 'Fast-Casual Architecture'

    Washington, D.C., has a huge new waterfront development that’s fun, popular, and easy on the eyes. Is anything wrong with that?

  4. Construction workers build affordable housing units.
    Equity

    Why Is 'Affordable' Housing So Expensive to Build?

    As costs keep rising, it’s becoming harder and harder for governments to subsidize projects like they’ve done in the past.

  5. The 560-foot-tall Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea.
    Videos

    Seeing Pyongyang in 360 Degrees

    A photographer in a microlight aircraft shot 360-degree video over the secretive North Korean capital.