Shang-Highed: On Top of the World’s Tallest Observatory

Shang-Highed: On Top of the World’s Tallest Observatory

It’s an unfortunately foggy morning in Shanghai, but from where I am, the crappy weather only adds to the feeling of standing in the middle of clouds. I’m towering almost half a kilometer over the rest of the city, on the highest man-made observation deck in the world, the 100th floor of the Shanghai World Financial Centre, which opened just two months ago. With cumulus on my right, stratus on my left and a mirrored ceiling reflecting their formations back at me—I feel myself getting dizzy. Have I developed a fear of heights, or is vertigo inevitable when you’re this far up?

The Shanghai World Financial Centre, also known as The Mori Building, officially opened on August 28th this year after over a decade of planning. When it was first envisioned—by a Japanese construction company, The Mori Group—it was to reach 97 floors tall, surpassing the spires of the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. But construction only got as far as the foundations during the late 1990s, sliding to a halt when the Asian financial crisis hit and the Mori Group found itself juggling a massive fund shortage.

By the time it began building again in 2003, Taiwan had already started on Taipei 101 which—at 508 meters counting its ridiculously tall spire—would soon wrestle away the title of World’s Tallest Building. The Mori Group scrambled to change their plans, but since the foundations put in five years ago were only made to support 460 meters, the most they could add was four more floors, settling for second place, but with an asterisk: The building has the highest observation point in the world.

The observatory for the SWFC has its own entrance, located on the ground level and to the side of the actual skyscraper. For 150 yuan ($US22), you get a ticket to see the 94th floor Sky Arena, the 97th floor Sky Walk, and Floor 100, that record-breaking vantage point. For those with a sense of frugality, or perhaps lacking a sense of adventure, eschewing the top two levels cuts 50 yuan from the entrance fee.

After paying for the ticket, I was ushered into a room labelled “Pre-Show.” The several of us there that morning proceeded to stand around a tower to watch a “light show.” I raised my eyebrow as various Pokemon-like characters–flying teardrops and spinning cherries, all with Hello Kitty-esque expressionless faces–flitted across a spinning, glowing replica of the building to a soundtrack of ambient electronica in the style of Brian Eno.

My brochure told me it was designed by artist Toshio Iwai, perhaps better known in the West for his work on Electroplankton, a Nintendo DS that featured similarly plink-plonky electronic music. The revelation that Iwai had been behind the show wasn’t surprising; it had reminded me of the types of multimedia exhibits I’d seen in Tokyo featuring him.

How culturally Japanese the entrance had been was especially attention-catching considering the slightly tumultuous history of the Mori Building, a Japanese building in China. The empty trapezoidal area up top, which makes the building look like a giant bottle opener, was originally supposed to be in the shape of a circle, symbolizing–at least to the architect–the Oriental myth of the square earth and circular sky.

But several prominent members of the Chinese politico including Shanghai’s mayor protested that the design looked too much like the Rising Sun of the Japanese flag. In a country still sensitive over Japanese occupation during World War II (and Japan’s at times unapologetic attitude towards the war), it was too much of an affront for the tallest building in China’s richest city to represent anything remotely Nipponese. The building’s architects dutifully redid the top, claiming that the new design saved money.

After the pre-show, we were herded towards the observatory’s first elevator. A panel on one side depicted the floor we were on and the height we were at. As the doors closed, another light show played out on four screens and the ceiling, complete with yet another atmospheric ambient tune. The elevator continued upwards, and the music sped up to match our trajectory. My ears popped. It took a good minute before the lift finally slid to a halt and the doors opened to reveal the walkway to the Sky Arena.

Sky Arena? More like Sky Lounge to me

The first of the building’s three observatories, the Sky Arena is less like a viewing platform and more like one of those mod mid-century airport lounges. There were high ceilings and spectacular views, but the white couches and standing-height tables were constant reminders that this was, at its heart, for tourists. A bar at one end served refreshments while a long booth area in the middle sold various Mori Building memorabilia. Ever wanted your nougats to come in a can-opener-shaped skyscraper package? You know where to get ’em now!

Dude, just put it down… it’s not worth it.

I quickly bypassed the area and got on the escalator to the 97th floor, the second viewing point. This area was more plain than the first one, a long walkway painted in white. Perhaps thanks to our closer proximity to the sun, it was unbearably bright. Glancing up through glass, I could see my final destination—Skywalk 100, at 474 meters high, the world-record-holding observation deck.

It took one last elevator to bring me up those three final levels. This time, as I stepped out of the elevator and into the walkway, it was hard not to gasp.

Unlike the matted white of the lower level, the designers had decked Floor 100 out in a mirror-like finish, so that everywhere you looked, some part of the skyline was reflected back at you. From here you could see the two other Shanghai giants, the 468-meter Oriental Pearl Tower and the 421-meter Jin Mao Tower, looking like absolute dwarfs, little children reaching upwards in a futile attempt to compete with the grand daddy of vertical climbing.

The 100th floor viewing deck

On the ground were one-square-meter transparent glass panels, some offering an unobstructed view of the drop below. Standing over one and looking down, I could see the tourists down on 97, dashing from window to window. Sometimes their faces would point upwards, as they squinted into the sun and tried to make out the outlines of my feet.

It was about then that I felt my legs wobble and my knees shake. Vertigo was kind of a new experience for me. Having grown up in Asia’s megacities, I’d spent virtually all my life peering out of skyscrapers. I’ve never had a problem standing on edges and staring down thousand-foot falls–but this was a whole new monster. Despite my rabidly anti-Luddite stance (hell, I work for a technology blog!), a part of me wondered if man was ever meant to stand this far up in the sky.

I also wondered if part of my sudden bout of lightheadedness could be attributed to the subtle vibrations of the wind whistling around the walkway. The Mori Building was allegedly designed with Japanese earthquake protections in mind, making it overspecced for an area like Shanghai that hasn’t felt tremors for over a century. Wind—honking gusts of typhoon-powered wind—can still be a problem, especially at these heights.

To try and counteract swaying, the building has two mass dampers installed on the 90th floor. Each damper consists of a computer controlled, 150-ton counterweight suspended by wire rope. By rotating with and against the wind, the dampers can reduce wind effects by 40 percent and avoid oscillating even during typhoon conditions.

An LCD screen near the elevator assured me that the transparent glass I stood on was safe. Each panel could withstand the weight of three 80kg people jumping on it at the same time, no problem. It wasn’t that reassuring; I know quite a few people who weigh a little more than that. But they weren’t there, and I was definitely within limits… so timidly, I tried a little hop. The person next to me screamed. It was good to know I wasn’t the only one feeling nervous.

On my way back down in the elevator (complete, once again, with the light show and Eno-esque music), it was strange reflecting on how I’d just been standing at the tallest man-made point ever. It’s currently impossible to get even close to that high elsewhere. Though the current tallest building, Taipei 101, may be officially 16 meters taller than the SWFC, almost 60 meters of its height is dedicated solely to the spire. Floor 101 is only 439 meters up, a good 34 meters shy of where I had just been.

Even though the SWFC tower is barely two months old, its observatory’s days as the highest observation deck in the world are ticking speedily to an end. In less than a year, the Burj Dubai will open for business. Though nobody right now knows exactly where the tallest floor will be, the building is estimated to reach a whopping 818 meters once it’s completed.

And even in Shanghai’s own Pudong Area, the Chinese have already started the foundation on something bigger. The Shanghai Centre, expected to be complete in 2013, will eclipse the Mori Building by another 140 meters. Nicknamed the “Dragon Building,” its funding has been relatively untouched by the current economic downswing—some say because the last thing the Chinese government is willing to do is let a Japanese building stand as the tallest in their land.