Thursday, 25 August 2011

Preview: Taipei 101

How big do you think the world's biggest sundial is? Ten metres? Fifty? How about 509.2 metres? Because that's the height of Taiwan's Taipei 101, built between 1999 and 2004, once the world's tallest building, and a sundial of really quite unnecessary proportions.

Of course, being a sundial is just a bonus feature of Taipei 101 - the Taiwanese are not so mental to build a half-kilometre-plus tall building just for epic-scale timekeeping - but it is a feature that allows them to cling on to an ever-diminishing set of world records. In the competitive field of super-tall skyscrapers, records can be difficult to maintain. The Chrysler Building in New York was the tallest building in the world for less than a year before the Empire State Building, just a hop and a skip away, usurped it in 1931. Likewise, the 828-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai officially took the same title from Taipei 101 just last year, taking with it also the "highest occupied floor" and "fastest elevator" records, leaving Taipei 101 more spurious ones such as "tallest environmentally-friendly building", "biggest countdown clock on New Year's Eve" and of course, "biggest sundial".

Taipei 101's sundial ability isn't due to any inherent quality it has beyond being really tall and thin, as all super-tall skyscrapers tend to be, but is due to a well-positioned park just next to it. The entire park acts as the sundial face, which can be used to tell the time during the day by the vast shadow cast by Taipei 101. It's a neat little bonus feature on a well-designed modern skyscraper full of neat little features, that help allow Taipei 101 to remain relevant to the world when it suddenly is no longer the biggest and the best.

It is design, and not just size, that elevates Taipei 101 into the realm of Wonders; indeed, Newsweek magazine voted it one of its New Seven Wonders of the World in 2006 (albeit an extremely dubious list including a vast but vacant shopping mall in China, and a plain ugly stadium-size US church), it was one of the Seven Wonders of Engineering by the Discovery Channel in 2005, and it won the 2004 Emporis Skyscraper Award for architectural excellence in design and function. It dominates Taipei - it's over twice as high as its nearest competitor - but its domination isn't merely in sheer size, it has an utterly distinct love-or-hate style that entirely distinguishes it from competitors. Taipei 101 is not a sleek glass tower spiking into the sky, it is a blue-green oddly-Asian-looking creation that glows different colours at night and is in blocky bursts that appear a cross between telescopic tubing and a traditional oriental pagoda.

Its striking appearance is, to some degree, based on Chinese numerology and feng shui, to which many high-cost modern Asian buildings adhere to in some manner: the Marina Bay Sands is supposed to represent three mountains or warriors guarding the entrance to Singapore, with its three domes in front symbolising three coins and representing prosperity, while the Petronas Towers have an auspicious 88 floors, 8 having a prosperous and lucky meaning in Chinese numerology. The number 8 is also behind the bulk of Taipei 101's structure, the eight segments, or pods, stacked on top of one other and comprising of eight floors each, taking up a total of 64 floors. This sits on top of the lower 25-floor section, and with 12 small floors at the peak, this makes for a total of 101 floors, hence the name. Ah, well, only kind of. The number 101 is also supposed to represent the digital world - evoking the binary system - as well as representing the new century it was built into, i.e. 100+1. Oh, and it also represents all subsequent New Years, that is, January 1st, or 1-01. In case you're becoming suspicious all this is sounding just a little contrived - it gets worse. The "Taipei" part of the name is an acronym, standing for: Technology, Art, Innovation, People, Environment and Incontinence... oops, I mean Identity. Really, guys, really?

But like the best works of fiction out there, it's nice to see they care enough to create an elaborate backstory. Especially as the real story is fairly prosaic, when compared to other Wonders on my list which involve dying wives, insane emperors or god-kings gone wild. In 1997, the Mayor of Taiwan invited various developers to bid for a business skyscraper on a prime piece of land. The winner was a man called Harace Hong-Min Lin, now the president of Taipei 101, and his assembled team of backing companies. The initial project was simply for a 59-storey building, but due to the demands of some of the future occupants, it was decided to increase this to a 66-storey building flanked by two 20-storey buildings. But the awkward occupants still weren't happy, claiming this looked like two small dogs standing guard next to their master. Screw this, Harace Lin would surely have said in the dramatisation of real events, slamming his fist onto his vast oak desk, and impetuously placed the two small "dogs" on top of their master, making a 96-storey building. Might as well round up to a hundred. No, said Harace, with a sly grin and the quote (no dramatisation now, this is real): "100 would be a perfect number, but I wanted it to be more than perfect - 101." And so the real reason that Taipei 101 has 101 floors - it's "more than perfect."

Whether or not that's the case is up to the beholder, for in their eye the beauty lies. And Taipei 101, at least in my very limited straw poll, seems to get mixed reaction. I admit to thinking it looks great - distinct, towering, a queer mix of traditional and modern - but others have been less keen, thinking it "Communist-style" blocky, or just plain unattractive. But all this is from photos alone: I wouldn't marry a girl without meeting her so likewise wouldn't definitively judge a building without seeing it. And Taipei 101 hopefully has hidden depth. It certainly makes an effort, with indoor and outdoor observatories at around the 90th floor, restaurants on the 85th and 86th, shopping malls from the basement to the 6th floor, all kinds of art scattered around the premises, state-of-the-art technology, being a massive sundial, super-fast elevators (5th to 89th floors in just 37 seconds) and a colossal tuned mass damper on public display.

In case you're not quite familiar with the latter, it happens to be one of Taipei 101's biggest selling points, a gigantic 660-ton pendulum-like ball suspended from the 92nd to the 88th floor. Its function is to reduce the sway of the building, as super-tall skyscrapers can suffer from a fair bit of upper movement caused usually by wind, but also by earth tremors. This can create a feeling like seasickness for the occupants, or can be structurally dangerous in earthquake-prone areas like Taiwan, so the mass damper sways to offset the building's movement. They are not usually a big tourist draw, just designed to serve a function, but Taipei 101's mass damper is among the biggest in the world and they have painted it gold, so the tourists flock. It has a dedicated observation area on the 88th floor. Movement is usually barely perceptible but occasionally might go up to 35 centimetres. In very severe typhoons, the sort that only occur once in every hundred years, the mass damper might sway as much as 150 centimetres, but to be honest if it gets anything vaguely close to a metre then I'm out of there.

Taipei 101 is an icon of a small modern island nation asserting itself in a world where it is still not officially recognised as a independent country. Still claimed by China, or more accurately the mainland People's Republic of China, it is the offshoot from the defeated nationalists during the post-World War 2 Chinese Civil War won by the Communists in 1950. As such, although it is entirely self-ruling, the United Nations don't want to piss China off too much by declaring it a nation. Thus Taiwan exists in a kind of national limbo, despite being a highly modern and successful nation which even has its own Olympic team. Therefore, huge and internationally acclaimed projects such as Taipei 101 are a way for Taiwan - which is officially called the Republic of China - to remind the world that it isn't going away.

I'll be visiting Taipei 101 in March, and will give a fuller account of it, as well as my own impressions, then.


  1. Pendulum: awesome; building: ugly.

  2. I live in Taipei. Your blog is awesome and love your miniature replica collection! If you happen to have an extra Burj al Arab, Agia Sophia,Blue mosque or Christ of Redeemer can you trade? Well, I guess, I could get you the 101 replica ;) ... anyway, what date in March will you be in Taipei? Would you be interested in speaking at a travel, tourism and hospitality professionals luncheon? Safe travels -- Mayumi

  3. Hello Mayumi, thanks for your message. My plans have changed a little, and I'll now be in Taipei on 27th-30th April. Could you give me an email on

    I don't know about most of the models you mentioned as I've not been there yet (I'm sure the Turkish ones would be easily available in Istanbul though) but the Burj Ala Arab is easy to get in paper form:

  4. Is it true the Towers are largely unrented/ unoccupied?


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.