Words by Katie Puckett
Gordon Gill is behind some of the world’s tallest buildings. But he doesn’t believe that higher is the only solution — in fact, there’s a lot about current design thinking that doesn’t convince him
Gordon Gill might be the classic Chicago architect. His forebears invented the concept of a city skyline, and then strove tirelessly to make their mark on it; today, Gill’s practice is responsible for a considerable number of the world’s tallest towers, with a string of constraint-defying, epoch-defining structures to its name — notably the 1km-plus Jeddah Tower taking shape in Saudi Arabia.
But far from exalting his clients to ever-greater heights and engineering feats, in conversation Gill is more likely to talk them into something that isn’t necessarily a building at all. He gives the impression of constantly searching for better answers, with an amused, quizzical air and a habit of responding to one question with another, or three more. And it seems that he inspires the same attitude in his clients, which is perhaps why he finds himself having “all sorts of peculiar conversations”.
“Someone hired me, and I said, ‘why do you want me to work on this job?’ And they said, ‘I want you to poke the gorilla’. I said, ‘I’m not sure what that means. Where’s the gorilla?’ The irony is that sometimes they’re the gorilla. So be careful who you ask.”
Height isn’t everything
Gill co-founded Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill in 2006, alongside Adrian Smith and Robert Forest. All three had senior roles at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the uber Chicago practice. The firm grew rapidly to 200 employees, but post-recession has settled at around 100. Today, it has about 50 buildings on site and Gill is about to head off for a whistle-stop tour of projects in Dubai, India and China. Many of these are tall buildings, for which the practice has a well-earned reputation — at SOM, Smith designed the Burj Khalifa — but Gill is at pains to point out that it has diversified, with several major masterplans that easily equal the scale of the Jeddah Tower. “I can’t really tell you that we have a ‘plan’, but whatever we do, we’re going to do our best to do it well. We will work on almost any scale project if it has a challenge and a quality to it. We’re looking for the intellectual challenge behind the design.”
“The question is going to be the psychology behind it: do you want to live on the 250th floor and spend three days up there without having to come down?”
Take Gill’s response to a perennial question in architecture: how high can we go? It’s one that he’s better positioned to answer than most, but he takes it in a different direction, puzzling over the implications of mega-tall structures for their inhabitants. “We’ve taken it to a mile, and we realise that the structural characteristics of the building have to change completely. The design module has to change completely. In 2008, when we were working in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed asked us to do a 1km-tall building on the opposite side of Sheikh Zayed Road to counterpoint Burj Khalifa. It had a million square metres of programme. So we just broke it up.”
They designed three towers connected with three-storey triangular bridges, the tallest with a slenderness ratio of 1 in 28. This meant that they could draw in enough daylight for the homes and offices, but it also made this giant development more habitable, Gill explains. “From a humanistic standpoint, what we’re really doing is creating a complete neighbourhood, so you can now move horizontally as well as vertically. So I think you can occupy that type of scale.
The dark side of wellbeing
Gill is fascinated by the psychological aspects of comfort and performance, which leads him to take issue with another of the shibboleths of 21st-century architecture: wellbeing. “I hear, ‘Design it like this and you’ll have 10% more performance from your staff’. I was in a building the other day and they said to me, ‘Isn’t this a wonderful working environment’. It’s got the nice cushy sofas and the ping-pong tables, and every day someone comes around at 3pm and if you’re the highest performer that day, you get a massage. No kidding. You can have your dry cleaning delivered there, and food. They said we have an entire kitchen, and showers, and bikes. Holy crap, I said, you could just live here. And he looked at me and he goes, ‘exactly’. When he said that, it was like, ‘oh my God’.”