Skyscrapers have transformed cities for generations, continuously evolving over time to define new prototypes for design and construction. Consider the SOM-designed Inland Steel Building, where our Chicago studio sits today. When the building was completed in 1957, its consolidated service core and structural perimeter enabled wide-open, highly-flexible floor plates that set new standards for commercial high-rises—standards that are still common practices today. This legacy also inspires the future, pushing us to recognize that anything is possible, and that simply meeting existing standards and creating more of the same won’t move the needle over the long-term.

To be truly transformational, we have to push boundaries.

Acro Seoul Forest, Seoul, South Korea

The Intersection of Design and Identity

Fortunately, significant advancements in structural engineering and technology make the scientific challenge of skyscrapers a little less of a challenge and empower us to focus on design as an art form. We strive to create unique design expressions that tell the story of the local context and community. They become vertical reflections of the culture of a place that otherwise operates horizontally. They put places on the map. When you think of Dubai, you likely visualize the Burj Khalifa. Likewise, the Jin Mao Tower is a memorable expression of modern Shanghai (Petronas Towers also did a great job of reflecting the Islamic culture and putting Kuala Lumpur in the global focus). These high-rises reflect cultural aspirations, spur development and growth, and draw people to come from around the world to witness their appeal.

This is the case at RATIO-designed Acro Seoul Forest, where three white porcelain-clad towers (2 residential towers, an office tower and a performing arts space) stand out on the skyline and signal that a new dynamic urban center has arrived. A lower level retail mall connects the entire complex with the subway station and the park above. This diversity of uses ensures that the development feels alive throughout the day, when offices are active, and into the night, when shops, restaurants and entertainment spaces come alive.

Convention Center Ballroom Complex, Indianapolis, IN

A mixed-use model creates more value in every sense, financially and socially

This is true of expansive real estate developments that are built on large parcels of land, and of tall buildings where the activity reaches up rather than out. Both kinds of developments can become vibrant and energetic destinations, but the vertical mixed-use model has a slight edge: Not only do tall buildings enable even greater density, they also create highly visible and memorable landmarks that can define a whole region.

Transformation might feel easier to achieve in a global city where new urban centers are being built from the ground-up, but it’s also possible to make an impact in more established cities. In RATIO’s hometown of Indianapolis, we’re designing the 40-story Signia by Hilton tower, a softly formed tower capped with a jewel-like beacon that’s clad in shining white glass. Inspired by Indy’s traditional limestone and sloped roofs, the tower echoes another local landmark—the torch-bearing Victory statue atop the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. As a vertical reflection of Indianapolis’ heritage, Signia propels the city forward into the future and reflects the dynamic culture of the city at grade.

Buildings of this scale have to be forward-looking

Using the latest and best tools and technologies of the time, just as Chicago’s mid-century designers did, ensures buildings will be relevant and sustainable. Devastating weather events and the global pandemic have made us even more aware of the impact the built environment has on people and planet. Natural ventilation gains appeal, with Asia leading the way and other parts of the world learning from its examples. Exterior spaces become more important too, and more valuable, even in vertically-oriented developments. A hierarchy of open, outdoor spaces from individual units to single floors to whole buildings gives everyone access to fresh air and natural light in all spaces from private residences to shared offices.

Sustainable, people-centric design ensures that a tower is not just an artistic expression for the sake of the skyline, but also one that serves the community.

Setting the Standard

Putrajaya Precinct 7 is a 25-million-square-foot center in Malaysia’s federal capital that is being built with the highest standards of wellness and sustainability. LEED green building and WELL health and safety standards are at the foundation. “Blue zone” qualities inspire the design even further and push its ability to transform the whole region. As a transit-oriented, mixed-use district, movement and mobility are central strategies, but here the focus goes beyond daily commutes and considers the way movement can create meaningful community connections, make healthy choices easier, and spark habits that carry people forward. The design reflects this brand-new city’s aspirational culture and sets new standards for the long-term resilience of the place and its people.

Putrajaya Precinct 7, Putrajaya

The magnitude of this kind of project means it must deliver long-term ROI

Buildings and developments that are designed to accommodate a diverse mix of tenants—retail, food and beverage, hotel, office, residential, and more—generate round-the-clock activity and are inherently more adaptable to shifts in market dynamics and consumer demands. This adaptability improves a project’s overall viability. Real estate developers and property owners and operators benefit over the long term when flexibility and diversity are considered from the start. There are economic benefits in the short term, too, as different components of a mixed-use development generate capital at different paces. For example, residential units that are sold pre-construction can bring early cashflows and support later investments in spaces for offices, retail, and entertainment.

Flexible tenant spaces are important, and innovative uses of steel and glass have the power to become architectural icons, but when the art and science of such ambitious projects converge, the potential for large-scale social impact can be even bigger. ROI is often indirect in the form of civic pride and community resilience—and this is the real notion of transformation. The most innovative, forward-thinking clients are those who understand the broad-reaching opportunities they have to influence the future—to support and even change the culture of a city. They are willing to think big and take risks, and they appreciate that we’re willing collaborators in making change. Like copilots on a flight with a single parachute, we trust each other as we take leaps together.

Ready to take the leap and transform your own community or city?