Updated: Jul 21, 2021
Photo: Broad Group
On a sweltering summer’s day in 2013, a little-known company called Broad Group broke ground on what they promised would be the world’s tallest skyscraper.
Located in the central-south Chinese city of Changsha – home to more than 8 million people – Sky City would be a 202-storey glass monolith that ascends to heaven in tiers like the Tower of Babel.
Not only would the 838-metre high Sky City top Dubai’s Burj Khalifa by 10 metres, it would be completed in a record-smashing seven months by using prefabricated modules (the Burj Khalifa took 6-years to build) and would only cost $63 per square foot (the Burj Khalifa cost $450 per square foot).
Broad Group promised that Sky City would have schools and restaurants, hotels and hospitals, offices and residences for more than 30,000 people.
Yet if you were to visit the site on the northern outskirts of Changsha today, you would find fish swimming in the partially completed foundations and local farmers tending their crops. The only evidence remaining of this castle in the sky – a sunken cornerstone hidden amongst the long grass.
Nestled between unforgiving mountains on the banks of the mighty Xiang River, Changsha is famous for fiery food and revolutionary leaders. But in the eastern suburbs, one finds a peculiar place called Broad Town, the headquarters of Broad Group.
Here you will find immaculately groomed hedge mazes, wide avenues replete with statues of Napoleon, Aristotle, and Galileo, and even a replica Egyptian pyramid and Buckingham Palace. The man behind it – Broad Group founder and CEO Zhang Yue – is evidently not lacking in ambition or vision.
Photo: Broad Group
Zhang made his fortune from selling air-conditioning; he already had private planes, expensive cars, and luxury penthouses aplenty. But in the city that gave rise to Mao and a litany of other revolutionaries, Zhang wanted to add his name to the list.
For Zhang, the revolution does not flow red – it flows green. ‘Buckingham Palace’ is actually Broad Group’s Environmental Philosophy Institute. For all 5,000 employees, there is mandatory reading of Life Attitudes of an Earth Citizen – a handbook on how to live an environmentally friendly life – personally authored by Zhang of course. In 2011, he was even recognised by the UN Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth Award.
Broad Sustainable Building, a subsidiary of Broad Group, was charged with the modest goal of “solving the damage caused by the whole architecture industry on society and on the future.” And Zhang saw Sky City as the most sustainable way to accommodate a growing population.
The concept behind Sky City is just that – a city in the sky. The theory goes that compressing thousands of people and everything they need into a single structure optimises space and reduces the stress placed upon infrastructure.
In one building, there would be residences for almost 4,500 families, 5 schools, a hotel, hospital, offices, shops, restaurants, recreation facilities, and over 20 acres of organic farms and gardens.
Photo: China Daily
By building up, each Sky City resident uses ninety-nine percent less land than average – by living vertically, Sky City would conserve half a million acres of natural land. And since everything from cradle to grave is integrated into one building, thousands of cars would be taken off the roads and hundreds of acres of land would be saved from the ignoble fate of being carparks. Taking the elevator to school or work would drastically cut commuting time, and elevators are a much more energy efficient means of transportation.
Broad Group also claimed that Sky City would be five times more energy efficient than conventional buildings. With eight-inch thick wall insulation, quadruple-glazing, waste heat recycling systems, and a host of other eco-friendly features, Sky City would reduce CO2 emissions by 120,000 tonnes annually.
All of this, Broad Group claimed, could be achieved in just seven months and at around $1.5 billion – less than half the price of conventional construction. By taking four months to assemble ninety-five percent of the building into prefabricated modules that simply bolt together, Sky City could be assembled on site in only three months.
This construction method worked for Mini Sky City, a 57-storey towerblock with apartments and offices for 4,000 people, assembled by Broad Group in only 19 days with four and a half months spent prefabricating 2,700 modules.
Marvel or Hoax?
But a project on the scale and ambition of Sky City would always have its sceptics. Architects and engineers noted that the building’s extraordinary height would bring a host of safety concerns, such as the effect of soil subsidence, how the building would cope in strong winds, and how so many people could be evacuated in an emergency.
There have been design criticisms too. An engineering professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University was widely quoted in Chinese media arguing that water could leak in between modules over time, and using prefabricated modules makes it difficult to fix problems later on.
But it appeared as if Zhang had proved his detractors wrong when in May 2013, Broad Group announced to the world that the long and arduous government approval process was completed, and that construction on Sky City would begin in the summer.
That July, Zhang disembarked from his private helicopter onto an empty field that his company had spent ¥390 million ($58 million) to acquire. Broad Group executives and local officials stood shoulder-to-shoulder on red carpets as sandy soil was ceremonially shovelled around a foundation stone adorned with ribbons. Chinese media eagerly reported that a new record-breaking skyscraper was just around the corner.
But construction work did not go on for long. Less than a month later, all work had stopped. In China, new buildings need a lot of paperwork, and media at the time reported that construction was suspended because Broad Group required additional approvals.
For three years, there were conflicting media reports about which inspections had passed and which inspections still needed to be completed – neither Broad Group nor the local government were willing to explain exactly the reasons behind the moratorium.
Finally, in June 2016, the provincial government informed the People’s Daily that the Sky City project would be scrapped. The reason – ironically – was neither wind resistance nor fire safety, but the environment.
Broad Group had bought a patch of land in the Daze Lake wetland, a pristine wetland home to 135 bird species including 10 rare bird species, and is hailed as the last wetland in Changsha. Continuing, the government explained that the Daze Lake wetland would be listed as one of 20 waters to be permanently protected under no-construction policies, with the protection zone extending over 20,000 hectares.
Castle in the Sky
Wang Guisheng, an elderly farmer who lives next to the Sky City site can still recall the summer of 2013 when the field was lit up as bright as day and hundreds of construction workers dug a pit as deep as his 3-storey home. Today, the local villagers use the site to grow watermelon, eggplant, and chilies, and the excavated foundation pits have become fishing ponds.
The first page of a Broad Group promotional booklet for Sky City reads:
SKY CITY IS NOT INTENDED TO BE A LANDMARK
Sky City is a pragmatic building made with the vision of “BROAD Sustainable Building”
Sky City began as part of Zhang's crusade to revolutionise sustainable development and the urban world. If the vision of Broad Group truly is – as Zhang claims – for man to live in harmony with nature, then how appropriate that the only cranes you'll ever see on the Daze Lake wetland is the white crane. Wang and his fellow villagers can rest easy knowing that Sky City will forever remain but a castle in the sky.