Architect may send his career to new heights

A Santa Monica architect known for his high-rise designs is working on what may be the ultimate “spec” building -- a 224-story skyscraper with green ambitions that would be the tallest structure in the world.

The tower is envisioned for a man-made island in Abu Dhabi, if leaders of the oil-rich emirate decide they want to make a statement to rest of the world and perhaps one-up neighboring Dubai.

A conceptual design for the $3.5-billion project in the United Arab Emirates is under consideration by an Abu Dhabi planning committee, said Tommy Landau, the architect who created the design and is part of an unusual team of U.S. real estate players trying to get the ambitious project launched.

Landau knows it might be several years before construction starts -- if it starts at all. But he’s not in a rush.


“This would be my swan song, my goodbye thing,” the 72-year-old architect said.

Such a building could hold more than 11 million square feet for such uses as offices, shops, hotels or condominiums. That raises the question: Is there actually a need in the Middle East for a building so gargantuan that it would be more than three times as tall as U.S. Bank Tower in downtown Los Angeles, the tallest building in the West?

Probably not any time soon, because many real estate developments already underway in the Emirates have been stalled by the international economic crisis. But the builders’ calculations wouldn’t necessarily be based on demand. The point is to be big enough to make the world take notice.

“It’s almost like what successful animators do, building super-scale stuff to draw attention,” Landau said.


The architect and his partners have some ideas about how to make people talk about their tower, starting with the massive clock mounted at the same height as the top of New York’s Empire State Building -- but less than halfway up their proposed tower. At the wide base of the tower would be a restaurant, where diners could rotate inside as if they were on a Ferris wheel.

Other elements might include entire floors given over to shopping centers or gardens, and a vast museum of Middle Eastern antiquities.

But the building’s defining statement would be its ability to create more energy than it uses, said Newport Beach developer David Kubit, a consultant to the project. The necessary solar power equipment doesn’t exist yet but may not be far away, he said.

“We’re close to new emerging nanotechnology which will allow us to create solar cells in glass curtain walls of buildings,” Kubit said. Power generation from the building’s massive curtain wall would be supplemented with conventional solar panels on rooftops.


Advances are being made in green technology for high-rises. Designers of the 71-story Pearl River Tower nearing completion in Guangzhou, China, say it will have a net zero-energy footprint through its use of built-in wind turbines, condensation collection and other features.

Los Angeles architecture writer Michael Webb says super-tall buildings are hard to justify in environmental terms.

“You have to dig very deep for the foundation and use a lot of materials including steel, all lifted by cranes,” he said.

The motivation to build record-setting tall buildings has always been the same, Webb said, starting at least with the world’s tallest skyscraper of 1913, the 57-story Woolworth Building in New York. “It draws attention to the person who builds it and the people who occupy it. It’s all about bragging rights.”


New York and Chicago competed for decades to put up the highest buildings, Webb said. “It continued until the torch was passed to Asia and then the Middle East.”

The latest record holder is the Burj Dubai, also in the United Arab Emirates. The Burj is still under construction but has topped out at 162 floors. This year a Saudi billionaire announced plans to build a taller building in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Abu Dhabi might be next to hold the record, said Sam Zakhem, a U.S. ambassador to Bahrain during the Reagan administration and a part of Laudau’s group.

“This [proposal] is very exciting for the royal family in Abu Dhabi,” Zakhem said. “They would probably welcome this on one of the islands in the gulf waters.”


Another member of Landau’s group with Middle Eastern ties is Rodeo Drive art dealer Fayez Barakat, whose family has been collecting and selling antiquities for decades through stores in Abu Dhabi; Jerusalem; Bethlehem, West Bank; and Beverly Hills.

“Mr. Fayez is in position to have quite an effect in this endeavor,” Zakhem said.

Also part of the team and a likely investor in the project is Wayne Kao, founder of Morgan Browning Capital of Los Angeles and Taipei.

Landau, who runs a boutique practice called Landau Partnership in Santa Monica, said he would turn over the technical aspects of putting the skyscraper together to one of three large international architecture firms if the project gets off the ground.


“The concept is mine,” he said. “The nuts-and-bolts execution would be done by the architect of record.”

Landau’s previous designs include tall office buildings such as the 25-story Glendale Plaza in Glendale, 17-story One Westwood on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, 24-story Landmark Square in Long Beach and the 17-story Trillium Towers Center in Woodland Hills. Earlier in his career he made contacts in the Middle East that eventually led to this opportunity, Landau said.

Business for many commercial architects has been slow during the recession, dragging especially on office designers since the great building boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s left much of the country saturated with office space.

Instead of designing, Landau has been spending much of his time lately working on a musical he conceived called “Woody,” about turf-rights battles at Southern California beaches in the late 1960s. He is also an artist and a cartoonist.


Contributing the concept for a record-setting tower would be a satisfying way to wrap up his architectural career, Landau said.

“If they build the building, I’ll jump off of it,” he deadpanned. “With a parachute.”