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Height of ambition

The firm behind some of the world's tallest buildings is expanding and Europe's cities could soon have their own mini-Manhattans, as Adrian Greeman discovers

Talking about the achievements of Cantor Seinuk, the structural design firm he heads, chief executive Professor Ysrael Seinuk is full of enthusiasm which he clearly wants to share. The firm has made a speciality of 'super-tall' buildings, those over 70 storeys.

But he is restrained about his own role, stressing: 'I'm not as important as all of us together in the firm'. Almost certainly that is not the case.

There is plenty to talk about however as the partnership has put some $30bn of construction under its belt in the last four decades, working particularly on high rise buildings, many of them innovative and unusual.

Now 68 years old, Seinuk was born and trained as an engineer in Havana, leaving with his family at the time of the overthrow of the Battista regime in 1960. He had already developed one structural engineering innovation there in 1957; the 'megacolumn', 4m by 4m columns rising to carry a 'mega-floor' at seventh storey level. This provided the stiffness to resist the hurricane force winds which hit the Caribbean.

A start had been made on the 50 storey Radiocentro Theatre building, seven such mega-blocks stacked up.

But work had not progressed far when the revolution in Cuba 'changed development priorities'.

But a 34 storey mega column building now exists at 450 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, integrated with the century old Grand Central Post Office.

He says the firm always looks for new ways of tackling structures and innovation, and as chief executive officer he likes to encourage the partnership to brainstorm notions rather than start with a standard approach. Eventually he says 'the building tells you which way to go'.

One of the most extreme examples of this way of working was a free form house with architect Philip Johnson; 'the first project I did without any drawings'. Curving, organic shapes were made up on wire frame polyurethane panels, adjusted until the architect was satisfied and then sprayed with concrete.

More conventional projects throughout the US range from multipurpose complexes, through arts facilities, stadia, museums and universities. Currently out to tender is an opera house in Miami.

In Manhattan the firm worked on the two Trump Towers and one of its current major projects is the 90 storey Trump World Tower, which will be the city's, and probably the world's, highest residential block. Architect Costas Kondylis & Associates has designed an ultra slim building, just 23.8m wide, less than a tenth of the total 274m height.

A special lateral bracing system ties building height shear walls and frames into a mid-building concrete 'belt' with a similar 'hat' at the top. The building has a concrete rather than steel frame for better soundproofing and wind response. This has required 80N/mm 2concrete for the columns, 'an impor tant quality control issue', he says.

Seinuk is also keen to talk about a 20,000m 2development in Israel. The Grand Canyon is a massive retail, residential, commercial and arts complex on the slopes of Mount Carmel being built by the Zeevy Group. A nine-storey podium will include car parking, cinemas, radio stations and three layers of shops. Above will be a 36 storey high rise.

But one of the most complex buildings will be in Mexico where Cantor Seinuk is involved with the 57 storey Chapultec Tower, the highest in Mexico.

It must resist seismic forces 'even greater than those in Los Angeles', Seinuk says. The building will be supported by 40m deep bored piles with a mat pilecap. Its steel frame employs a redundant multiple structural system, a refinement of the dual concept used worldwide to resist earthquakes, Seinuk explains.

Extra stiffness comes from encasing the steel elements in concrete, but a key element will be the use of dampers.

Some use sliding friction connections, and others made by Taylor Devices resemble giant car shock absorbers.

Some 72 dampers will be placed within the building's core truss system with another 30 in the perimeter bracing system frame.

'The whole system then needs careful tuning, ' says Seinuk. Some 20m or so iterations of the frame design were simulated in order to get the system correct.

Seinuk has now brought his firm back into London where it began operations in the late 1980s, in particular the Canary Wharf Tower which lies at the heart of the London Docklands redevelopment. The property crash in 1991 brought a stop to activity and the firm pulled back, but now Docklands is buzzing again. And, at an age when some people retire, Professor Seinuk is a regular trans-Atlantic visitor to the British team which is looking for more projects of the sort which built the firm's reputation.

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