It may be too early to say whether the September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States will have an effect on the skylines of China's larger cities in the near future, but one thing we do know is that it put a real damper on Beijing's plans for the world's tallest building. In fact it was not very long after the attacks on Washington DC and, especially, New York that the Beijing government decided, in the case of its proposed Olympic Village twin towers, that architects had to go back to the drawing board. Jiang Wei, the chief architect on the towers project, said simply, 'I was told to change it to anything but twin towers.' The original plan was for two towers, each of them 519 metres tall. That would have made them taller than any other office building on earth. But, suddenly height became a problem. Mr Jiang has already submitted three optional plans: a single-tower structure, a three-tower complex, and a four-tower complex. The single tower is about 300 metres tall, while the multiple tower designs call for much shorter buildings. Meanwhile, an ambitious plan for a 520-metre-tall building in Beijing's Economic and Technology Development Zone has also been shelved. But, the attack on New York's World Trade Center has in fact raised an even more fundamental question for Chinese planners and architects, namely, whether the mainland should even build very tall buildings. At a symposium in mid-November, the people opposed to skyscrapers got the upper hand and were quite vocal in their criticism. Unsurprisingly safety was their major concern. In addition to highlighting the difficulty of evacuating the occupants safely in the case of a terrorist attack, they pointed to a local problem: China's fire-fighting equipment is not up to the task. First of all, the ladders barely run up 50 metres, in contrast to the 70-metre ladders used abroad. There were also worries about the safety of building a skyscraper in or near an earthquake zone. Economic feasibility was yet another concern. Many architects used Shanghai's Jinmao Tower, the world's third tallest building, as an example, and said that its daily maintenance cost of one million yuan had almost upset the practical savings of vertical land use. 'Mainland cities like Beijing cannot be compared with Hong Kong or Singapore in land scarcity,' said Ke Huanzhang, a member of Beijing's Urban Planning Committee, who is firmly planted in the anti-skyscraper camp. Finally, there is the matter of the aesthetics of skyscrapers. The opponents have claimed that high-rises have long been out of fashion in many Western countries. 'Skyscrapers don't equal modernity in a city,' Mr Ke said tersely. Mr Jiang, the chief designer of the Olympic building, said he felt all the criticism was a bit unfair because he had actually provided several alternative designs of much lower buildings in the original bid. Curiously enough, none was even considered because 'All the leaders believed that the shorter ones didn't represent the new Beijing.' That type of thinking is the dark reality behind the non-stop competitive impulse to put up high buildings in China. The Shenzhen Economic Zone built China's first 150-metre building back in 1985. Then, in 1990, Beijing snatched away the prize for the tallest, with a structure of more than 200 metres. Shenzhen took it back six years later with a 383-metre structure. Then, two years later, Shanghai put up the Jinmao Tower, an office and hotel complex which, at 420 metres, took the record and kept it. But, it is unlikely the game will end there. 'We've seen five or six attempts by cities like Beijing, Chongqing, and Xiamen to overtake us,' said an official from Jinmao Tower. Some plans collapsed under ignominious conditions. The Xiamen plan failed only when its sponsor, Lai Changxing, who was alleged to have been the mastermind of a 60-billion-yuan (US$7.3 billion) smuggling deal, fled abroad to avoid a scandal and prosecution in 1999. The Jinmao official, who refused to give his name, stood his ground and insisted that taller buildings brought more benefits than troubles. 'Some people are scared when they hear that it costs us a million yuan a day to maintain the building. But what if we make two million yuan that day?' As for the concerns about a terrorist attack in the wake of September 11, he also brushed them aside. 'We won't face such a problem in China because unlike the United States, our country handles world affairs through peaceful diplomacy,' he said optimistically. In truth, after September 11, in holding that view, no matter how strongly, he may be a minority of one. But, he has an ally in Wu Huanjia, a professor of architecture at Tsinghua University. Mr Wu said that skyscrapers had no real technical flaws and that a terrorist attack in another country should not prevent China from building them. 'Shorter buildings like the Pentagon are equally vulnerable to such attacks,' he pointed out. 'We shouldn't mix construction work with political conflicts.' Mr Wu believes that taller buildings are a natural choice for China, especially as cities get larger. Using Beijing as an example, he said that confining people to the 'medieval' courtyard houses of the past, with no central heating or flush-toilets, was inhuman. 'We shouldn't worry about whether foreigners build any more skyscrapers,' he said. 'They've built enough. Now it's our turn.' The civic pride and image effect of buildings that are landmarks is the biggest selling point in the skyscraper sweepstakes. 'We don't advertise because we simply don't need to,' the Jinmao official bragged. He said that the number of tall buildings in the city was part of the reason Shanghai was chosen for the prestige-enhancing Apec meeting. But, this is still a sticking point. According to mainland media reports, China's Vice-Minister of Construction Song Chunhua recently criticised this mentality of puffing up the government's image through the use of skyscrapers and told developers not to 'create selling points at the expense of the building's function.' Mr Ke, of Beijing's Urban Planning Committee, said that the municipal government had set a new height limit of 250 metres for buildings along the central axis, Changan Avenue. This came at the request of the Air Force. However, several 300-metre-tall buildings already approved for the Central Business District on the east side of the city will be exempt. In spite of all this badmouthing of skyscrapers, many advocates still believe that China will one day have the tallest building in the world. 'We need the world's tallest building in the Olympic Village to mark out Beijing's skyline,' insisted Mr Wu, refusing to budge.