Humble Kansas beginnings lead to great heights

By Brady Bauman

Sometimes in Kansas we think we’re an isolated bunch. We often believe that what happens here stays here, and so do the people. (Kind of like Las Vegas, but also kind of not.) Sprawling metropolises? Huge skyscrapers?

That’s city-slicker stuff.

But here’s proof that’s not always how it works. This is the story of a couple of Kansas farmboys, both K-State grads — who were crucial in the building of the tallest man-made structure in the history of the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Manhattan resident Ed Thompson and Cimarron native Ken Turner were instrumental in the design and construction of the Burj Khalifa — the tallest structure ever erected on the planet.

Also called the Dubai Tower, it stands 2,722 feet and has a record 163 floors. For comparison’s sake, Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly called the Sears Tower) is 1,729 feet tall. One World Trade Center - which stands in place of the fallen Twin Towers in New York City — rises a stately 1,776 feet in the air and is now the tallest building in the United States.

Thompson and Turner were reunited in Manhattan a week ago while Turner was in town from his home in Chicago and made time to stop by the Mercury and share their experiences in making history.


‘My story starts with a summer job in high school, for an uncle that built homes,’ said Turner, who was integral in the design phase of the tower. ‘I helped him with a basement, and I was always fascinated with architectural drawings.

‘My job up until that time had either been driving a tractor on the farm or working for a local ranch.’

After high school, Turner, now 47, went to Kansas State University to study architecture in 1984.

‘The rest is dumb luck,’ he said. ‘Everything I was exposed to at Kansas State was amazing. I was fascinated by (the architecture program) to the point where I got an internship in New York City and was really exposed to a lot of different things that weren’t seen in the Midwest.’

From there, Turner spent time in Los Angeles and was later hired by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), an architecture firm based in Chicago.

It was with SOM that he first met Thompson.


‘My story is pretty simple,’ said Thompson, who grew up in Pratt but recently has retired to Manhattan. ‘I decided in seventh grade that I wanted to be an architect and never steered away from that.’

He said he came to K-State for the five year architecture program.

‘In my fourth year we toured around the country looking at different architectural offices and visited SOM in Chicago. I said, ‘That’s the one.’ ‘After graduation I got invited to join them, and I’ve been with them my whole career.’

With SOM, Thompson, now 70, has seen the world and been a part of large construction projects near and far.

In the ‘70s, he worked on the Bank of America Financial Center building in Wichita and after that helped oversee the construction of another office building in Tehran, Iran, just before the Iranian Revolution.

The Trump Tower in Chicago has Thompson’s fingerprints on it, as do numerous buildings in Houston and Dallas.

He and Turner also teamed up for the revitalization of Canary Wharf in London, and they collaborated on the Samsung Tower in South Korea.

Thompson was the project manager for the Burj Khalifa.


Turner, whose designs helped win the Dubai Tower project for SOM, said he wanted to take aesthetic cues already present in Muslim culture.

‘We had influence from previous projects, like the Samsung Tower in South Korea,’ he said. ‘But a lot was tied to geometries. The three legs of the (Dubai) tower are based on 120 degrees. You find out that the Arab world, and their art, is tied to geometry. So that just became a recycling of ideas and ‘What can you do to make three overlapping circles into a very complex geometry for the tower?’ ‘The structural system is a lot like a camera on a three-legged tripod.’

Both Turner and Thompson said monumental projects like the Burj Khalifa don’t happen with just a few people. They require a team.

‘It was an absolute collaboration of people,’ Turner said. ‘No one can take sole credit for it. It’s an SOM project, flat and simple.’

‘We had experts from around the world all interacting, communicating and working together,’ Thompson said.

The tower was completed in 2010 at a cost of $1.5 billion.


Turner said the journey from Cimarron to the near literal top of the world came by taking advantage of what life brings.

‘It could have gone to another company,’ Turner said. ‘So you just have to put yourself in a position so you have those opportunities. Some of them will come through.’

Turner said his rural upbringing bolstered his international career.

‘There is midwestern value — and I found that in Ed — that’s honorable,’ he said. ‘You don’t see that everywhere. You’re in an environment that you have to rely on people, because if one day you’ll need help, you need to be good enough to people around that they’d either help you or that you’d help them in their time of need.

‘You take pride that someone came to you and asked you to do a job, and you do what you need to do to get that job done.’

The project was Thompson’s swan song. After it was complete, he and his wife moved back to Manhattan, where their daughter and her husband live, along with their five grandchildren.

‘This is home,’ Thompson said. ‘Our roots are still here. We’ve lived an international life, but as you come into your latter years you come full-circle to where you started.

‘I have to congratulate the community of Manhattan, because I think it’s terrific. The school is strong, and the people here have the values Kenny has talked about.’


In 2011, the Burj Khalifa was prominently featured in the Tom Cruise vehicle ‘Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.’ Many of the film’s most heart-stopping scenes showed Cruise’s secret agent character, Ethan Hunt, scaling the side of the mammoth tower and nearly slipping off from well over 1,000 feet in the air.

Thompson said it was stunning seeing something he helped build reach such a high pop-culture status, and his advice to anyone with such aspirations is simple.

‘Live your dreams,’ he said. ‘It’s a very simple answer. Live your dreams.’

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