Winning the Skyscraper Sweepstakes

Posted: June 3, 2007 in Culture, Skyscrapers

The U.S. is the creator and mythical home of the skyscraper, with Chicago and New York each vying for ascendancy over the decades. But according to an article in the International Herald Tribune, other countries are quickly overtaking the U.S. in the skyscraper sweepstakes. South Korea appears to be in the front of that vanguard, followed by China (Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei), the United Arab Emirates (Dubai and Abu Dhab in particular), and Singapore.

According to to Emporis, 42 skyscrapers are in the planning stages or under construction around the world that are more than 1,000 feet, a height widely regarded as “super-tall.” At least 33 super-tall buildings have been completed in the past 80 or so years, including the world’s current tallest, the 1,667-foot Taipei 101 in Taiwan, built in 2004. Of those planned new buildings, only five will be in the United States.

The wonder, awe, and imagination inspired by super-tall buildings has lost little of its effectiveness despite how common they are becoming. However, there are diminished returns to adding more floors and height to a building. Services and access to a large number of upper floors require considerable infrastructure on the lower floors. For instance, unless occupants of floors 30-59 and 60+ don’t mind stopping every few floors in their elevator rides, dedicated elevator banks must provide access to a specific range of floors, but those banks by necessity take up floor space all the way to the ground level. One partial solution is to create sky lobbies, where riders change elevator banks so that no one bank goes from top to bottom. Either way, for a building approaching 100 floors, most of the bottom floors are dedicated to serving the top floors — a classic case of diminished returns.

Many of the world’s new super-tall buildings are rising in overcrowded cities where land is scarce, and a newly emerging middle class is clamoring for modern office and living space. But experts say the drive to go tall also reflects the aspiration of Asian and Gulf nations to join the ranks of the developed world, and to assert that their long-awaited moment in history has finally come.

The prestige factor may be the true reason behind so many buildings going above 1000 feet in second- and third-tier cities. Perhaps it reads as sour grapes for someone like me — living in Chicago with its three super-talls (and another already well underway) — but I nonetheless have to wonder if the leapfrogging effect of building the new highest building every two years isn’t an effort and expense best focused elsewhere.

The Skyscraper Page has some useful pictorial comparisons of the world’s tallest buildings. The page on proposed buildings is just plain scary.

  1. greywhitie says:

    there are 2 sides to shanghai: old shanghai, and new shanghai. old shanghai has old buildings from the western imperial era. old court houses are being used as banks and other business entities. the new shanghai, on the other side of the bund, consists of newer buildings, including skyscrapers. the westernization in architechure may symbolize modernization and progress, but it is also tacky and boring. yet many westerners feel more comfortable with this scenery. i personally find the old shanghai, with its french quarters and such, to be much more charming.

    with other asian cities, however, skyrises do look the part. hong kong would not be hong kong, and tokyo would not be tokyo, without the blaring skyrises with their neon lights.

    for the most part, american architechture is boring, with or without skyrises. blah blah blah. it has none of the old world charm of most european countries with the pointy church steeples and artsy buildings.

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