When I was about ten years old I went on a family outing to London to see the sights and sounds (and there are many). We probably visited a museum or went to the zoo but my overriding memory of that day was walking up the stairs out of Tottenham Court Road tube station and looking up to see what I thought must be the tallest building in the world. I was awestruck at how such a huge edifice could be constructed by humans and not fall over. The building was, and still is, the Centre Point Tower which looms large at one end of London’s famous thoroughfare, Oxford Street. The ECA headquarters where I am based when in the UK is now only a stone’s throw from the building and so I see it every day on my walk from the station. I’m all grown up now and less awestruck by Centre Point but I will always remember my first encounter back in the 1980’s and the kindling it gave me for the interest I now have in all buildings of gargantuan-ness (that’s not a real word but you get the jist!). To put things in to perspective, the Centre Point Tower is 117m high and the current tallest building in the world, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, is a whopping 828m, some seven times taller.
My next moment of how-in-the-world-did-they-build-that was my first time in Paris as a young teenager when I stood at the foot of the Eiffel Tower gawping skywards. That time, though, I could go to the top and needless to say a new found love of gazing down on cityscapes from high above was born. In all my travels I’ve visited hundreds of cities and I always read up beforehand if there’s a skyscraper worth seeing. As of today I’ve visited 20 of the world’s tallest 25 but this figure keeps changing as nations continue to aim higher.
So, what constitutes a skyscraper? Well, there are several official and unofficial ways of classifying them, such as roof height, spire height and occupied floor height but for me it’s the ones which exceed 300m and are liveable buildings (i.e. not a TV tower, mast, pole or statue etc). Oh, and the 300 metres can’t include any non-structural spires. I’m sounding like a nerd now but these things bring out the geek in me.
There are a handful of skyscrapers which have seeped into the global public consciousness, whether they impress you or not. The Empire State Building and Chrysler Building in New York, and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur have been used as backdrops in many a Hollywood movie for example. And of course the iconic twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center sadly became known the world over in 2001. The carnage created on that day showed just how massive these structures can be.
The skyscraper has come to represent modern cities and it seems nations are continually trying to reach higher to gain kudos in a world where it’s deemed important to show financial and architectural clout. If a city has the tallest building in the world it is automatically put on to the radar of the global populace. New York was the first city to gain this attention, and indeed is considered the home of the modern skyscraper. In the late 19th century the economic needs of the city, combined with radical advances in engineering (not least of all the invention of the elevator) and lack of land space meant the only obvious place to build was upwards. Even today, I still get that child-like joy when strolling the streets of Manhattan with my neck craned up toward the sky.
After the Second World War the Asian economic boom in Japan and the four ‘Asian Tigers’ of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea created wealth which was used to build the first skyscrapers outside of the West. By 1998 the USA was left trailing in the wake of several Asian behemoths when Malaysia took the crown of ‘world’s tallest’ with the opening of the Petronas Towers. They topped out at 452m beating the Willis Tower (then the Sears Tower) in Chicago which had held the title for 24 years. The aesthetically pleasing Taipei 101 in Taiwan’s capital followed in 2004 at 508m.
Next to emerge with their spending power was China which saw huge economic growth through the 1990s and mirroring this growth was the construction of dozens of ambitious skyscrapers. The oil boom in the Middle East has also seen the likes of Kuwait and Qatar make their impacts felt in the global high-rise stakes. Dubai, however, has managed to trump them all with the rather insane Burj Khalifa. It is 320m taller than Taipei 101, which it overtook to become the world’s number one in 2010 (that’s a whole Eiffel Tower more!). Standing at the foot of the Burj Khalifa is rather surreal, and with the world’s largest shopping mall, the Dubai Mall, next door, it really is a place where wealth and prosperity are being flaunted in a rather grandiose way.
It seems that building higher is a barometer of boom but with boom there inevitably comes bust, which paves the way for other nations to get in on the act. So which country will surprise us next with enterprising projects to reach the clouds? There are many buildings exceeding 500m currently under construction, mostly in China, but none of these will become the tallest. There are, however, approved plans for two megastructures which will beat the Burj Khalifa. The first is the surely-impossible-to-achieve 838m Sky City in Changsha, China. The developers claim that they will begin the project in January of this year and complete it in April of this year. Yes, that’s three months! You can read more about it here (http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/11/20/china-plans-to-build-the-worlds-largest-skyscraper-in-just-90-days/). The second approved project is the Kingdom Tower planned for Jeddah, the second city of Saudi Arabia. If construction goes ahead the completed structure will be over one kilometre in height!! (http://kingdomtowerskyscraper.com/).
I’m going to finish by listing my five favourites (in no particular order) as I do love a list:
– The Shard (London) at 310m – Simply because London now has its very own member of the 300m club.
– Tuntex Sky Tower (Kaohsiung) at 347m – When I visited Kaohsiung in Taiwan I loved the fact this skyscraper has a huge gaping hole in the middle (see the photos section).
– Chrysler Building (New York) at 319m – The epitome of classic Art Deco style and with gargoyles to boot!
– Willis Tower (Chicago) at 442m – I like the fact the building isn’t tapered and just rises vertically from the street to over 400m.
– Burj Khalifa (Dubai) at 828m – Well, I can’t not include this one can I?!
And be sure to check out this website (http://skyscraperpage.com/diagrams/?searchID=200) which has a great tool where you can enter any city or country and it will bring up scale drawings of its skyscrapers. Have fun – I was on it for hours when I first discovered it a few years ago!