Mine is bigger than yours: the rise and rise of the skyscraper

There is nothing more poetic and terrible than the skyscrapers’ battle with the heavens that cover them.    Federico Garcia Lorca

To design a building, or have a building designed, is to suggest that this is the world as I want it. This is the perfect room to run a state, a business empire, a city, a family. It is the way to create a physical version of an idea, or an emotion. It is the way to construct reality as we wish it to be, rather than as it is.    Deyan Sudjic, The Edifice Complex

And on the pedestal these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

From Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley*


The skyscraper is the latest manifestation of the human desire to ascend to the heavens. The Tower of Babel, the Egyptian pyramids and Gothic cathedrals all reflected this longing. Skyscrapers fulfil this role today and have become a cornerstone of modern culture, movie stars in their own right. The Empire State Building was famously climbed by King Kong in the 1933 movie and destroyed by an alien spaceship in Independence Day. The Petronas Twin Towers provided the spectacular backdrop for the heist in the film Entrapment. There have also been fictional towers. The Nakamoto Tower in the film version of Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun captured the zeitgeist of the 1980s – American paranoia about Japanese corporations taking over the world economy. Echoes of China today? And there was another Japanese skyscraper- the Nakatomi Plaza – in that classic action movie Die Hard. A shoeless Bruce Willis single-handedly takes out twelve ruthless armed terrorists. I love that movie!

The origin of the term skyscraper is not architectural, but nautical referring to a small triangular sail set above the skysail on a sailing ship. The term migrated to architecture at the end of the 19th century and originally applied to buildings of between ten and twenty stories. Of course now we think of buildings with fifty stories or more. Indeed there are currently ten buildings which have 100 or more floors. It was in New York and Chicago, which were America’s leading cities at the time, that the skyscraper was born. These buildings emerged due to a convergence of new technologies, the lift and the use of steel, and the constantly rising demand for offices, apartments and hotels.

The rules of architecture were rewritten by the skyscraper. These buildings no longer rested their weight on thick external walls of brick or stone; they now had an internal framework – a skeleton if you will – of steel columns and beams. In the words of the author Jim Rasenberger it was “as if buildings had evolved overnight from lumbering crustaceans into lofty vertebrates.”  Structurally walls became almost an optional extra, necessary for protection from the weather and for adornment, but not essential to actually keep the building up. Not only was this was more efficient and economical, but it also allowed humans to give full vent to their creativity and their desire to construct reality.

There are two kinds of loads that affect a skyscraper. One could imagine that the gravity load – the accumulation of floors one on top of another – would be the hard part. But in reality it is the lateral loads which present more problems. This is the effect of the wind -the taller the building the more it is affected. To counter this, the building has to be able to sway at the top. There is a maximum permitted sway, which is about one-500th of the building’s height. It’s not that that the building is going to topple, but the people inside may well begin to feel a bit queasy. And in earthquake zones they will actually be designed to be able to move a little bit on their foundations. One of the great architectural ironies is that these skyscrapers that have all glass sides, with window after window, but none them can be opened.

The first steel frame skyscraper was the Home Insurance Building, originally 10 storeys with a height of 42m in Chicago, Illinois in 1885. But it was then New York which really took centre stage. In this time the American economy was undergoing a spectacular wave of mergers. The resulting corporations overwhelmingly chose the Big Apple for their headquarters. There were obviously practical questions of needing space for their staff, but there was more at play in here. Skyscrapers became like giant advertising logos helping imprint a powerful corporate identity on the popular consciousness. These colossi captured the public imagination; they were the wonders of the modern world

In the 1920s and early 1930s three major projects fought it out to become the world’s tallest building with the Empire State Building eventually coming out on top. This building, the archetypal skyscraper, was actually started in 1930, after the Wall Street Crash. In under a year the 3,400 workers, mostly immigrants from Europe and hundreds of Mohawk ironworkers, were able to finish the building. And given the danger involved they had a spectacularly good safety record—only five people died. Alas the Depression meant that the real estate market collapsed. Its 72% vacancy rate led to it being dubbed the “empty state building.’” The outlook was so bleak that 56 floors were just left completely unfinished. However it remained the world’s tallest structure for nearly 40 years. There would not be another project of a similar prestige until the World Trade Center some four decades later.

These iconic towers had not been especially well-received when they first went up in 1973. The terrorist attack on September 11th 2001 turned them into a symbol. The terrorists certainly were aware of the huge symbolism of high-rise architecture. Mohammed Atta himself had been a student of Architecture at Cairo University. The collapse of the buildings has been a source of much debate. The first tower collapsed after less than an hour and the second thirty minutes later. Modern skyscrapers are generally designed to remain intact and escapable for two hours. But is it practical to design something to withstand this kind of impact? Of the 50,000 people in the towers 85 per cent got out alive. Some people argue that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. There is a lot of truth in this.  In 1990 there was a fire at the Empire State Building. The fire took several hours to go out, but because of the thick concrete walls and floors all the heat was contained within one floor. But it is not feasible to build like this anymore for economic and aesthetic reasons. Not only would it double the cost, but it would go against modern tastes, which demand open and airy glass spaces. Not many people would want to live, work or stay in a fortress.

Skyscrapers are no longer an American phenomenon. They have spread all over the globe. In recent years the impetus to build these superstructures has moved to Asia and the Middle East. A race paralleling New York’s has been taking place.Dubaican now lay claim to the world’s tallest building: the Burj Khalifa. It stands at 828m more than twice the height of America’s Empire State Building.  This vertical city of 160 floors is a mixed-use building, which has hotel, office and residential accommodation. However, in Dubai they don’t have a very sophisticated sewage infrastructure, so every day trucks have to come to take the sewage out of all areas within Burj Khalifa.

And if you’ve ever wondered about the problems of disposing of waste from 700m the architects and engineers have thought of that too. As the effluence gathers a lot of speed as it falls down from such a height, there are very sophisticated bends in the pipes and air is let in to slow the water as it’s moving through the system. It is also sound-proofed to make sure it’s not too noisy.

There is a theory that sees skyscrapers as a predictor of economic crisis. Andrew Lawrence, research director at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein argues that the data show that the world’s tallest buildings have risen on the eve of economic downturns. Lawrence linked the phenomenon to overinvestment, speculation and monetary expansion. His original paper, The Skyscraper Index: Faulty Towers was a bit tongue-in-cheek. He used data from the USA. After the construction of two Singer Building and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower at the beginning of the 20th century there was the panic of 1907. The race in New York was followed by the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. The next record holders, World Trade Center towers and Sears Tower, opened up in 1973, during the 1973 oil crisis. The last example he gave was the Petronas Towers opening before the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The last example cited by Lawrence was the Petronas Twin Towers, opened up in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The Burj Khalifa may well join this list; two months after the announcement of the completion of the exterior of the building, the Dubai government came close to defaulting on its loans. Stephen Bayley described the tower as a “frightening, purposeless monument to the subprime era.”

I have to admit I am ambivalent about skyscrapers. There will soon be a 1000-metre skyscraper. Indeed soon it may not be necessary to go up in a plane to join the mile high club  There is undoubtedly something rather phallic about this urge to build higher and higher – the mine is bigger than yours syndrome. It may seem absurd, but this competitiveness shows no signs of abating. It doesn’t necessarily follow any commercial logic and is often an exercise in pointlessness. However I like the hubris of soaring ambition. We may decry the attempt to show economic virility, but Cesar Pelli’s Petronas towers really did put Kuala Lumpur on the map. Nobody would have takenLondon’s docklands seriously without their signature buildings. I will finish with this quote from the architect Louis Sullivan, the father of the skyscraper. We may not always live up to his ideals but I still believe that thee are architects who can reach these heights:

“What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? It is lofty. It must be tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exaltation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.”


*Ozymandias was another name for Ramses the Great, a Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. The central theme of Shelley’s poem is the inevitable complete decline of all leaders, of their empires and the monuments they build for posterity.  

2 Responses to Mine is bigger than yours: the rise and rise of the skyscraper

  1. Alberto says:

    I completely agree about Die Hard (the title was translated in Spain as “La jungla de cristal”, very appropriate for this entry of your blog).

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