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Build 'em High: Skyscraper Culture, for Better or for Worse

Burj Khalifa – Presently the tallest building in the world. (Image: Chusico / Flickr)

Around the world, skyscrapers are emerging in almost every major city. Just a decade ago the tallest building was the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, then it was Taipei 101 in Taiwan, and since 2009 it has been the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.  Next, China is attempting to build the world's tallest structure in just 90 days!

Sky City in Changsha is going to be the future tallest skyscraper in the world "standing at 2,749ft (838m) high, over 220 floors" according to the Independent. The race to earn the title of world's tallest building still continues with cities constructing vertical buildings in greater numbers.

"Not only do they define the skyline, they help to define the city's identity. In some cases, exceptionally tall skyscrapers have been built not out of necessity, but to help define the city's identity and presence or power as a city" says  Emil Adrian Baleva.

If building tall has somehow defined our cities, there seems to be uniformity and even competition between countries for reaching the sky.

The same model of skyscrapers which is "characterized by a plain steel-and-glass box, with little or no modifications" has spread across the world. "The model has often-submerged local cultures through universal applications of technology, business formulas, and design standards"says Lily Kong. This shows that the North American culture of skyscrapers is spreading rapidly across the world, specifically in Asia where booming economies have led to a corresponding uptick of construction and technology.

As Edward Glaeser writes in his book Triumph of the City, with skyscrapers, "Greater density is the goal: more people means more possibility." Skyscrapers provide a high ratio of space rentable per unit area of land, allowing more people to live where the land is scarce. As the population of cities increases, ground space per person seems to be at a premium, and skyscrapers seem to be an obvious building solution. This is remarkably true in Asia with its burgeoning population. Asia's rapid growth and urbanization has led to the need for tall buildings and high-rise structures throughout the region.

Chicago (American) Skyline, a culture being imitated in other countries. (Image: Isaac / Flickr)

Although Skyscrapers were once exclusively part of North America with more than 80% of the 100 tallest buildings being built in America in 1990s, the trend of building up has presently spread to other countries. Currently, around 53% of skyscrapers are found in Asian cities and 32% of skyscrapers found in North America. This new trend in Asia seems to be an imitation of the American culture. This has also led to the concept of globalized architecture where most modern buildings are made of concrete, steel and glass leading to a "copy and paste urbanism" in the words of Micheal Woolf.

"A universal design template of tall buildings has swept the world that has promoted the emergence of a monoculture of North American design rooted in Chicago and New York" - Mona Domosh, Invented Cities.

Monoculture of Skyscrapers

It is no surprise that similar types of towers and high rise buildings are spreading across the globe, creating a global mono-culture, where the same architectural practices once used in North America are being used elsewhere. Although there are a few variations in the look and design of the skyscrapers, the concept remains the same – and there has been much discourse on why non-western cities are using the same concept of skyscrapers as the western countries.

Vernacular design principles, it is argued, needs to be promoted even while building skyscrapers. Riley and Nordenson in their book Tall Buildings state that "In some cases, scholars surrendered to the fact that non-Western cities lack any skyscraper precedence or "vernacular skyscraper" examples; and therefore, they accepted the notion of "importing" skyscrapers from abroad" to get a sense of internationalization into their local culture. Since most of the architects who build the skyscrapers in Asian countries are foreign, it appears to bring a touch of globalization to the local country.

Another good example is Moscow which has recently started building skyscrapers, although without much praise. "Moscow has its own unique image formed with Stalin-era buildings and other similar constructions. Newly-built skyscrapers do not blend with the architecture of Moscow," says Mikhail Philippov. This gives a feeling that some aspect of urban skyscraper use retains an American feel, and does not fit into the vernacular structures of other cultures. At the same time, this has led to a homogeneity of space where similar skyscraper experiences can be felt in many different places.

On Sustainability

Construction of Shanghai Tower which is to be complete in 2014 (Image: turtlebuns / Flickr)

Whether building skyscrapers is a sustainable model for future growth is a long standing debate. It has both negative and positive points. Although they provide higher density by saving space and giving a high rise experience for offices, residents or mixed use purposes, it is argued that they do not provide a good street-level experience for othercitizens. High rise apartments, for instance, make it difficult for families to interact and connect with the streets. There is a sense of being constrained within the walls of the building without much outside interaction.

"Among the disadvantages of the skyscrapers are such problems as daily "trips" by lift or missing the possibility to use balconies or open windows. There are usually special requirements for the mechanisms of windows used in skyscrapers. What is more, tower blocks – in contrast to houses – do not have separate yards for children to play in. People who are used to a private house with garden might find it hard to be closed in "an aquarium high up in the sky", states an article in World Estate.

However, some planners are trying to address such issues by situating skyscrapers in vibrant communities. "[Serge] Appel's Bank of America Tower, for example, is located near a variety of restaurants, is well-serviced by public transportation, and the building's ground level was designed to be an "indoor extension" of Bryant Park", says Planetizen. The Shanghai Tower, on the other hand, is specifically being made sustainable with environmentally friendly use of design structures. Such initiatives provide better solutions for sustainability.

Overall, if sufficient thought is given to their construction and integraition, they can enhance place-making and provide further development in the area. It is unclear exactly how skyscrapers will fit into sustainable design models of the future, but for the moment the trend for building them doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.