build it tall

Why build tall? People have always built as high as existing technology would allow them. Whether to glorify kings, as in the pyramids of ancient Egypt, or to glorify God, as in the soaring cathedrals of medieval Europe, towering edifices are meant to be awe-inspiring. Even in today’s skyscrapers, which only glorify the corporations or cities that pay to erect them, there is still the same sense of grandeur and ego in the enormous scale of construction. Though praised by some as marvels of engineering and architectural beauty, icons of modernity and progress, these colossal structures are denounced by others as blights on the urban landscape, robbing cities of light and air, and, massed together to form towering canyons, helping to foster a sense of alienation and impersonality. Love ’em or leave ’em, skyscrapers today still define the modern city. But will they in the future?

Professor William J. Mitchell, former dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, argued in a 1997 Scientific American essay, “Do We Still Need Skyscrapers?” that the days of staggeringly tall towers may be numbered because they simply aren’t economical. In cities, downtown land is at a premium, so there is always the motivation to build as tall as possible, to get the most use out of the smallest parcel of land. Yet the higher you build, the greater proportion of each floor must be devoted to structure and to vertical circulation, and maintenance and operation costs rise as well. Mitchell argues that since computers and the internet now allow employees to work remotely, there’s no longer any need to centralize thousands of workers in monstrously-huge office buildings. Mitchell, speaking to reporters after the September 11 World Trade Center attack, gave security concerns as yet another argument against skyscrapers.

However, University of Illinois architecture professor Mir Ali, author of The Art of the Skyscraper, doesn’t believe the age of skyscrapers is over just yet. The world is rapidly becoming urbanized, as more and more people leave rural areas for the economic possibilities of the great cities. With a growing population, land is even more scarce and expensive, which may leave many nowhere to build but up.

This is especially evident in Asia, where the world’s tallest buildings can now be found, showcasing the ambitions and economic dynamism of the region. In 1990, the 50 tallest buildings were in the United States, but as of 2003, only two remain on the top ten. Just a few months ago, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur held the official title as the world’s tallest, but with the erection of Taiwan’s Taipei 101 office block’s spire last October, it now rates second. Shanghai still has plans to build the new record holder by 2007, even though its thousands of existing skyscrapers are thought to be contributing to the city literally sinking under its own weight.

Despite their problems, skyscrapers will continue to be erected. And no matter what the future practicalities may be, someone will always want to build a tower taller than their neighbor’s.

To view this article with illustrations, please go to the publisher’s web site and download a PDF of Sparks of Innovation magazine, which was published in 2004.
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