Skyscrapers: a boon or bane?

As city skylines continue to become more crowded, many believe these glistening giants are multi-storey boasts thrown up without thought or care.

Josh Sims December 12, 2016

To many the skyscraper embodies tomorrow in steel, concrete and glass. Each tower represents a vision of the future, of a sci-fi landscape. It is hard not to be impressed by the skyline of, for example, New York or of Dubai, where the likes of the Burj Khalifa and two new giants under construction – The Tower on Dubai Creek Harbour and Marina 101 in Dubai Marina – are symbolic of the transformative power of money and determination.

That’s the view of many, but not to all. The future of the skyscraper seems to have become where architecture most painfully touches the public consciousness. One 2014 study, for example, found that one in three respondents felt there were too many tall buildings in London. Polls in Paris have shown higher antipathy: 63 per cent against, with campaign groups like SOS Paris routinely demonstrating against the proposed 48-storey Tour Triangle.

Sometimes such groups are successful: the city of St. Petersburg’s approval of a 100-storey building was recanted following widespread complaints. Intriguingly, those opposing skyscraper proliferation include architect heavyweights such as David Chipperfield, David Adjaye and Eva Jiricna. 

At first glance the debate appears to split along clear lines. According to Antony Wood, executive director of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat – effectively the global trade organisation for the developers and builders of tall buildings – building upwards, rather than outwards, is the only practical response to the unstoppable global macro trend that is the population shift into cities. Every day, he says, some 189,000 people are ‘urbanising’. In other words: more and more of us are being born in, or moving into cities.

“The answer is to increase densities by building up, not ever expanding urban sprawl outwards, which would never work in the end because of the necessary energy usage,” he argues. “There’s no clear understanding of the ideal way of achieving densification, but, given the scale of population movement we’re seeing, [so far] skyscrapers do seem the best answer.”

Losing identity

On the other hand, others argue that, far from addressing this need to affordably house more city-dwellers, most new skyscrapers – given their huge development costs – meet only a perceived, perhaps temporary, need to supply more office space, luxury hotels or investment apartments for wealthy non-residents.

Cash-strapped local authorities can’t resist selling the land and approving building. Meanwhile, opponents complain that unrestricted and too often ill-considered skyscrapers can destroy the flavour of a city.

“This push towards more towers is especially a pressure, aesthetically at least, for cities of historic architecture,” says Barbara Weiss, an architect and founder of Skyline, a campaign to curtail London’s proposed tall building boom. “Yet it’s not limited to them.

The fact is that there are good and bad ways of doing towers, and there are a lot of bad ones going up. This tower boom is really a worldwide crisis. You’re either potentially losing something precious or, at best, missing a real opportunity for positive city planning.”

Wood concedes that a lot of the latest “attention-grabbing” towers are “pretty crap”, tall for tall’s sake and poorly integrated into the wider fabric of the cities they can, for good or ill, come to represent. Certainly, while it can be spun both positively and negatively, a further reason often given for building an especially monumental skyscraper is the creation of a civic iconongraphy. It’s part of a city’s branding, arguably important to trade. It’s about ego.

“A tall building has become a city’s signature,” argues Philippe Honnorat, head of building services for WSP, one of the world’s largest structural consultancy firms, operating in 40 countries and the company behind London’s Shard, Hong Kong’s Bank of China Tower, as well as New York’s ‘Freedom Tower’, officially known as One World Trade Center.

“Tall buildings are not about being part of some fashion,” he says. “The economics of building them are just too complex and it’s actually incredibly difficult to take these projects forward, not just in structural terms but given the responsibility that goes with making something so highly visible. But cities do want to signal themselves to the rest of the world. Of course, a high-rise is not the only way of doing that but it’s easiest to understand. You could have a fantastic stadium or incredible airport but would they be as effective?”

Tall story

It is, arguably, why Taipei built the Taipei 101 – tellingly named to flag its host city – and why Jeddah is currently building the Kingdom Tower, at over 1km high and set to be the new world’s tallest building. Seemingly height, rather than architectural innovation, is increasingly viewed as the only way one tower might distinguish itself over the many others. 

It is also–as long as the commercial logic remains – why more and more skyscrapers are likely to be built. Remarkably, London, which might be considered the epicentre of the debate following the building of the Shard, in equal parts loved and hated, now has some 250 or so tall buildings currently consented or proposed, with 49 of them over 40 storeys tall. New, stronger, more durable materials and building technologies mean such structures, once the exception rather than the rule, can be put up at a breakneck pace.

Ponder this too. It also means they are built to last, and deliberately so. Add in the fact that skyscraper locations are typically prime inner-city spots – making them, in sum, incredibly expensive to erect – and that means they are also incredibly expensive to demolish too. Like it or not, every new tower you see go up is likely to be there for your great grandchildren.