On the rise


Carlin Gerbich , January 31st, 2011

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The idea of high-rise living isn’t a particularly new one, but the proliferation of residential and office skyscrapers has accelerated exponentially over the past century. It wasn’t so long ago that the 10-storey Wainwright Building, a red-brick office structure in downtown St. Louis, Missouri in the US floored bystanders with its imposing design and sheer size.

When it opened in 1891, the building brought with it many ideas that laid the foundations for larger future structures. It was the first building to combine a load bearing steel structure with traditional masonry architectural details.

The result was spacious and airy building that did away with heavy stone and concrete buildings of the time. It also meant buildings could be built far taller than ever before.

The proliferation of skyscrapers really took hold from the 1930s, spreading in to Latin America and throughout Asia as developers tried to squeeze more and more people in to busy city centres to capitalise on prime parcels of real estate.

Post WWII Europe became more receptive to modern skyscraper design as the continent rebuilt itself after the destruction caused during six-years of conflict.

But it was the work of Bangladesh-born architect and structural engineer Fazlur Khan that revolutionised the design of modern skyscrapers, making it possible for buildings to stretch even further in to the atmosphere.

Khan was struck by the way rigid steel framed structures had dominated construction, and proposed that using a tubular design was not only stronger and more efficient, but used far less material and offered greater interior space for developers to lease out.

His three tubular systems, the framed tube, trussed tube and bundled tube designs have dominated construction design since the 1960s, and most supertall buildings since then have used one of these design principals.

It seems that a new skyscraper or supertall building is opened every other week. In fact, with 20 new buildings stretching to over 200m each opening last year, that was almost the case.

It wasn’t a bad year considering the effects the global economic downturn had to economies around the globe but much of this can be put down to the way in which building projects are funded and executed.

The global spread of the skyscraper has been astounding and so too is the shift in where they’re being built. Rising economies in developing nations have prompted a unprecedented building boom which has seen nations from Brazil to China sink billions into massive infrastructure projects and skyscraper builds.

By the 1970s, North America had constructed more than 90% of the world’s tallest buildings. By the 1980s and 1990s, America’s ‘share’ in the top 100 tallest towers had shrunk to 80% as developing economies began to fund major showcase projects.

By 2010, America’s position in the world top 100 had shrunk to around 30% as a building boom in Asia and the Middle East accelerated, fuelled mainly by large scale high-rise development in Dubai.

Globally, skyscraper development is still on a roll despite the economic downturn. While dozens of projects have hit major hurdles throughout the world, the number of recently completed buildings and those due for completion over the next five years is impressive nonetheless.

According to the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, there are 608 buildings that stand over 200m tall around the world, over half of them in Asia (323), with one third (202) in China alone.

With dozens of projects under construction throughout the country, China will add 174 more 200m+ towers to its tally over the next five years. By contrast, second placed North America currently has 173 towers, with just 16 under development and scheduled to be finished by 2016.

The tallest city in the world is a matter for debate, and it really does depend on where you set the bar. If you count the total number of towers over 150m, then Hong Kong wins hands down.

With 269 residential and office towers that burst through the 150m ceiling, Hong Kong leads New York (217), Chicago (110), Shanghai (108) and Dubai (107) as the tallest city on the planet.

If you raise the bar to 200m, Hong Kong maintains its position at the top of the world, with 52 towers providing a combined height of 12,382m.

However, if you restrict the count to the tallest 10 towers over 200m, then Dubai can claim to be the world’s tallest city, ahead of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Chicago and New York.

Over the next five years the global picture will change considerably, with 347 more towers surpassing 200m due for completion. These are not proposed towers, or towers that exist only on paper – these are current construction projects that have either been started or have topped out.

By 2015, barring the odd construction delay or contractual dispute in building handover, there will be 955 towers surpassing 200m around the world.

Of the 173 skyscrapers that will be built in places other than China by 2014, 69 will be constructed in the Middle East (23 each for Dubai and Abu Dhabi), 44 in other parts of Asia, 20 in Europe, 19 in Central America, 16 in North America, four in Oceania and one in South America.

This radically reshapes the list of world’s tallest cities, particularly given that Dubai and Abu Dhabi are ranked by the CTBUH as the busiest cities in the world when it comes to skyscraper construction.

Dubai has more supertall towers (towers over 300m) than any other city in the world. With 12 supertalls due for handover in the next four years, plus another 11 towers between 200-300m under construction, Dubai will easily grab headlines as the world’s tallest city by 2014. By then, Dubai’s 62 200m+ towers will have a combined height of 16,788m.

The city’s biggest threat will come from New York where six new towers, each surpassing 200m, are under construction. Four of them are part of the new World Trade Centre development, and all will be finished by 2015.

By then, New York will overtake Shanghai and Hong Kong to become the world’s second tallest city, with 57 200m+ towers totalling 13,634m. Shanghai has eight new skyscrapers under construction at present, including the 632m 128-storey Shanghai Tower – a mixed use hotel, office, exhibition and retail complex.

With a combined height of 13,094m covering its 49 200m+ towers, Shanghai will become the world’s third tallest city ahead of Hong Kong by 2015.

Hong Kong poses no threat: the city’s construction boom is over, with nothing over 200m on the horizon in the foreseeable future. Nearby Shenzhen, however, is a city on the rise.

Its transformation from a small fishing village in to a global economic powerhouse within a 40 year period has been remarkable. Since the 1970s, more than $30billion has poured in to the region thanks to its status as China’s first, and most successful, Special Economic Zones.

That status has brought about rapid change in the city’s landscape and, by 2014, it will be the fifth tallest city in the world. It will trail nearby placed Hong Kong by a considerable margin, but it will surpass Chicago which, with a lack of new development, will slip to sixth in world rankings.

Abu Dhabi’s transformation is well underway. By 2014 the 23 new towers currently under construction will be finished, elevating the UAE capital to seventh spot in world rankings. Abu Dhabi has 30 towers over 150m tall under construction at present and is second only to Dubai in the number of projects on the go.

Tianjin will also enter the world’s Top 10 by 2015. Its status as one of China’s five national central cities has helped it to become another successful global financial hub, maintaining an annual growth rate of nearly 30% of the GDP. The city hosts 285 Fortune Global 500 companies, including Rockefeller, Tishman Speyer, Motorola and EADS Airbus.

This has also sparked a city-wide construction boom which has fuelled 16, 200m+ skyscrapers to add to the five that already stand in the city. The tallest is the 597m Goldin Finance 117, designed by P & T Group and ECADI.

Panama City in Central America is also undergoing a major construction boom helped, no doubt, by the city’s status as the political and administrative centre of the country. It is also a hub for international banking and commerce, and was listed as one of the best places in the world to retire in a recent poll.

As it stands, the city only has three towers that surpass 200m at present, but there are 17 massive towers under construction, with 12 of them due for completion this year.

10 tallest cities in the world
Tallest cities in the world, ranked by total height of all buildings over 200m.

2010
1 Hong Kong 
2 New York
3 Shanghai 
4 Dubai 
5 Chicago
6 Shenzhen 
7 Kuala Lumpur
8 Nanjing
9 Moscow
10 Toronto

2015
1 Dubai
2 New York 
3 Shanghai
4 Hong Kong
5 Shenzhen
6 Chicago
7 Abu Dhabi
8 Tianjin
9 Panama City
10 Shenyang


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