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Skyscraper design, construction & history of the high rise phenomenon

An in-depth look at the history and evolution of the iconic skyscraper design; from 10-storey origins to a century-long competition to be named the tallest building.

  • One World Trade Center, 2014, Manhattan

  • The Burj Khalifa, 2009, Dubai

  • The Abraj Al Bait Towers, 2012, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

  • The Empire State Building

A skyscraper building and the concept of a high rise building is synonymous with modern, contemporary architecture – think the Gherkin in London, the Shard in London, the Nanjing International Youth Cultural Centre in China, the Evolution Tower in Moscow, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai; all stunning examples of neo-futurist architecture. However the history of skyscraper architecture dates back to as early as the 1850s. Although the first skyscraper design was not built until years later, the essential elements comprising the iconic architectural form were taking form in other buildings.

Skyscraper construction was made possible by technological advances in the industry such as the safety elevator – invented by Elisha Otis in 1852 – meant that upper floors were now as accessible (and thus rentable) as the lower floors. Furthermore cage and skeleton construction and the ability to fireproof columns and beams, contributed to the evolution.

The Chrysler Building, 1931, Manhattan

There are a few different buildings in the period between 1870 and 1892 that vie for the title of the first skyscraper.

Carl Condit (1914–1997) was an American historian of urban and architectural history and attributed the title of the first skyscraper to the Equitable Life Assurance Building (1870, demolished 1912) by Arthur Gilman and Edward H. Kendall, with George B. Post as a consulting engineer. This view is supported by the online Arts Encyclopaedia visual-arts-cork.com.

Montgomery Schuyler (1843-1914) was a highly influential critic, journalist and writer who wrote across art, literature, music and architecture. He saw both the Western Union Building by George B. Post (1875, demolished 1914) in Manhattan and the Tribune Building by Richard Morris Hunt (1875) also in Manhattan as the first skyscrapers built. Henry-Russell Hitchcock (1903-1987) was an American architectural historian who supported this view.

The Mexican architect and historian Francisco Mujica, (1899-unknown) saw the Home Insurance Building by William Le Baron Jenney (1885) in Chicago as the first skyscraper while the American art historian James Carson Webster (1905-1989) gave the title to the Masonic Temple Building by Daniel Burnham (1892, demolished 1939) in Chicago.


What is a skyscraper?

In the late 19th century the term skyscraper was applied to buildings of 10 storeys or more. During the 20th century alongside advancements in construction technology the definition was refined to include only buildings that were more than 40 floors and taller than 150 metres/492 feet. Supertall skyscrapers denote buildings that are higher than 300 metres/984 feet and Megatall skyscrapers refer to buildings exceeding 600 metres/1969 feet.

The Abraj Al Bait Towers, 2012, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

How are skyscrapers built?

Like any tall building, key pillars in the design and construction of skyscrapers are creating safe, functional and comfortable spaces in a high rise building. Moreover, the levels must be easily and equally accessible via reliable elevators. However, skyscraper design has some unique considerations to take into account: they must support their weight, withstand the climate (on both ends of the spectrum from wind to earthquakes), and be fire-safe. Plumbing can also be tricky.

The dead load (the weight of the structure) is larger than the live load (the weight attributed to furniture, occupants, machinery etc) in skyscraper construction which means the amount of structural materials required on the lower levels is far greater than the amount required for the higher levels. Sometimes, this is hidden in the design and other times, such as the John Hancock Center (1969) in Chicago, the building can make a feature out if this unique design characteristic.

The substructure of a skyscraper must reach all the way to the bedrock, and if the bedrock is close to the surface, a top layer is removed and the surface of the bedrock smoothed out to a flat platform to form the building’s foundation.

One World Trade Center, 2014, Manhattan

The original skyscrapers were built around the concept of a steel frame however as the height increases steel frames begin to be less practical and more costly. Nowadays, steel frames aren’t recommended for buildings above 40 storeys. In the early 1960s the Bangladeshi-American structural engineer and architect Fazlur Rahman Khan developed the tube frame. It is a system in which a building is designed to act like a hollow cylinder, cantilevered perpendicular to the ground. In this way the building is able to better resist lateral loads such as wind, seismic forces and impacts without foregoing valuable floor space for additional support as the building climbs higher.

Since the tube structure was established in the 1960s most buildings over 40 storeys are designed using this method as best practice. The walls are often curtain walls, as they do not need to bear the weight of the buildings. Curtain walls are non-structural and act simply to protect occupants from the weather, however they can be designed to absorb sway induced by wind and seismic forces. They can be made from lightweight materials which can help reduce or offset the overall cost. As result many modern skyscrapers take advantage of the freedom afforded by curtain walls and design large surface areas of windows to allow natural light deeper into the centre of the building.

The Burj Khalifa, 2009, Dubai

The tallest building in the world

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest skyscraper in the world. Located in Downtown Dubai it was designed by Adrian Smith, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 2009. It stands at 829.8 metres/2,722 feet tall (total height) and features setbacks at various heights, common in skyscraper designs. The building is the centrepiece of a mixed-use development that includes private apartments, hotels, a mall, parkland and an artificial lake.

The most famous skyscrapers

Although the Empire State Building (1931) by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon in New York City was surpassed as the tallest building in the world in 1971 by the original World Trade Centre buildings, it is arguably one of the most famous skyscrapers not least for its cultural and pop cultural significance and iconic Art Deco detailing.

The most expensive skyscraper ever built – by far – is The Abraj Al Bait Towers (2012) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, designed by Dar Al-Handasah and costing $15 billion U.S. For comparison the second most expensive skyscraper is the Marina Bay Sands building in Singapore (2010) costing $5.7 billion U.S. Owned by the government, the Abraj Al Bait Towers were designed to modernise the city and cater to its pilgrims. The mixed-use, megatall development consists of 7 skyscrapers and a central tower features the world’s largest clock face (120 storeys tall). Contained within are restaurants, high-end retailers, luxury hotels and residential condos.

The Seagram Building, 1958, Manhattan

Cities with most skyscrapers

New York may have been the birthplace of skyscraper architecture but it is not the city with the most amount of skyscrapers. As of December 2019 Hong Kong has the most skyscrapers (355) followed by Shenzhen (289) and then New York City (284). Dubai comes in forth (199) followed by Shanghai (163) and China continues to dominate the top 10. Melbourne, with just 52 skyscrapers, is the first Australian city on the list at number 25, closely followed by Sydney at number 32 with 40 skyscrapers.

What will future skyscrapers look like?

Many of the most iconic contemporary skyscrapers have been built to the neo-futurist style, but generally a more classical approach is more common.

The Jeddah Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia is set to be at least 1-kilometre tall. It is designed in the neo-futurist style by Adrian Smith who also designed the Burj Khalifa – currently the tallest building in the world. Construction began in 2013 and although is currently on hold, it had planned to recommence in 2020.

It is difficult to predict what skyscrapers will look like or what style they will follow in the future – how will future advances in technology and materials affect the height, construction and appearance of skyscrapers? We cannot be sure. However, given current trends in sustainability and smart building technologies, we can assume that skyscrapers of the future will be inherently more integrated, flexible and adaptable than those of today. From reactive facades to onsite energy production, skyscrapers are set to become fully integrated with their surrounding urban environments. Built and designed as intelligent systems that react automatically to their inhabitants needs and changes in their environments – future skyscrapers, regardless of their physical appearance, will at their core resemble living urban organisms.


Top 10 skyscrapers across the world

1. The Chrysler Building

Location: Manhattan
Architect: William Van Alen
Date completed: 1931
Typology: Office
Cost: US$20 million



2. The Empire State Building

Location: Manhattan
Architect: Shreve, Lamb and Harmon
Date completed: 1931
Typology: Office, observation deck
Cost: US$41 million



3. Seagram Building

Location: Manhattan
Architect: Mies van der Rohe
Date completed: 1958
Typology: Office
Cost: US$36 million



4. The Willis Tower (A.K.A.Sears Tower)

Location: Chicago
Architect: Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; Fazlur Rahman Khan
Date completed: 1973
Typology: Office, observation, communication
Cost: US$150 million ($860 million today)



5. The Petronas Towers

Location: Kuala Lumpur
Architect: César Pelli
Date completed: 1998
Typology: Office
Cost: US$5.6 billion


6. The Burj Khalifa

Location: Dubai
Architect: Adrian Smith
Date completed: 2009
Typology: Mixed-use
Cost: USD $1.5 billion


7. The Marina Bay Sands

Location: Singapore
Architect: Moshe Safdie
Date completed: 2010
Typology: Hotel
Cost: US $5.5 billion



8. The Abraj Al Bait Towers

Location: Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Architect: Dar Al-Handasah
Date completed: 2012
Typology: Mixed use: hotel, residential
Cost: USD $15 billion



9. One World Trade Center

Location: Manhattan
Architect: David Childs (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)
Date completed: 2014
Typology: Office, observation, communication
Cost: US$3.9 billion


10. The Shanghai Tower

Location: Shanghai
Architect: Jun Xia (Gensler)
Date completed: 2014
Typology: Mixed-use
Cost: US$2.4 billion

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