When the human race started to build skyscrapers, the process as about ambition as much as it was about practicality or architecture. We wanted and needed new places to work in our increasingly busy city centers, but we also wanted to make a statement about our increasing mastery over shape and structure. A skyscraper is a symbol of humankind reaching for the heavens and striving for greater heights. Ever since the Home Insurance Building in Chicago became the world’s first-ever skyscraper in the late 19th century, they’ve become the go-to design for major building and architectural companies all over the world when a bg-name business wants a new home.i
For most of the 20th century, skyscrapers were seen as being futuristic. All the science fiction of the 1920s and 1930s predicted that the cities of decades to come would be dominated by towers, and by the end of the century, it appeared that they might be right. The skylines of big cities started to look a little bit like the movie ‘Metropolis’ or the futuristic online slots game ‘Fortunium,’ with its depiction of a smoky city where steel giants rose above the smog. Online slots are games of chance and risk, though. For decades, there was little financial risk involved in making skyscrapers. If you could build them, someone would buy them. It might have made for an entertaining backdrop for a slots UK, but for dozens of building firms all over the planet, it was a profitable reality.
Now, with our feet firmly under the feet of the 21st century’s table, it appears that we might be leaving skyscrapers behind. No style of building lasts forever, and even that which once looked futuristic begins to look tired and dated. The harsh financial realities of the past decade-or-so have set in for both the builders of skyscrapers and the companies who used to buy them and rent space for them, and the net result is that there are high-rise buildings in major cities all over the planet that no longer have occupants or a purpose. If there’s a demolition project about to happen in your local town or city, the chances that it’s one of the largest buildings in your area are quite high. Modern design is more about minimalism, and there’s no place for a steel colossus in a minimalist city. Skyscrapers are yesterday’s news, and fewer are being built now than at any point in the past fifty years.
While not ordering new skyscrapers is one thing, prohibiting them from being built at all is quite another – and yet that’s the new reality in China, where the building of new skyscrapers is officially banned as of May 2020. Building anything taller than 1600 feet is now forbidden, and even buildings reaching heights of 820 will only be approved on a limited basis. According to the information coming out of the country, the Chinese government has decided that skyscrapers no longer represent ‘Chinese characteristics,’ and so they have to go. The move comes as part of a wider-reaching Chinese ambition to ‘improve urban landscapes,’ but skyscrapers are the most significant casualties of the new policy. No more will be built – and we can expect to see some of the ones that already exist being torn down.
What goes on in China isn’t necessarily typical of most countries (in fact it’s often quite the opposite), but it’s a dramatic change of heart from a state that once took pride in building skyscrapers, and in fact plays host to some of the very tallest on the planet. Only Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is taller than the Shanghai Tower, and that’s barely taller than Shenzen’s Ping An Finance Center and Tianjin’s Golden Finance 117 Tower. Each of the towers has its own unique design, and each can be considered a unique piece of architecture without analog anywhere else in the world. The design of Chinese skyscrapers have evolved considerably over time, but that period of evolution now appears to have reached a dead end.
We don’t expect skyscrapers to be expressly banned elsewhere in the world at the time of writing. It’s hard to imagine such a directive being issued in the United States of America, or in most of Europe. At the same time, though, hearing the news has made us realize that it’s been a very long time since we heard about a major new skyscraper project anywhere. Initially, we thought that was because every company that wants one already has one, but now we’re wondering whether it’s merely a change in tastes. Fifty years ago, companies as large as Google, Amazon, and Facebook would automatically have built skyscrapers once they reached a certain size. It would have been a symbol of their wealth and power. None of the companies owns a skyscraper. Each of them has located its head office within a unique building unlike any other, and the uniqueness of the building is their calling card instead. Where leaders go, others follow, and if the world’s biggest companies have decided that skyscrapers are a thing of the past, it’s likely that the next set of big-money businesses will reach the same conclusion.
Perhaps this is yet another sign that the world’s major towns and cities are moving away from homogeneity. After years of building identical high streets, shopping centers, and skyscrapers, communities are looking to regain their sense of individuality and expression. A skyscraper, no matter how it’s dressed up, will always look like any other skyscraper from a distance. If you take a picture of London and then take a picture of New York and then place them side by side, it’s sometimes difficult to tell one from another. What started as a statement of ambition has, perhaps, become a statement of uniformity. Cities started building skyscrapers because no other cities had them. Now they’ve stopped building skyscrapers because everybody else has one.
Ultimately, a new era can only begin when the previous era comes to an end. If skyscrapers are no longer part of the architectural zeitgeist, something else will come along and replace them. We can’t wait to find out what that might be.