Skyscrapers are tied to the fortunes of cities. So it may seem a strange moment to celebrate tall buildings, when people are questioning—in the U.S., at least—the future of the metropolis. Will people who fled urban life during the pandemic come back to their cramped apartments? Will the workforce that’s spent the last year Zooming all day want to put on a starched shirt or high-heeled pumps and commute to the office?
The answers are not yet clear, but it’s likely not a matter of if people come back to cities but when. Yes, some will stay put in suburbia, but many more will pursue a hybrid work model. Big tech companies, which have pioneered the contemporary collaborative workplace, believing in the creative power of spontaneous interaction, are reopening offices, offering an array of work options. While some companies may shrink the footprint of their space, many professionals—including architects—are eager to return to in-person engagement as soon as it is safe to do so.
And whatever the new normal becomes, there will always be those who seek the energy and communion of city life.
Meanwhile, tall buildings preside over the urban ebb and flow like giant redwoods: it takes time for the seed of a skyscraper to germinate, through concept, design, engineering, financing, and construction. Yet the returns can be elusive: the Empire State Building, where RECORD has its offices, was the tallest building in the world for some 40 years, but it didn’t turn a profit for the first 20. Today’s supertalls, generally defined as 300 meters (984 feet) high, often don’t pay back the investment—the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest, is a loss leader—but they can be linchpins for lucrative surrounding development, particularly in Asia, as Carol Willis, the founder of the Skyscraper Museum in New York, explains in an interview.
In fact, China is clearly the nexus of this supertall economy, where 17 of the 25 tallest skyscrapers in the world are under construction.
Wherever they are being built, skyscrapers continue to capture the public imagination as they evolve dramatically through innovative engineering and design. The modernist model—an orthogonal volume of stacked floorplates—has been sidelined by asymmetric forms and structural derring-do. In the May 2021 issue, you will encounter some examples. With One Manhattan West in New York, SOM has created an elegantly sleek glass supertall (996 feet) that gently tapers as it rises. But the surprise is visible in the lobby, where there are no perimeter columns; the concrete-core and surrounding steel framework is expressed in the immense, travertine-clad, trunk-like pedestal that flares out like the crown of a tree. This is not a gimmick—“It’s impossible to invent shapes without thinking about structure,” says the building’s lead designer, Gary Haney—but a solution to accommodating the active train lines that run underneath the building.
Similarly, existing infrastructure inspired BIG’s stainless-steel-and-glass mixed-use tower in Vancouver, which nestles at the foot of a highway on-ramp: the squeezed footprint dictated a form, narrow at its base, that spirals up to become an orthogonal plan for most of its 53 stories. In Studio Gang’s St. Louis residential tower (just 36 floors), the drama comes from the desire to provide unobstructed views and balconies, which resulted in a zigzagging facade of outwardly splayed elements. And to expedite the construction of NBBJ’s swooping Rainier Square mixed-use high-rise (850 feet) in Seattle, with its broad base and curving, slender tower, the engineers employed speed core, an innovative concrete and steel-plate structural spine.
But it is in China that developers seem to embrace the most ambitious forms, as seen in Morphosis’s Hanking Center in Shenzhen: a slender tower (1,148 feet high) sitting on a muscular, angled base, anchored by a detached steel-framed core. Indeed, says the firm’s founding principal, Thom Mayne, “The clients are adventurous.”
Punctuating city skylines around the world with dynamic peaks and spires and—at their best—meeting the ground in ways that animate and enhance the public realm, skyscrapers are not a typology that is going away. With advancing structural technology—and the very human dream of reaching for new heights—they are only going to get taller.