Inside the Collection

High, higher, highest: skyscrapers

The Woolworth Building
The Woolworth Building. Photography by Charles Pickett.

Two recent happenings in New York City set me thinking about skyscrapers. One was a small controversy about the Empire State Building. The other was the anniversary of the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre towers.

I’ll come back to 9/11 later, but first to the Empire State. It hasn’t been the world’s tallest building since the 1970s but is still more famous and more visited than the several towers which have outranked it since its completion in 1931. About four million people visit the Empire State’s two observation floors every year.

As a result of the Empire State’s fame, there was a minor media buzz recently when plans were revealed to build a new office tower just two blocks west. The new project is envisioned as a 67-floor, 363 metre tower, shorter than the Empire State’s 102 floors and 443 metres. But its potential proximity caused the Empire State’s owners to argue that the new building’s height and design would encroach on the most famous image of New York’s skyline.

Foyer of the Empire State Building
Foyer of the Empire State Building. Photography by Charles Pickett.

It’s fascinating that the city which gave the skyscraper to the world (although Chicago also has a claim to this title) can still make a fuss over a new one. The first generation of skyscrapers, completed around 1900, are mostly still clustered in the financial district at lower Manhattan. The Woolworth Building, the Equitable Life Building and others are must-sees for anyone interested in architecture and urban history (so is a visit to the excellent Skyscraper Museum near Battery Park), but the scattered mid-Town towers of the 1930s are bigger attractions on the tourist trail. As well as the Empire State, the foyers of the Chrysler Building and the Rockefeller Centre are daily thronged with wide-eyed visitors, no doubt to the weariness of those lucky enough to boast these fabulous structures as work addresses.

Unlike more recent ‘tallest in the worlds’, the Empire State held this title for more than forty years until the World Trade Centre was completed in 1972. Today there are 14 towers taller than the Empire State, plus a few currently under construction. These new skyscrapers are primarily located in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Nanjing, Dubai, Kuwait City and other Asian and Gulf cities (see here for more information).

Skyscrapers are the most prominent artefact of the headlong modernisation of Asia and the Gulf. This skyscraper boom has attracted criticism in the West for its disregard of environmental and urban sustainability. It has also fuelled local cultural and political divisions. Undoubtedly the most extreme opponent of skyscrapers was Mohamed Atta, who piloted one of the planes which destroyed the World Trade Centre. Atta’s argument with the West was founded in his architecture and urban planning studies at the universities of Cairo and Hamburg. His Hamburg Masters thesis examined the threat posed to ancient cities by modern development. He reserved particular criticism for tall buildings, which he claimed destroyed the privacy and seclusion necessary for Muslim domestic life, and argued that skyscrapers should be demolished in Aleppo and other Middle Eastern cities.

As Daniel Brook observed, ‘Atta did not choose the World Trade Centre as a target…But when Atta was told he would lead a mission to destroy America’s tallest and most famous modernist high-rise complex—the apotheosis of the building type he dreamed of razing in Aleppo—he may have felt the hand of divine providence at work’.

Atta’s crime has clearly not weakened the Islamic world’s appreciation of skyscrapers. Very tall buildings came into being through the confluence of three things: the elevator, steel framed building structures and land and property prices high enough to justify the expense of building tall. But most of the towers built to attract attention are not accountants’ products: they are designed to make a statement of their city’s wealth and importance. This is what the Woolworth Building and the Empire State Building did for New York. It’s also what the current tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa (828 metres, 162 floors) is meant to do for Dubai’s reputation as a new financial and tourist centre. However the new super tall towers – Taipei 101 Tower, the International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong, etc – are not household names internationally, suggesting that the publicity value of extreme height may be in decline.

Q1 building, Gold Coast, Australia
Q1 building, Gold Coast, Australia. © Eric Sierins/Max Dupain & Associates

At least, this appears to be the case in Australia. The Gold Coast apartment tower Q1, completed in 2005 (323 metres, 80 floors), is somewhere between 30 and 40 in the world height ranking. However it is also the tallest residential building in the world.

Despite this status Q1 lacks appreciation in its home country. Sydneysiders tend to be dismissive of the Gold Coast and blasé about tall buildings, while Melbournians were miffed that the northern upstart overshadowed their new Eureka Tower. They take city rivalry seriously in the southern capital.

Unfortunately these prejudices were not sufficiently considered when choosing a cover image for my book Homes in the Sky. Several readers told us that they had no idea where the cover pic was shot and/or had never heard of Q1. Oh well.

2 responses to “High, higher, highest: skyscrapers

  • Charles,
    This is a fascinating post.
    Interesting that you say Sydney folk are blase about tall buildings. Having lived/worked in Sydney for 15 years I recently took a trip to my small home town on the Far North Coast. (havent been home for years) Once I got there i was really struck by how much ‘sky’ there was! I couldn’t stop commenting about the expansive amount of blue. I will take more notice of the city sky stealers from now on.

    I have actually driven past/seen from the beach, the Q1 a few times and wondered about it.

  • I have family living on the Gold Coast so know the Q1 well. It makes a good centrepiece on NYE and an even better reference point to find you’re way around. Haven’t yet made it up to the QDeck though…maybe next time.

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