High-rise housing has a rich history that embraces the very top and the very bottom of the social pile, serving paradoxically as the preserve of both the super-rich in their glamorous skyscrapers and the poor in their tenements and concrete slabs. It is the ultimate dream of the modernist architect, offering up the minimalist visions of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe as well as the extravagantly sculptural forms of the latest blockbuster buildings. It is a form that fascinates and seduces planners, developers, designers and homebuyers. And this has never been more true than today.

The commercial skyscraper emerged in response to the high land costs of the central business districts of US cities. Cass Gilbert, architect of New York’s 1913 Woolworth Building, called the structure a “machine for making the land pay”. Residential districts didn’t have to be in city centres, of course. In fact there was a powerful desire for separation between work and home so rich urbanites tended to live in green, lower-rise districts, overlooking Central Park in midtown and uptown Manhattan, for example, or scattered around Regent’s Park and Hyde Park in London.

Still, the idea of residential towers, of “living in the clouds” eventually took hold. US architects contributed some superb examples, notably New York’s 1926 Ritz Tower by Emery Roth, and some surprising failures, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1956 Price Tower in Oklahoma, the apartments of which were too small. (It is now, remarkably, being used for storage.) But, ironically, it was the utopian socialist Europeans who brought real chic to the experiment, expressing their ideas about communal living and idealised landscapes in exquisitely articulated towers – Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation (1952) near Marseilles and Mies van der Rohe’s apartment blocks on Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive (1951).

Almost diametric opposites, these two contemporary paradigms defined the trajectory of high-rise living for the rest of the century. The former – a sculptural concrete monolith with interlocking interiors – became the model for much social housing across the world; the latter – slick, fully-glazed, crystalline, projecting itself into the view and impossibly cool – continues to inspire top-end design.

Residential skyscrapers were tainted in the ensuing decades by the failure of thousands of social-housing towers stretching from Detroit to Moscow and by an association with the corporate climate. In recent years, however, a number of factors have resulted in an explosion in their perceived glamour and, as a result, their popularity.

First among these is the astronomical inflation in land prices in city centres. But that alone can’t account for everything; just look at the boom in the Dubai desert. There is also the invention of the premium market, in which differentiation is everything. These are buildings with superb locations, even if they have to specially manufactured on, say, a man-made island. But equally importantly they are landmarks – not only in their internal grandeur, as in the great Park Avenue buildings or the mansions blocks of Kensington, but also in their external appearance. This quest for an original form, the use of the sculptural profile as a marketing tool, has coincided with an architectural movement towards creating icons.

In the original high-rise cities, New York and Chicago, the design of buildings was traditionally dictated by the city grid. From these square blocks forms were extruded and modelled through the use of setbacks and spires to comply with regulations intended to allow sunlight into the streets below, avoiding the canyon effect. The architecture was subtractive, the way in which Michelangelo revealed an essence within a block of stone.

The new skyscrapers, by contrast, can be seen more in a European tradition in which a tall building becomes an autonomous sculptural object within the cityscape, more Eiffel Tower than Empire State. This has allowed architects the freedom to articulate the form not through the interior or the street but on a whim. The crazier the better as difference equals exclusivity. In some cases this has led to brilliant buildings; in most it leads to the worst kind of formalist whimsy and to cities that do not work at street level, as Manhattan does, but instead become an incoherent architectural theme park affording scant attention to the pedestrian.

Nevertheless, this is increasingly the future for our urban skylines. And now it is all the big cities that are participating although New York is once again leading the way, with developers lining up dozens of high-profile international architects to build residential towers alongside its famous office buildings. Indeed, the destruction of the World Trade Center in the most horrific and symbolic manner imaginable seems to have had remarkably little impact on the urge to live high. The first sign of the new boom came a year after 9/11 with Richard Meier’s Perry Street Towers overlooking the Hudson River on the edge of Greenwich Village – sleek, clean, classic modernism from the man who kept the Bauhaus aesthetic going through the fluffy years of postmodernism. They proved a huge success, attracting a dream list of buyers from Martha Stewart to Nicole Kidman but they also set a precedent for designer apartments – housing to be acquired in the same way as you consume classic modernist furniture or a statement handbag. It was the dawn of the architect-branded high-rise.

Frank Gehry, designer of the Bilbao Guggenheim, has also come to New York, creating the ambitious 75-storey Beekman Tower currently under construction in lower Manhattan. Three storeys more (although physically lower) than the Trump World Tower, currently the city’s tallest residential building, and draped in diaphanous skirts of glass and metal seemingly billowing in the wind, it promises a theatrical take on the architect’s signature, crumpled and fluid style.

French architect Christian Portzamparc is working on a faceted, gem-like design on 28th Street near the Chrysler building – the crown of which perhaps partially inspired it – while Enrique Norton is behind an elegant, slender residential tower up in Harlem, which has become a symbol of the area’s entering Manhattan’s stratospheric real-estate market after years of isolation. And Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has designed an extraordinary tower on South Street composed of a stack of a dozen torquing cubes derived from carefully engineered sculptures and developing on the theme of his 54-storey Turning Torso building in Malmo, Sweden. In Chicago, too, Calatrava has been in the headlines thanks to his Fordham Spire, a candy twist fantasy that would be among the most recognisable and weird buildings in the world.

Not to be outdone, Europe has offered its own raft of residential skyscrapers over the past decade. The Turning Torso is nearly the continent’s tallest residential building – but not quite. That privilege falls to Moscow’s Triumph Palace, a skyscraper started in 2001 that builds on the language of the city’s Stalinist Seven Sisters, which themselves attempted to harness New York’s capitalist skyline for the Russian proletariat. At 57 storeys, Triumph Palace is an awesome, stagey addition to the city’s burgeoning skyline, which is also in line to get a sleek pair of skyscrapers from British superstarchitect Zaha Hadid.

The boom in status-symbol living is perhaps most visible in Dubai, though, where extravagant architecture is being used to create an instant city composed solely of landmarks. The Burj Dubai, which officially became the tallest building in the world on July 21 (at half a mile high), is the zenith of this phenomenon. The 45th to 108th floors of the SOM-designed tower contain residential apartments (which apparently sold out within eight hours); above them will be offices, below the world’s first Armani hotel.

That hotel gives another clue to the differentiation high-rise schemes are able to offer. The frequent inclusion of five-, six- or even seven-star hotels across several storeys allows residents of the apartments above to receive 24-hour service. There is nothing new in this – the Ritz Tower pioneered it in the 1920s – but it does represent the next step after a private pool for money-rich, time-poor homebuyers.

As US and European cities snag starchitects and the Middle East pushes the limits of height, east Asia continues to dominate in density of residential towers as it has since Hong Kong embraced the idea in the early 1970s. The former British colony has nearly 8,000 skyscrapers, as opposed to New York’s fewer than 6,000, and they accommodate a huge proportion of the city’s housing. Although oppressive crowding and lack of public space have discouraged some Chinese cities from following that example, there’s no question that high-rise is still seen as the high-tech solution. Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Shenzhen and Beijing continue to rocket skywards even where there seems little need. Singapore is also catching up with increasingly sophisticated buildings including an astonishing, gravity-defying new design by Rem Koolhaas, which looks set to be one of the world’s most attention-seeking structures. Seoul, Tokyo and, further across the Pacific, Sydney have highly developed skyscraper cultures too and each city’s skyline is rising.

But the most curious cases of cities affected by the skyscraper boom can be found back in the UK. Whether it is because of an attachment to front and back gardens, the stigmatisation of the tower through its social-housing associations or just lack of opportunity, the British have never traditionally taken to living high. Since the 18th century, London’s residential market instead rewarded the architecturally self-effacing, with the central parts of the city dominated by streets and squares of identical houses that are sublimated by the larger whole. Differentiation was seen as vulgar – reflected in the continuing popularity of Georgian and Victorian terraces – and high-rise living was confined to a few lonely clusters, notably the Barbican and Docklands. London is 32nd in the world ranking of tall-building concentration (behind Curitiba and Wuhan).

But things are changing wildly fast. From the appallingly articulated and architecturally clumsy developments around the river in Vauxhall to Renzo Piano’s piercing Shard of Glass planned for Southwark, which will be the UK’s tallest building and Europe’s number two, the push toward mixed used and residential towers is astonishing in its fervour. There is no single reason for the change. Instead it is a combination of wealth; astronomical property prices (suddenly making the huge costs of skyscrapers economical); a pro-development mayor; loosening of controls resulting in a series of new clusters for tower building, which is seen as less damaging to the skyline (especially to the dome of St Paul’s cathedral) than previous haphazard development; an influx of wealthy foreigners with fewer qualms about lateral living; an increasing interest in and awareness of international design; and the urge to differentiate developers’ offers. Architecture is now seen as a selling point. London has become less something to live in than to look at; views are critical as the city becomes the spectacle. And the effects can be felt beyond the capital as well; Manchester’s Beetham Tower has, for example, become a beacon for footballers and northern celebrities.

Where skylines around the world were once dominated by ceremonial and civic buildings – St Paul’s and St Patrick’s, St Pancras and Grand Central – they are now being overtaken by high-rises. These buildings have become default devices for making places, whether in Chicago or Shanghai. Spires, slabs and spikes are the new centrepieces for cities and, as residences, they are increasingly some of the most coveted homes.

Our future is firmly amongst the clouds.

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