Cass Gilbert, the brilliant architect of New York’s 1913 Woolworth Building, then the tallest tower in the world, called the skyscraper “a machine for making the land pay”. Building heights had traditionally been held back by construction technology and stairs. By the time the Woolworth Building rose, both had been overcome by a combination of the steel frame and the safety elevator invented by Elisha Otis in 1853. The skyscraper became the symbol of corporate power, the manifestation of the egos of the robber barons. Rising in the centres of cities where commercial land was scarce – downtown Manhattan, Chicago’s loop – they were corporate towers of power.
Developers soon muscled in on high rise – the better the mix of business and functions in the building, the better the spread of risk. If the offices weren’t letting during the Great Depression (when both the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings were completed), at least the apartments and shops might bring in rent.
So the skyscraper became a microcosmic city, a vertically zoned metropolis with its residential suburbs up top and its retail and commercial accommodation below. In the late 20th century this scenario, the skyscraper as mini-metropolis became a portent of doom, a symbol of man’s overreaching, an echo of the hubris of Babel, from The Towering Inferno (1974) to Die Hard (1988). JG Ballard in High Rise (1975) imagined the urban tower as a post-apocalyptic nightmare. The image of the high rise was devastated by its associations with social housing and societal collapse, the isolated tower in an urban wasteland. And then came 9/11, an attack on architecture as the symbol of US hegemony.
9/11 could have killed the high rise for ever. But, instead, the skyscraper roared back as the default setting for luxury living. The 829-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai smashed all records. But from London’s 310m Shard to the 632m Shanghai Tower, super-tall buildings (classified 300m or over) are shooting up – with apartments on their highest floors. The skyscraper has gone from corporate symbol to a building type which relies on pre-selling its highest apartments to fund its construction.
London’s most potent symbol of the rise of high rise is the Shard, designed by Genoese architect Renzo Piano, which will house Europe’s highest apartments. I ask Piano whether the Shard could actually be anywhere. One of the problems with towers is they tend to the global, not the specific; their scale takes them away from the context below. “The thing that I notice about London every time I spend time there,” Piano tells me, “is the sky: it is constantly changing, never the same. The walls of the Shard are inclined so they reflect the sky, which makes it a kind of atmospheric building. You could almost say that London is photosensitive.”
The Shard has made a huge impression on the city’s skyline, radically altering its focus towards the south. James Sellar, chief executive of Sellar, developers of the Shard, tells me: ‘There’s now a clear understanding about prominence, about the quality of the architecture. These very tall buildings can become cultural landmarks and create a fascinating value proposition in which the value you can create allows you to invest more in the architecture.” The growing popularity of high rise, Sellar says, “is about the globalisation of the city and people bringing with them the expectation of portered, secure space with all the facilities instead of the traditional terraced house [being the default] in the high-value bands.”
Centre Point was once a similar high-rise symbol of a city. This 34-storey extrusion of swinging London, designed by John Seifert, is now being converted by developers Almacantar to become one of London’s most panoramic apartment blocks – an illustration of the rise in residential compared to commercial value. When I ask Almacantar chief executive Mike Hussey whether the tower will become prime residential property in an unresidential area he replies: “Centre Point is in the middle of a viewing corridor with protected views. A thousand feet up in the air could be prime anywhere.”
Property consultants Savills suggest that for prime London property the premium for higher floors might rise in increments of 2.5 per cent to 3 per cent, or £25,000-plus per floor. But the real premium comes with penthouse properties where, one consultant tells me, “the increases are without rules!”
In Manhattan, high-rise living is nothing new but even there the new generation of super-tall buildings is as much residential as commercial. Realtors are eyeing French architect Christian de Portzamparc’s One 57, a 90-storey, 300m tower on West 57th Street. New York real estate broker Charlotte van Doren of Stribling & Associates says: “One 57 has been like a bellweather. One penthouse is being marketed at $115m [which would make it Manhattan’s most expensive apartment]. Another six-bedroom penthouse in 15 Central Park West [designed by Robert AM Stern] is on for $85m.” Is this move from the traditional mid-rises of the Upper East Side and the traditional brownstones fuelled by foreigners who have different desires from the locals? “I think it’s partly empty-nesters driving the market, couples who want a change, a ‘wow’ experience,” she says.
But even New York looks low rise beside the burgeoning skylines of Asia. Hong Kong is the highest rise city, its upstanding monuments including the 68-storey Cullinan Towers, once containing the world’s most expensive apartments, though since left far behind. For most Hong Kong residents there’s no choice but to live in a high rise, and once you’ve accepted that the higher the better. The more high rise a city is the greater the premium for a higher floor.
In mainland China, the skyscraper boom shows no signs of abating: the country boasts more than half the world’s skyscrapers. James MacDonald, head of Savills China Research, says, “If you want a new build in a downtown location, new-build high rise is pretty much the only option. The predominance of high rise in China is the result of government policy.”
What is more surprising is the burgeoning skylines of towers in second and third-tier cities. Shanghai-based Greenland is developing the Greenland centre in Wuhan, a $4.8bn scheme centred on a 606m tower designed by Adrian Smith (architect of the Burj Khalifa), including 50,000 sq m of “luxury” apartments. The same developer is also building super-tall towers in Dalian and Nanjing. These are less to do with demand than civic boosterism – a symbol that a city has arrived on the international scene. Whether there is demand is questionable.
Towers create their own landscape. In architecturally undistinguished settings, they create a sense of modernity and financial dynamism. In New York or London, towers command high-rise prices where there is a view, a park, the river, landmarks. In cities where there is little to see the view becomes, ironically, all the more important.
Even the streets of Mumbai can look good from an apartment in the sky. Lodha Group’s 117-storey World One, designed by US architects Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, is being billed as the world’s tallest residential building. The most expensive apartment is expected to fetch $10m. India also attracted headlines with the world’s first family skyscraper, Mukesh D. Ambani’s astonishing 27-storey home for himself and his family in Mumbai. The building boasts three helipads, six storeys of parking garages and “floating gardens”. Oligarchitecture.
If the skyscraper is a cipher for the ego of a developer, an architect or a city, then how much more of a statement is it when it is a house? It used to be said that verticality was the way to read the changing nature of power in a city. First there were the cathedral spires, then there were the mills and factory chimneys. These were followed by the towers of corporate commerce in the 20th century and now we have skyscrapers for the few individuals of the global elite.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic