There isn’t a global city in the world that wouldn’t look somewhat diminished if you took away its skyscrapers. Soaring above the historic skylines of cities from New York to Tokyo, these 20th-century innovations form an integral part of the image of a modern metropolis. Providing unrivalled views for those fortunate enough to live or work on the upper levels, skyscrapers are also masterpieces of practical engineering. Their ubiquity makes it easy to forget how much technology is required to build them, but for the architects responsible for their creation, each new project brings its own technical challenges and creative possibilities.
Skyscrapers were originally designed to create more living space in crowded cities, with the skyscraper era officially beginning in the late 19th century as construction boomed in New York City and Chicago. In the years since, ambitious architects have pushed the skyscraper to greater and greater heights. Today’s tallest skyscraper, the 828 metre-high Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is nearly eight times the size of the World Building, the tallest skyscraper in 1890.
The design of skyscrapers entails a complex balance of engineering, construction management and economics. During the design process of a skyscraper, the architects must ensure that the building can support its own weight. The dead load, or the weight of materials, will be considerably larger than the live load, which refers to people and furniture; together these make up the structural load that the building must withstand. Steel frames, concrete cores, tubes within tubes and clever use of shear walls are all often employed to strengthen a skyscraper’s foundations, but you’ll rarely notice these essential elements, as they are typically disguised by aesthetic architecture. A notable exception is Chicago’s John Hancock Center, whose supportive ‘x-bracing columns’ serve as an eye-catching design feature.
In addition to supporting themselves against the sheer weight of building materials, skyscrapers must also be able to resist high wind speeds, stand up to earthquakes, and provide safe exit routes in case of fire. The high floors of the building must be easily accessible, have good amenities and be completely climate-controlled. As these technical challenges have become more routine, even greater emphasis has been placed on originality of design and green credentials. The HSB Turning Torso in Malmö is a fitting example; Scandinavia’s tallest building, its top floor sits at a 90 degree angle to the bottom, with the intervening floors sitting at intermediate angles to create the impression of a twisting tower.
Until 1998 all of the world’s tallest skyscrapers were located in America, but recent years have witnessed a skyscraper boom in the middle and far east. In 1998, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, became the world’s tallest building and held the title until 2004, when the Taipei 101 was built. Dubai’s Burj Khalifa took the title in 2009, but looks set to lose it in 2018 when the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is scheduled for completion. Its exact height is yet to be confirmed, but will be at least 1,000 metres.
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