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A skyscraper is a tall, continuously habitable building of many storeys, usually designed for office and commercial use. There is no official definition or height above which a building may be classified as a skyscraper. One common feature is having a steel framework from which curtain walls are suspended, rather than load-bearing walls of conventional construction.

In context, a relatively small building may be considered a skyscraper if it protrudes well above its built environment and changes the overall skyline. The maximum height of structures has progressed historically with building methods and technologies. Also lacking an official definition, the term 'Supertall' has arisen for the current generation of exceptionally tall buildings.



The term "skyscraper" was first applied to buildings of steel framed construction of at least 10 storeys in the late 19th century, a result of public amazement at the tall buildings being built in major cities like Chicago, New York City, Detroit, and St. Louis.[1] The first steel frame skyscraper was the Home Insurance Building (originally 10 storeys with a height of ) in Chicago, Illinois in 1885. Some point to New York's seven-floor Equitable Life Assurance Building, built in 1870, as an early skyscraper for its innovative use of a kind of skeletal frame, but such designation depends largely on what factors are chosen. Even the scholars making the argument find it to be purely academic.[2]

The structural definition of the word skyscraper was refined later by architectural historians, based on engineering developments of the 1880s that had enabled construction of tall multi-storey buildings. This definition was based on the steel skeleton as opposed to constructions of load-bearing masonry, which passed their practical limit in 1891 with Chicago's Monadnock Building.

Louis Sullivan's The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered (1896)

The steel frame developed in stages of increasing self-sufficiency, with several buildings in Chicago and New York advancing the technology that allowed the steel frame to carry a building on its own. Today, however, many of the tallest skyscrapers are built almost entirely with reinforced concrete.[3]

Skyscraper and supertall

The Emporis Standards Committee defines a high-rise building as "a multi-storey structure between 35 100 meters tall, or a building of unknown height from 12 39 floors"[4] and a skyscraper as "a multi-storey building whose architectural height is at least ."[5] Some structural engineers define a highrise as any vertical construction for which wind is a more significant load factor than earthquake or weight. Note that this criterion fits not only high-rises but some other tall structures, such as towers.

The word skyscraper often carries a connotation of pride and achievement. The skyscraper, in name and social function, is a modern expression of the age-old symbol of the world center or axis mundi: a pillar that connects earth to heaven and the four compass directions to one another.[6]

A loose convention of some in the United States and Europe draws the lower limit of a skyscraper at .[7]

The term 'supertall' has been coined.


The Two Towers of Bologna in the 12th century reached <!-- convert --> in height.
The Two Towers of Bologna in the 12th century reached in height.
The 16th-century city of Shibam consisted entirely of over 500 high-rise tower houses.
The 16th-century city of Shibam consisted entirely of over 500 high-rise tower houses.

Pre-19th century

Modern skyscrapers are built with steel or reinforced concrete frameworks and curtain walls of glass or polished stone. They utilize mechanical equipment such as water pumps and elevators. Until the 19th century, buildings of over six storeys were rare, as having great numbers of stairs to climb was impractical for inhabitants, and water pressure was usually insufficient to supply running water above .

The tallest building in ancient times was the Great Pyramid of Giza in ancient Egypt, built in the 26th century BCE. It was not surpassed in height for thousands of years, the 14th century CE Lincoln Cathedral being conjectured by many to exceed it.[8] The latter in turn was not surpassed until the Washington Monument in 1884. However, being uninhabited, none of these structures actually complies with the modern definition of a skyscraper.

High-rise apartments flourished in classical antiquity. Ancient Roman insulae there and in other imperial cities reached 10 and more storeys.[9] Beginning with Augustus (r. 30 BCE-14 CE), several emperors attempted to establish limits of 20 25 m for multi-storey buildings, but met with only limited success.[10][11] Lower floors were typically occupied by shops or wealthy families, the upper rented to the lower classes.[9] Surviving Oxyrhynchus Papyri indicate that seven-storey buildings existed in provincial towns such as in 3rd century CE Hermopolis in Roman Egypt.[12]

The skylines of many important medieval cities had large numbers of high-rise urban towers, built by the wealthy for defense and status. The residential Towers of 12th century Bologna numbered between 80 to 100 at a time, capped by the "Two Towers". A Florentine law of 1251 decreed that all urban buildings be immediately reduced to less than 26 m.[13] Even medium-sized towns of the era are known to have proliferations of towers, such as the 72 up to 51 m height in San Gimignano.[13]

The medieval Egyptian city of Fustat housed many high-rise residential buildings, which Al-Muqaddasi in the 10th century described as resembling minarets. Nasir Khusraw in the early 11th century described some of them rising up to 14 storeys, with roof gardens on the top floor complete with ox-drawn water wheels for irrigating them.[14] Cairo in the 16th century had high-rise apartment buildings where the two lower floors were for commercial and storage purposes and the multiple storeys above them were rented out to tenants.[15] An early example of a city consisting entirely of high-rise housing is the 16th-century city of Shibam in Yemen. Shibam was made up of over 500 tower houses,[16] each one rising 5 to 11 storeys high,[17] with each floor being an apartment occupied by a single family. The city was built in this way in order to protect it from Bedouin attacks.[16] Shibam still has the tallest mudbrick buildings in the world, with many of them over high.[18]

An early modern example of high-rise housing was in 17th-century Edinburgh, Scotland, where a defensive city wall defined the boundaries of the city. Due to the restricted land area available for development, the houses increased in height instead. Buildings of 11 storeys were common, and there are records of buildings as high as 14 storeys. Many of the stone-built structures can still be seen today in the old town of Edinburgh. The oldest iron framed building in the world, although only partially iron framed, is The Flaxmill (also locally known as the "Maltings"), in Shrewsbury, England. Built in 1797, it is seen as the "grandfather of skyscrapers , since its fireproof combination of cast iron columns and cast iron beams developed into the modern steel frame that made modern skyscrapers possible. Unfortunately, it lies derelict and needs much investment to keep it standing.

Oriel Chambers, Liverpool. The world's first glass curtain walled building. The stone mullions are decorative.
Oriel Chambers, Liverpool. The world's first glass curtain walled building. The stone mullions are decorative.
The Wainwright Building, a 10-storey red brick office building in St. Louis, Missouri, built in 1891
The Wainwright Building, a 10-storey red brick office building in St. Louis, Missouri, built in 1891

Early skyscrapers

In 1852 Elisha Otis introduced the safety elevator, allowing convenient and safe passenger movement to upper floors. Another crucial development was the use of a steel frame instead of stone or brick, otherwise the walls on the lower floors on a tall building would be too thick to be practical. An early development in this area was Oriel Chambers in Liverpool. Designed by local architect Peter Ellis in 1864, the building was the world's first iron-framed, glass curtain-walled office building. It was only 5 floors high.[19][20][21] Further developments led to the world's first skyscraper, the ten-storey Home Insurance Building in Chicago, built in 1884 1885.[22] While its height is not considered very impressive today, it was at that time. The architect, Major William Le Baron Jenney, created a load-bearing structural frame. In this building, a steel frame supported the entire weight of the walls, instead of load-bearing walls carrying the weight of the building. This development led to the "Chicago skeleton" form of construction.

Burnham and Root's 1889 Rand McNally Building in Chicago, 1889, was the first all-steel framed skyscraper,[23] while Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri, 1891, was the first steel-framed building with soaring vertical bands to emphasize the height of the building and is therefore considered by some to be the first true skyscraper.

Most early skyscrapers emerged in the land-strapped areas of Chicago, London, and New York toward the end of the 19th century. A land boom in Melbourne, Australia between 1888 1891 spurred the creation of a significant number of early skyscrapers, though none of these were steel reinforced and few remain today. Height limits and fire restrictions were later introduced. London builders soon found building heights limited due to a complaint from Queen Victoria, rules that continued to exist with few exceptions until the 1950s. Concerns about aesthetics and fire safety had likewise hampered the development of skyscrapers across continental Europe for the first half of the twentieth century (with the notable exceptions of the 1898 Witte Huis (White House) in Rotterdam; the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool, completed in 1911 and high;[24] and the 17-storey Kungstornen (Kings' Towers) in Stockholm, Sweden, which were built 1924 25[25], the 15-storey Edificio Telef nica in Madrid, Spain, built in 1929; the 26-storey Boerentoren in Antwerp, Belgium, built in 1932; and the 31-storey Torre Piacentini in Genoa, Italy, built in 1940). After an early competition between Chicago and New York City for the world's tallest building, New York took the lead by 1895 with the completion of the American Surety Building, leaving New York with the title of tallest building for many years. New York City developers competed among themselves, with successively taller buildings claiming the title of "world's tallest" in the 1920s and early 1930s, culminating with the completion of the Chrysler Building in 1930 and the Empire State Building in 1931, the world's tallest building for forty years. The first completed World Trade Center tower became the world's tallest building in 1972. However, it was soon overtaken by the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) in Chicago within two years. The Sears Tower stood as the world's tallest building for 24 years, from 1974 until 1998, until it was edged out by Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, which held the title for six years.

Modern skyscrapers

From the 1930s onwards, skyscrapers also began to appear in Latin America (S o Paulo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Caracas, Bogot , Mexico City) and in Asia (Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, Mumbai, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Bangkok). Immediately after World War II, the Soviet Union planned eight massive skyscrapers dubbed "Stalin Towers" for Moscow; seven of these were eventually built. The rest of Europe also slowly began to permit skyscrapers, starting with Madrid, during the 1950s. Finally, skyscrapers also began to be constructed in cities of Africa, the Middle East and Oceania (mainly Australia) from the late 1950s.

In the early 1960s structural engineer Fazlur Khan realized that the rigid steel frame structure that had "dominated tall building design and construction so long was not the only system fitting for tall buildings", marking "the beginning of a new era of skyscraper revolution in terms of multiple structural systems."[26] His central innovation in skyscraper design and construction was the idea of the "tube" structural system, including the "framed tube", "trussed tube", and "bundled tube".[27] These systems allowed far greater economic efficiency,[28] and also allowed efficient skyscrapers to take on various shapes, no longer needing to be box-shaped.[29] Over the next fifteen years, many towers were built by Khan and the "Second Chicago School",[30] including the massive Willis Tower.[31] Since 2000, Cities like Chicago,[32] Shanghai,[33] Dubai, New York, and Toronto have experienced a huge surge in skyscraper construction. Chicago, Hong Kong, and New York City, otherwise known as "the big three," are recognized in architectural circles as having especially compelling skylines. A landmark skyscraper can inspire a boom of new high-rise projects in its city, as Taipei 101 has done in Taipei since its opening in 2004. In 2010, The Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park became the world's first commercial LEED Platinum skyscraper.

History of tallest skyscrapers

The Empire State Building in New York City is a well-known skyscraper and was the tallest in the world for nearly 40 years.
The Empire State Building in New York City is a well-known skyscraper and was the tallest in the world for nearly 40 years.
At the beginning of the 20th century, New York City was a center for the Beaux-Arts architectural movement, attracting the talents of such great architects as Stanford White and Carrere and Hastings. As better construction and engineering technology became available as the century progressed, New York and Chicago became the focal point of the competition for the tallest building in the world. Each city's striking skyline has been composed of numerous and varied skyscrapers, many of which are icons of 20th century architecture:

  • The Flatiron Building, designed by Daniel Hudson Burnham and standing 285 ft (87 m) high, was one of the tallest buildings in the city upon its completion in 1902, made possible by its steel skeleton. It was one of the first buildings designed with a steel framework, and to achieve this height with other construction methods of that time would have been very difficult. (The 1889 Tower Building, designed by Bradford Gilbert and considered by some to be New York's first skyscraper, may have been the first building to use a skeletal steel frame.)[34] Subsequent buildings such as the Singer Building, the Metropolitan Life Tower were higher still.
  • The Woolworth Building, a neo-Gothic "Cathedral of Commerce" overlooking City Hall, was designed by Cass Gilbert. At 792 feet (241 m), it became the world's tallest building upon its completion in 1913, an honor it retained until 1930, when it was overtaken by 40 Wall Street.
  • That same year, the Chrysler Building took the lead as the tallest building in the world, scraping the sky at 1,046 feet (319 m).[35] Designed by William Van Alen, an Art Deco style masterpiece with an exterior crafted of brick,[36] the Chrysler Building continues to be a favorite of New Yorkers to this day.[37]
  • The Empire State Building, the first building to have more than 100 floors (it has 102), was completed the following year. It was designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon in the contemporary Art Deco style. The tower takes its name from the nickname of New York State. Upon its completion in 1931 at 1,250 feet (381 m), it took the top spot as tallest building, and towered above all other buildings until 1972. The antenna mast added in 1951 brought pinnacle height to 1,472 feet (449 m), lowered in 1984 to 1,454 feet (443 m).[38]
  • The World Trade Center officially reached full height in 1972, was completed in 1973, and consisted of two tall towers and several smaller buildings. For a short time, the first of the two towers was the world's tallest building. Upon completion, the towers stood for 28 years, until the September 11 attacks destroyed the buildings in 2001. Various governmental entities, financial firms, and law firms called the towers home.
  • The Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) was completed in 1974, one year after the World Trade Center, and surpassed it as the world's tallest building. It was the first building to employ the "bundled tube" structural system, designed by Fazlur Khan.[29] The building was not surpassed in height until the Petronas Towers were constructed in 1998, but remained the tallest in some categories until Burj Khalifa surpassed it in all categories in 2010. It is currently the tallest building in the United States.

Momentum in setting records passed from the United States to other nations with the opening of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1998. The record for world's tallest building remained in Asia with the opening of Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan, in 2004. A number of architectural records, including those of the world's tallest building and tallest free-standing structure, moved to the Middle East with the opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

This geographical transition is accompanied by a change in approach to skyscraper design. For much of the twentieth century large buildings took the form of simple geometrical shapes. This reflected the "international style" or modernist philosophy shaped by Bauhaus architects early in the century. The last of these, the Willis Tower and World Trade Center towers in New York, erected in the 1970s, reflect the philosophy. Tastes shifted in the decade which followed, and new skyscrapers began to exhibit postmodernist influences. This approach to design avails itself of historical elements, often adapted and re-interpreted, in creating technologically modern structures. The Petronas Twin Towers recall Asian pagoda architecture and Islamic geometric principles. Taipei 101 likewise reflects the pagoda tradition as it incorporates ancient motifs such as the ruyi symbol. The Burj Khalifa draws inspiration from traditional Islamic art. Architects in recent years have sought to create structures that would not appear equally at home if set in any part of the world, but that reflect the culture thriving in the spot where they stand.

For current rankings of skyscrapers by height, see List of tallest buildings in the world.

The following list measures height of the roof. The more common gauge is the highest architectural detail; such ranking would have included Petronas Towers, built in 1998. See List of tallest buildings in the world for details.

Built Building City Country Roof Floors Pinnacle Current status
1870 Equitable Life Building New York City United States 142 ft 43 m 8 Destroyed by fire in 1912
1889 Auditorium Building Chicago United States 269 ft 82 m 17 349 ft 106 m Standing
1890 New York World Building New York City United States 309 ft 94 m 20 349 ft 106 m Demolished in 1955
1894 Manhattan Life Insurance Building New York City United States 348 ft 106 m 18 Demolished in 1963
1895 Milwaukee City Hall Milwaukee United States 353 ft 108 m 15 Standing
1899 Park Row Building New York City United States 391 ft 119 m 30 Standing
1901 Philadelphia City Hall Philadelphia United States 511 ft 155.8 m 9 548 ft 167 m Standing
1908 Singer Building New York City United States 612 ft 187 m 47 Demolished in 1968
1909 Met Life Tower New York City United States 700 ft 213 m 50 Standing
1913 Woolworth Building New York City United States 792 ft 241 m 57 Standing
1930 40 Wall Street New York City United States 70 927 ft 283 m Standing
1930 Chrysler Building New York City United States 927 ft 282.9 m 77 1,046 ft 319 m Standing
1931 Empire State Building New York City United States 1,250 ft 381 m 102 1,454 ft 443 m Standing
1972 World Trade Center (North tower) New York City United States 1,368 ft 417 m 110 1,727 ft 526.3 m Destroyed in 2001
1974 Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) Chicago United States 1,450 ft 442 m 108 1,729 ft 527 m Standing
2004 Taipei 101 Taipei Taiwan 1,474 ft 449 m 101 1,671 ft 509 m Standing
2010 Burj Khalifa Dubai United Arab Emirates 2,717 ft 828 m 160 2,717 ft 828 m Standing



Today, skyscrapers are an increasingly common sight where land is expensive, as in the centers of big cities, because they provide such a high ratio of rentable floor space per unit area of land. They are built not just for economy of space; like temples and palaces of the past, skyscrapers are considered symbols of a city's economic power. Not only do they define the skyline, they help to define the city's identity.

Supertall towers

At the time Taipei 101 broke the half-km mark in height, it was already technically possible to build structures towering over a km above the ground . Proposals for such structures have been put forward, including the Kingdom Tower to be built in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia[39][40] and Burj Mubarak Al Kabir in Kuwait. Kilometer-plus structures present architectural challenges that may eventually place them in a new architectural category.[41]

Future notable skyscrapers

The following skyscrapers, all contenders for being among the tallest in their city or region, are under construction and due to be completed in the next few years:

  • Construction of the 133-floor, 640 m tall Digital Media City Landmark Building in Digital Media City, Seoul, South Korea, started in 2009, which will be the second-tallest building in the world when it is completed in 2015, housing the world's tallest observatory and hotels. Being constructed at the fastest speed among major skyscraper projects by South Korea's Samsung C&T (who also built Burj Khalifa), the supertall is the first skyscraper to contain an entire city inside a building, including the world's largest aquarium, a luxury department store, shopping malls, clinic center, high-tech offices, first-class apartments, six to eight-star hotels, a concert restaurant, a broadcasting studio and an art center.
  • Construction of the Shanghai Tower started on 29 November 2008.[42] The tower will be high and have 127 floors.[43][44] The building will feature a glass curtain wall and nine indoor gardens when it is completed in 2014.[45][46]
  • Construction of the 151-floor, 610 m tall 151 Incheon Tower in Songdo International City, Incheon, South Korea, started in 2008, which will be the tallest twin towers in the world when it is completed in 2014.
  • The Abraj Al-Bait Towers, also known as the "Mecca Royal Clock Hotel Tower" is a complex under construction in Mecca, Saudi Arabia by the Saudi Binladin Group. The complex consists of seven towers, and the tallest tower (Hotel Tower) will have a height of . Upon completion in 2011, the structure will have the largest floor area of any structure in the world, at .
  • Construction of the 110-floor, 510 m tall Busan Lotte World, Busan, South Korea, started in 2009. It is due for completion in 2016.
  • One World Trade Center is currently under construction in New York City and will be the tallest tower in the redevelopment of the site of the former World Trade Center.[47] Its pinnacle will reach a height of ,[47] a height (in feet) representing the year of the United States Declaration of Independence.
  • World One is a tall residential skyscraper under construction in Mumbai, India. It is located in Upper Worli of Mumbai on a 17.5 acre site. The project will cost INR 2,000 crore (US$380 million), be completed by 2014 and will have the world s second tallest residential tower once completed. It will be rated as Leed Gold Certified building by the Green Building Council. World One is designed by Pei Cobb Freed and Partners and Leslie E. Robertson Associates.
  • Construction of the Shard London Bridge in London started in March 2009, and is scheduled to be completed in May 2012, in time for the London Olympics.[48][49] At , it is set to be the tallest building in the European Union.[50]


30 St Mary Axe in London is an example of a modern environmentally friendly skyscraper. The skyscraper as a concept is a product of the industrialized age, made possible by cheap energy and raw materials. The amount of steel, concrete and glass needed to construct a skyscraper is vast, and these materials represent a great deal of embodied energy. Tall skyscrapers are very heavy, which means that they must be built on a sturdier foundation than would be required for shorter, lighter buildings. Building materials must also be lifted to the top of a skyscraper during construction, requiring more energy than would be necessary at lower heights. Furthermore, a skyscraper consumes a lot of electricity because potable and non-potable water must be pumped to the highest occupied floors, skyscrapers are usually designed to be mechanically ventilated, elevators are generally used instead of stairs, and natural lighting cannot be utilized in rooms far from the windows and the windowless spaces such as elevators, bathrooms and stairwells.

In the lower levels of a skyscraper a larger percentage of the building cross section must be devoted to the building structure and services than is required for lower buildings:-

  • More structure because it must be stronger to support more floors above
  • The elevator conundrum creates the need for more lift shafts everyone comes in at the bottom and they all have to pass through the lower part of the building to get to the upper levels.
  • Building services power and water enters the building from below and have to pass through the lower levels to get to upper levels.

In low-rise structures, the support rooms (chillers, transformers, boilers, pumps and air handling units) can be put in basements or roof space areas which have low rental value. There is, however, a limit to how far this plant can be located from the area it serves. The farther away it is the larger the risers for ducts and pipes from this plant to the floors they serve and the more floor area these risers take. In practice this means that in highrise buildings this plant is located on 'plant levels' at intervals up the building.

See also


Further reading

External links

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