New York: no longer the home of the skyscraper?

Kurt Vonnegut once called New York “Skyscraper National Park”, and I’m sure it was an apt description at the time.

But Kurt is (sadly) dead now, and so is the accuracy of his remark. New York City has not only been surpassed as the home of the skyscraper, one might even argue that its skyline isn’t particularly impressive anymore. A visit to any major city in Asia now puts it in the shade.

It’s not really New York’s fault, of course. Skyscrapers are, by nature, major investments, so they tend to follow economic trends. The turn towards Asia began to occur in the early 90s when towers in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan began to approach the heights of New York and Chicago’s, reflecting the emergence of the Asian market. The turn was made official in 1998 when the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur took over from Sears Tower as the tallest in the world.

That shift has now moved to include the oil-rich (not to mention flat and open) UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Dubai alone has 13 buildings currently in the top 50 tallest in the world, all of them completed in the last five years. According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, in 1930, 99 of the 100 tallest buildings in the world were in the United States, 51% in New York City alone. Today, Asia boasts 72 of the world’s 100 tallest buildings. New York has only six.

The result, then, is that New York fails to awe the way it used to. Speaking from personal experience, I found that Hong Kong had far more of an impact on me when I visited last year. Because there is a premium on space in the former British colony, developers have no place to build but up. As a result, every square inch of space, even on mountainsides, is stacked with towers of at least twenty stories.

Not only are tall buildings in ample supply in Hong Kong, but the tallest of them are still incongruously impressive. The Two International Finance Centre building (at the right of the picture above) is a remarkable sight, so much so that even Batman felt compelled to jump off it. It truly justifies the name now given to such structures: ‘supertall’.

The completion of 1 World Trade Centre (projected for the end of 2013) will mark an impressive return to the supertall scene for New York, of course, though with five more taller buildings set to be completed over the next five years in Seoul, Shanghai, Incheon, Mecca and Busan, the tallest building in the United States will barely be clinging to the global top ten.

All of this means that New York is no longer the skyscraper capital of the world. Arguably it isn’t even the skyscraper capital of the United States, with Chicago boasting the tallest building in the country (Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower) as well as more entries in the top 50 in the world (four to New York’s two).

However, while I may cite economic and geospatial issues as driving this change, I like to think it reflects one factor most of all: a declining lack of ambition. New York is a developed city in every sense of the word. It is not an emerging power with a point to prove to the rest of the world; it’s New York, the most famous city in the world, the original seat of power. Its skyscrapers, though they may not be the tallest, are standing testament to the durability of the city’s influence over the rest of the world. Oldest is probably more impressive than biggest, which these days is a fleeting honour.

In that sense, then, New York will always be the home of the skyscraper.

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