The next golden age of skyscrapers is upon us. 2015 was a record-breaking year for high-rise completions, with 338 new buildings over 150m, but this will quickly be beaten by the 342 expected in 2016. The race is on to build high, with a frenzy equalling that of northern American cities in the 1920s. Except that, this time, it’s on a global scale. Between 1924 and 1934, 49 buildings over 150m in height were completed, all in the US. Between 2006 and 2016, there will be a total of 2296, with new towers on every continent.

This high-rise boom is intimately related to urbanization. In 2014, more than half of the world’s population lived in urban areas, but by 2050, this is predicted to rise to two-thirds, with 2.5 billion new city dwellers – the equivalent of constructing five cities the size of Beijing every year until then. And with this growth, comes an increasing share of the global economy: according to analyst McKinsey, 60% of global GDP is generated by the top 600 cities.

“We are living at the crossroads of two significant trends: urbanization and climate change,” says David Cooper, president of buildings at WSP. “Cities are responding by reaching for the sky, as a more sustainable forward path than continuing horizontal expansion.”

Advantages of Vertical Expansion

With so many new urban dwellers needing space to live and work, cities can either grow outwards or upwards, and they will inevitably have to do both. The advantage of vertical expansion is that it minimizes the distances and travelling times between homes, jobs and essential amenities, and maximizes the value of prime central sites.

We are living at the crossroads of two significant trends: urbanisation and climate change. Cities are responding by reaching for the sky.
David Cooper, WSP

But that’s not the whole story. Tall buildings also exert a powerful emotional force that familiarity seems to do little to diminish. Their sheer size in relation to the human scale and the views they afford from the top continue to inspire a sense of awe and wonder. They are a show of strength, demonstrating mastery of the elements, wealth and power. Expanding cities build landmarks to signal their ambition and communicate their arrival on the world stage. Established cities build them not to be outdone.

The symbolic role of high-rise buildings was demonstrated in the hours after the terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015. As the lights of the Eiffel Tower were extinguished in mourning for the dead, world cities lit up their own landmarks with the colours of the Tricolore. The Auckland Sky Tower, One World Trade Center in New York, the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai and Calgary Tower in Canada were among those glowing blue, white and red.

Revolution in Urbanization

The current boom is not just producing taller versions of 20th-century towers, it is breaking with the past in several important ways. A striking difference is where these new towers will be located. While urbanization is a global trend, 90% of new urban dwellers will be living in Africa and Asia and more than a third in just three countries: China, India and Nigeria. Since 2000, China has built 43% of all the world’s new towers. On the other hand, India and Nigeria have barely started.

Then there’s the kind of towers being built. Before 2000, two-thirds were purely commercial. Since the turn of the millennium, just under half have been apartments or hotels, and a further 19% mixed-use. Iconic architecture, high-quality construction, pioneering structural systems and state-of-the-art mechanical and electrical services are revolutionizing the concept of high-rise living.

From our homes to the public services we use, to where we spend our leisure time, life is shifting from a predominantly horizontal plane to a much more vertical one. In the following articles, we look at the features that will define the next generation of high-rise buildings.