More skyscrapers than ever built in 2016

Growth spurt: Shenzhen became a ‘special economic zone’ to attract foreign investment in 1980.

Tall buildings have divided opinion since the Tower of Babel. Last year, the human race built more than ever before, despite global economic uncertainty. Is this cause for celebration?

‘It smelled of countryside.’

This is how Leo Houng remembers Shenzhen, in southern China. In 1976 he found a main road surrounded by just a few lanes, simple restaurants and small shops.

Now Shenzhen is a mega-city known for electronics and manufacturing. It is home to an estimated 12 million people. And in 2016, 11 skyscrapers were completed there — more than in the USA and Australia combined.

This was part of a trend. Despite global economic uncertainty last year, 128 towers over 200m tall were built globally — more than ever before. Two-thirds of them were in China, where a construction boom shows no sign of slowing down. Some designers are showing a striking ability to innovate: in Singapore, for example, new green skyscrapers provide both offices and habitats for wildlife.

Tall buildings have long been controversial. One of the most famous biblical stories is the Tower of Babel, a fable on the arrogance of humans who try to reach the sky. For centuries, humanity seemed to heed the warning — the tallest buildings in the world were religious ones.

But in the 19th century a safe mass transit lift was invented, steel became cheaper and scepticism toward religion grew. By 1900, edifices such as the Eiffel Tower and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World building were standing.

Skyscrapers have since become ubiquitous in many rich cities, and Britain is currently erecting several new ones. They demonstrate political, cultural and economic power, as thousands of people work on tiny patches of land and tourists gather to see them. Part of the reason the 9/11 attacks were so shocking was their visual symbolism.

But some have criticised skyscrapers’ aesthetic value. In a famous speech in 1984, Prince Charles called a proposed extension to London’s National Gallery a ‘monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend’. And tall buildings can bring other problems too: in the post-war period, residential tower blocks in Britain have often been associated with poverty and crime.

Towering over

Skyscrapers show the capabilities of our species, say humanists. We need space to create useful things, to live and relax. What better place than the empty sky to spread our footprint? These buildings symbolise economic growth, which improves our living standards. Think how many useful things are done, or relationships formed, in these concentrated spaces.

Environmentalists and conservatives are less enthusiastic. Skyscrapers block out light and waste energy and electricity. They are a good metaphor for the human race’s arrogance and self-importance. And they are soulless: when so many people live or work so close together, they become anonymous to each other.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather live in a skyscraper or a bungalow?
  2. Should we celebrate the increasing number of skyscrapers?

Activities

  1. Draw a 50-story skyscraper. Label it to show how you would use the space. For example, would you build offices or flats? Discuss with a partner what it would be like to use your skyscraper.
  2. Find out about a tall building in the world that interests you. Write a one-page factfile about it and a one-page explanation of the benefits and problems it has created.

Some People Say...

“Humans do not belong in the sky.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t live or work in a skyscraper. Can’t I just ignore them?
You may have an opportunity to work in one when you are older, particularly if you go into a job in a big financial firm. And you may have the chance to live in one, especially if you live in a city. But this is about more than that. How do you think the human race should use its public space? Should we prioritise building to create more space for ourselves, or does that ruin things you care about? Do you want to live and work close to people or not?
I’m British — aren’t our buildings smaller than China’s?
Yes: the Shard in London, for example, is 310m, whereas the Guangzhou CTF Finance Centre was the tallest building of the year at 530m. But Britain has some of the tallest buildings in Europe, and is preparing to build more.

Word Watch

Combined
Seven skyscrapers were built in the USA in 2016 and two in Australia. The USA came second to China, which had 84.
200m
An unofficial cut-off point, with 106 towers over this height in 2015.
Lift
Archimedes is believed to have created a lift 2,200 years ago. But Elisha Otis’s elevator, presented in 1854, became a sensation as it used new technology and included a safety brake.
Cheaper
Steel can bear heavy loads without being impractically thick, so engineers could build the load-bearing steel skeleton — the basis of all modern skyscrapers.
Several
In London, two new skyscrapers are scheduled for completion in 2019 and 2020. The tallest building in the UK outside London, a block of flats in Manchester, will be completed in 2018.
Symbolism
Two 110-storey, 250,000-tonne buildings collapsed in less than two hours in New York’s financial district.
Humanists
Those who rank human welfare and happiness more important than religion.
Environmentalists and conservatives
Those who prioritise environmental concerns; those who wish to maintain orderly society with traditional norms.

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