The Sky’s the LimitHave we reached peak skyscraper?

The Sky’s the LimitHave we reached peak skyscraper?

Issue 52

, Starters

  • Words Alex Anderson
  • Photo Marcus Cederberg

In 2006, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture designed an immense skyscraper for Dubai. Had it been built, the rectangular slab would have risen only a relatively modest 985 feet but spanned 655 feet. The aim of such a monolith, the firm’s co-founder Rem Koolhaas explained, was to “end the current phase of architectural idolatry—the age of the icon.” In one sketch produced by OMA, the building is depicted against a collaged skyline of immensely tall buildings from cities throughout the world, its simple form defiant against the discordant array of modern skyscrapers. 

It is hard not to agree with Koolhaas and disdain extravagant buildings as monuments to consumption and the hubris of their owners and architects. So much about them seems excessive or performative—the height of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, for example, the tallest building in the world at 2,720 feet, is an architectural conceit. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) defines the top 27% of the building—its 735-foot-tall spire—as “vanity height.”1 If you lopped off this unusable top and dropped it somewhere in Africa, only five other buildings on the continent would stand taller.

Despite OMA’s aspirations, the age of the ultimate architectural icon did not end. Most of the world’s tallest buildings have been built in this century and construction recently restarted on Burj Khalifa’s great rival, the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, which is continuing upward to approximately 3,281 feet. The actual height has been kept secret to thwart competitors—such as a behemoth planned for Kuwait City that will top out at over 3,284 feet. 

Hubris isn’t the only problem with these giants. Their immense height requires vast quantities of material, much of it wasted on vanity height, and their glass facades amplify the sun’s heat, requiring huge amounts of electricity for cooling. Add banks of high-speed elevators and the energy consumption rate doubles that of low-rise buildings.


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