The big idea: Is the era of the skyscraper over?

·6 min read

Can you hear the death rattle of the skyscraper? It’s the sound of the free candyfloss cart being wheeled past the rows of empty desks, and the lonely drip of the beer-keg tap by the water cooler. In a desperate attempt to lure employees back to their offices, companies are laying on all manner of novelty treats, from monogrammed water bottles to personalised notebooks. It is hoped that these perks might convince people to leave the house, get on packed trains and jostle for the lifts, all in the name of teamwork and productivity. But will anyone ever want to work in a hermetically sealed high-rise building again, breathing the same air as thousands of potentially infectious other people?

As millions around the world have settled in to working from home, it’s hard to imagine the office tower ever being a viable proposition again. Planning applications for tall buildings in London plummeted by a third last year, while New London Architecture’s 2021 tall buildings survey found that work started on just 24 buildings of 20 storeys or more – down by almost half from 44 in 2019. Has the age of piling people into great glass shafts, of cities competing for ever higher spires, finally come to an end?

If past crises are anything to go by, probably not. The history of the skyscraper is a history of people predicting its end. The Empire State Building was damned as a commercial disaster when it opened in 1931, seen as an act of extreme hubris that would surely never be repeated. As Carol Willis writes in Form Follows Finance, a history of skyscrapers in New York and Chicago, the project was “the most colossal miscalculation of the 1920s”. It was completed in the depths of the Great Depression and stood mostly vacant for a decade, earning the nickname the Empty State Building. It didn’t start turning a profit until 1950. But when the markets recovered, so the new shoots emerged. Willis describes skyscrapers as “weeds”; if the economic conditions are right, they’ll grow. Sure enough, the following century saw a skyward boom.

But scepticism frequently returned. The next great prediction of the end of the skyscraper came in the 1970s, with the advent of “telecommuting”. The American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler was one of the first to cast doubt on the high-rise, predicting that advances in communication technology would see office towers left empty as work shifted to a new generation of “electronic cottages”. In his 1980 book, The Third Wave, he imagined “a return to cottage industry on an electronic basis, and with it a new emphasis on the home as the centre of society”. His words sound eerily similar to today’s talk of a grand urban exodus – and as likely to come true as the predictions of a 1974 Economist article: “Quite a lot of people by the late 1980s will telecommute daily to their London offices,” it confidently declared, “while living on a Pacific island.” Instead, the 1980s saw another boom in tower-building, as banks competed with ever more swaggering silhouettes and Margaret Thatcher’s deregulatory “big bang” birthed Canary Wharf.

World Trade Center, 1982.
World Trade Center, 1982. Photograph: steinphoto/Getty Images

All the while, there was a feeling that skyscrapers had an insidious effect on the human psyche. Architecture critic Peter Blake called for a moratorium on high-rise buildings in his 1977 book, Form Follows Fiasco, which railed against the “various sorts of interior traumata” inflicted on those forced to live or work in towers. The respected urban theorist Christopher Alexander agreed. In his influential volume, A Pattern Language, published the same year, he wrote: “There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.”

Skyscrapers didn’t disappear, but such “new urbanist” thinking accelerated the parallel growth of the out-of-town office campus, where low-rise blocks were arranged among ponds and neatly mown verges – echoing today’s Covid-driven desire to live and work closer to nature. As Louise Mozingo charts in Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes, by the end of the 20th century, there was more office space in US suburbs than in its central cities. Greenness, she writes, was associated with goodness, and these business parks appropriated the suburb’s aesthetics and moral code. Like the lawn-proud suburban homeowner, corporations used the bucolic landscape’s capacity to communicate identity, status and right-mindedness, as a foil to the perceived grime, crime and faceless glass towers of the inner city.

Related: Top 10 books about building cities | Jonathan Carr

Then came an unprecedented event that would surely be the final nail in the coffin of building tall. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which left us with indelible images of planes crashing into the twin towers, how could we possibly feel safe in a high-rise again? Skyscrapers had become targets in an unpredictable global war, vulnerable at any moment. “We are convinced that the age of skyscrapers is at an end,” wrote James Howard Kunstler, author of Geography of Nowhere, a few days after the attacks. “It must now be considered an experimental building typology that has failed.”

Twenty years later, the data indicates the exact opposite. More than five times as many skyscrapers have been built since 9/11 than existed before, according to a study by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. And they got even taller: 86 of the 100 tallest buildings in the world have shot up since 2001.

So will the pandemic, combined with a growing awareness of the environmental impact of glass towers, finally spell their demise? The Chinese government’s 2020 edict against supertalls (which bans 500 metre-plus buildings and requires additional vetting of those over 350 metres) has already had an effect. Combined with the impact of Covid, it has led to a 20% dip in skyscraper construction globally.

But a chorus of urban theorists argue that it will ultimately be impossible for the human species to resist the lure of density. In their new book, Survival of the City, Harvard economics professors Ed Glaeser and David Cutler write that “the ability of cities to enable the joys of human interactions and shared experiences may be their greatest protection against urban exodus”. They cite numerous studies that show people are happier with in-person meetings than with exclusively online communication, along with research that suggests even solitary deep thinking may benefit from the presence of other humans. One study showed that chess players forced to play online by the pandemic made worse moves than the same players did when they played in person.

Another timely book strikes a more sinister tone. Exploring the history and future of quarantine in Until Proven Safe, Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley predict a world of smart buildings that will allow regular life to continue, but only because of continuous tracking and AI-powered assessment of their occupants. “In the coming quarantine,” they write, “you will be able to go anywhere – but you will be watched, measured, and diagnosed the entire time.” Skyscrapers will be back; and, from now on, they’ll be watching you.

Further reading:

Form Follows Finance by Carol Willis, Princeton Architectural Press, £26.77

Survival of the City by Edward Glaeser and David Cutler, Hodder & Stoughton, £20

Until Proven Safe by Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley, Pan Macmillan, £25

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