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The History and Future Of Skyscrapers

The History and Future Of Skyscrapers

Skyscrapers brought people to tears in the 20th century. Ayn Rand, one of the giants of 20th century American Literature, thought nothing expresses man’s desire to leave his ancestral cave behind and take abode in the sky better than a skyscraper. Rand believed that a skyscraper’s greatness lay not in its magnificent height but in its ability to make people gaze upwards. One of her two masterpieces, The Fountainhead, ends with a man in a construction lift heading upward as he supervises the creation of his tallest building yet.

In the 21st century, though, we are so used to skyscrapers that we hardly think about them anymore. And like anything that gets mass-produced, there are some lovely skyscrapers, and then there are some ugly ones. But just because skyscrapers are common doesn’t mean they’re undeserving of a deeper look. As this article shows, the history of skyscrapers says a lot about mankind’s history. And their future can tell us what’s in store for us in the coming century.

The History of Skyscrapers

People don’t think of pyramids as skyscrapers — but that’s what they were when they were built. Look at the following digital reconstruction of a pyramid.

The shape of the void inside the pyramid.

Like modern skyscrapers, pyramids were the biggest structures in the city. People ogled at them just like people ogle at skylines today. (There is a tourist attraction in Hong Kong, called The Victoria Peak, where people come solely to admire Hong Kong’s phenomenal skyline. And why not — at 335, Kong Kong has more skyscrapers than any other city in the world.)

Modern skyscrapers and ancient pyramids share a technical similarity too. We will let you guess the similarity before we tell you.

Here’s a hint. Look at the following picture of Burj Khalifa, the world’s current tallest building, next to a digitally reconstructed pyramid.

The shape of the void inside the pyramid.

Don’t worry if you think the shape of a 4000-year old pyramid is similar to the shape of a 10-year-old skyscraper. You are not seeing things. Both these structures rise into the air in a triangular fashion. In design lingo, the cuts on the Burj Khalifa, as it rises up, are called setbacks. Architects design skyscrapers in a roughly triangular fashion because this makes them resilient to wind pressure and seismic movements.

Starting off from a wider base and rising towards a narrow peak is not the only structural similarity between today’s skyscrapers and yesteryear’s pyramids. Scientists recently discovered a huge void inside the great pyramid of Giza — and this mystified quite a few grey-haired geniuses.

The shape of the void inside the pyramid.

However, anyone associated with the construction industry will tell you that the void, in all probability, is the reason for the pyramid’s longevity. In fact, skyscrapers today are typically designed as hollow cylinders for the same purpose. This makes them harder to knock over and better protects them against dust-storms(which apply a lot of lateral force on standing structures.) The pyramids have stood for over 4000 years — and the vast void inside is definitely part of the reason why the natural elements have failed to turn these proud structures into humble motes of dust — yet.

The Future of Skyscrapers

A short documentary (it’s 12 minutes, and available to watch for free on Youtube) recently asked a question: Will There Ever Be Another World’s Tallest Building? After Burj Khalifa was opened to the public, a lot of competing projects were also announced. China started — but then stopped — the construction of a building that would overtake the Burj Khalifa. Saudi Arabia started constructing the Jeddah Tower. It was primed to become the first structure ever built by human beings to break the 1-kilometer barrier.

The shape of the void inside the pyramid.

This is what the Jeddah Tower will look like if it’s ever finished. The construction, however, stopped in 2018. There have been rumors that the construction will restart soon — but as of now, the tractors haven’t started moving, and the construction site looks rather uneventful.

However, a skyscraper’s height isn’t the only interesting thing about it. Yes, nations compete amongst each other to have the tallest skyscraper in the world. This may seen vain and egotistical — but there is actually a pragmatic reason for it. The Burj Khalifa may seem like UAE’s attempt to flaunt its wealth to the world — but it is also a very practical attempt to grow that very wealth. Burj Khalifa, after all, brings over a billion dollars in tourism revenue every year.

Having said that, a skyscraper can do more interesting things than be very tall. eVolo Magazine conducts a design contest every year where they invite students, architects, and artists of all stripes to send in entries for the Skyscraper Competition. Their website says that they look for “outstanding ideas that redefine skyscraper design through the implementation of novel technologies, materials, programs, aesthetics, and spatial organizations.” Over the years, this competition has seen some incredible concept buildings.

In 2018, the competition’s first price went to a conceptual skyscraper that folds…like origami. You read that right. This is how the designers visualized their foldable skyscraper:

The shape of the void inside the pyramid.

Natural disasters like earthquakes and floods lead to millions of homeless people. To provide a temporary home for these people, relief workers need to spend countless crucial man-hours clearing space in the rubble and erecting tents. Tents are a very inefficient way to house people as one tent can only hold so many people. A foldable skyscraper, however, can be brought in through a helicopter and provide shelters to thousands at once. It also radically reduces the area of the ground that needs to be cleared. Since it can be brought in through a helicopter, this intervention can also reach places where the roads have been destroyed. The saved time can be used to reach injured people in time who would otherwise have died — thus, this is a skyscraper that literally saves lives.

You can check out the winners and finalists of this competition here.

Bruce Sterling has written that the skyscrapers of the future can be anything from “no, nonsense, utilitarian buildings” to “colossal, awkward towers.” However, they can also be “huge and lopsided,” or become “post-industrial, digitized monsters.” The future, after all, is going to be a mosaic with nine-billion painters. What color will you add?

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