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A skyscraper is a tall, continuously habitable building. There is no official definition or height above which a building may clearly be classified as a skyscraper. Most cities define the term empirically; even a building of may be considered a skyscraper if it protrudes above its built environment and changes the overall skyline.


The word "skyscraper" originally was a nautical term referring to a small triangular sail set above the skysail on a sailing ship. The term was first applied to buildings in the late 19th century as a result of public amazement at the tall buildings being built in Chicagomarker and New York Citymarker. The traditional definition of a skyscraper began with the "first skyscraper", Chicago's now demolished ten-storey steel-framed Home Insurance Building (1885).

The structural definition of the word skyscraper was fish refined later by architectural historians, based on engineering developments of the 1880s that had enabled construction of tall multi-storey buildings. This definition was based on the steel skeleton—-as opposed to constructions of load-bearing masonry, which passed their practical limit in 1891 with Chicago's Monadnock Buildingmarker. Philadelphia's City Hallmarker, completed in 1901, still holds claim as the world's tallest load-bearing masonry structure at 167 m (548 ft). The steel frame developed in stages of increasing self-sufficiency, with several buildings in Chicago and New York advancing the technology that allowed the steel frame to carry a building on its own. Today, however, many of the tallest skyscrapers are built almost entirely with reinforced concrete. Pumps and storage tanks maintain water pressure at the top of skyscrapers.

A loose convention in the United States and Europe now draws the lower limit of a skyscraper at 150 meters (500 ft). A skyscraper taller than 300 meters (984 ft) may be referred to as supertall. Shorter buildings are still sometimes referred to as skyscrapers if they appear to dominate their surroundings.

The somewhat arbitrary term skyscraper should not be confused with the also ill-defined term high-rise. The Emporis Standards Committee defines a high-rise building as "a multi-story structure between 35-100 meters tall, or a building of unknown height from 12-39 floors" and a skyscraper as "a multi-story building whose architectural height is at least 100 meters." Some structural engineers define a highrise as any vertical construction for which wind is a more significant load factor than earthquake or weight. Note that this criterion fits not only high rises but some other tall structures, such as towers.

The word skyscraper often carries a connotation of pride and achievement. The skyscraper, in name and social function, is a modern expression of the age-old symbol of the world center or axis mundi: a pillar that connects earth to heaven and the four compass directions to one another.


Before the 19th century

Modern skyscrapers are built with materials such as steel, glass, reinforced concrete and granite, and routinely utilize mechanical equipment such as water pumps and elevators. Until the 19th century, buildings of over six stories were rare, as having great numbers of stairs to climb was impractical for inhabitants, and water pressure was usually insufficient to supply running water above .

The tallest building in ancient times was the Great Pyramid of Gizamarker in ancient Egypt, which was tall and was built in the 26th century BC. Its height was not surpassed for thousands of years, possibly until the 14th century AD with the construction of Lincoln Cathedralmarker (though its height is disputed), which in turn was not surpassed in height until the Washington Monument in 1884. However, being uninhabited buildings, none of these buildings actually complies with the definition of a skyscraper.

High-rise apartment buildings already flourished in classical antiquity: ancient Roman insulae in Rome and other imperial cities reached up to 10 and more stories, some with more than 200 stairs. Several emperors, beginning with Augustus (r. 30 BC-14 AD), attempted to establish limits of 20-25 m for multi-storey buildings, but met with only limited success. The lower floors were typically occupied by either shops or wealthy families, while the upper stories were rented out to the lower classes. Surviving Oxyrhynchus Papyri indicate that seven-storey buildings even existed in provincial towns, such as in 3rd century AD Hermopolismarker in Roman Egypt.

The skylines of many important medieval cities had large numbers of high-rise urban towers. Wealthy families built these towers for defensive purposes and as status symbols. The residential Towers of Bolognamarker in the 12th century, for example, numbered between 80 to 100 at a time, the largest of which (known as the "Two Towers") rise to . In Florencemarker, a law of 1251 decreed that all urban buildings should be reduced to a height of less than 26 m, the regulation immediately put into effect. Even medium-sized towns at the time such as San Gimignanomarker are known to have featured 72 towers up to 51 m height.

The medieval Egyptian city of Fustatmarker housed many high-rise residential buildings, which Al-Muqaddasi in the 10th century described as resembling minarets. Nasir Khusraw in the early 11th century described some of them rising up to 14 stories, with roof gardens on the top floor complete with ox-drawn water wheels for irrigating them. Cairomarker in the 16th century had high-rise apartment buildings where the two lower floors were for commercial and storage purposes and the multiple stories above them were rented out to tenants. An early example of a city consisting entirely of high-rise housing is the 16th-century city of Shibammarker in Yemenmarker. Shibam was made up of over 500 tower houses, each one rising 5 to 11 storeys high, with each floor being an apartment occupied by a single family. The city was built in this way in order to protect it from Bedouin attacks. Shibam still has the tallest mudbrick buildings in the world, with many of them over high.

An early modern example of high-rise housing was in 17th-century Edinburghmarker, Scotland, where a defensive city wall defined the boundaries of the city. Due to the restricted land area available for development, the houses increased in height instead. Buildings of 11 stories were common, and there are records of buildings as high as 14 stories. Many of the stone-built structures can still be seen today in the old town of Edinburgh. The oldest iron framed building in the world is The Flaxmillmarker (also locally known as the "Maltings"), in Shrewsburymarker, England. Built in 1797, it is seen as the "grandfather of skyscrapers”, since its fireproof combination of cast iron columns and cast iron beams developed into the modern steel frame that made modern skyscrapers possible. Unfortunately, it lies derelict and needs much investment to keep it standing.

Early skyscrapers

An early development was Oriel Chambersmarker in Liverpoolmarker. Designed by Peter Ellis in 1864, the building was the world's first iron-framed, curtain-walled office building. Further developments led to the world's first skyscraper, the ten-storey Home Insurance Building in Chicago, built in 1884–1885. While its height is not considered very impressive today, it was at that time. The architect, Major William Le Baron Jenney, created the first load-bearing structural frame. In this building, a steel frame supported the entire weight of the walls, instead of load-bearing walls carrying the weight of the building, which was the usual method. This development led to the "Chicago skeleton" form of construction. After Jenney's accomplishment the sky was truly the limit as far as building was concerned.

Sullivan's Wainwright Buildingmarker in St. Louismarker, 1891, was the first steel-framed building with soaring vertical bands to emphasize the height of the building, and is, therefore, considered by some to be the first true skyscraper.

Most early skyscrapers emerged in the land-strapped areas of Chicago, London, and New York toward the end of the 19th century. A land boom in Melbournemarker, Australia between 1888-1891 spurred the creation of a significant number of early skyscrapers, though none of these were steel reinforced and few remain today. Height limits and fire restrictions were later introduced. London builders soon found building heights limited due to a complaint from Queen Victoria, rules that continued to exist with few exceptions until the 1950s. Concerns about aesthetics and fire safety had likewise hampered the development of skyscrapers across continental Europe for the first half of the twentieth century (with the notable exceptions of the 26-storey Boerentorenmarker in Antwerpmarker, Belgium, built in 1932, and the 31-storey Torre Piacentini in Genoamarker, Italymarker, built in 1940). After an early competition between New York City and Chicago for the world's tallest building, New York took the lead by 1895 with the completion of the American Surety Buildingmarker, leaving New York with the title of tallest building for many years. New York City developers competed among themselves, with successively taller buildings claiming the title of "world's tallest" in the 1920s and early 1930s, culminating with the completion of the Chrysler Buildingmarker in 1930 and the Empire State Buildingmarker in 1931, the world's tallest building for forty years. The first completed World Trade Center tower became the world's tallest building in 1972 for two years. That changed with the completion of the Sears Towermarker (later renamed the Willis Tower) in Chicago in 1974, which became the world's tallest building for several decades.

Modern skyscrapers

From the 1930s onwards, skyscrapers also began to appear in Latin America (São Paulomarker, Caracasmarker,Bogotámarker,Mexico Citymarker) and in Asia (Tokyomarker, Shanghai, Hong Kongmarker, Manilamarker, Singaporemarker, Mumbaimarker, Jakartamarker, Kuala Lumpurmarker, Taipeimarker, Bangkokmarker). Immediately after World War II, the Soviet Unionmarker planned eight massive skyscrapers dubbed "Stalin Towersmarker" for Moscowmarker; seven of these were eventually built. The rest of Europe also slowly began to permit skyscrapers, starting with Madridmarker, in Spainmarker, during the 1950s. Finally, skyscrapers also began to be constructed in cities of Africa, the Middle East and Oceania (mainly Australia) from the late 1950s.

In the early 1960s structural engineer Fazlur Khan realized that the rigid steel frame structure that had "dominated tall building design and construction so long was not the only system fitting for tall buildings", marking "the beginning of a new era of skyscraper revolution in terms of multiple structural systems." His central innovation in skyscraper design and construction was the idea of the "tube" structural system, including the "framed tube", "trussed tube", and "bundled tube". These systems allowed far greater economic efficiency, and also allowed efficient skyscrapers to take on various shapes, no longer needing to be box-shaped. Over the next fifteen years, many towers were built by Khan and the "Second Chicago School", including the massive 442-meter (1,451-foot) Willis Towermarker. Chicago is currently undergoing an epic construction boom that will greatly add to the city's skyline. Since 2000, at least 40 buildings at a minimum of 50 stories high have been built or planned. The Chicago Spiremarker, Trump International Hotel and Towermarker, Waterview Towermarker, Mandarin Oriental Tower, 29-39 South LaSalle, Park Michigan, and Aquamarker are some of the more notable projects currently underway in the city that invented the skyscraper. Chicago, Hong Kong, and New York City, otherwise known as the "the big three," are recognized in architectural circles as having especially compelling skylines. A landmark skyscraper can inspire a boom of new high-rise projects in its city, as Taipei 101 has done in Taipei since its opening in 2004. Large cities currently experiencing skyscraper building booms include Londonmarker in the United Kingdommarker, Shanghai in Chinamarker, Dubaimarker in the United Arab Emiratesmarker, and Miamimarker, which now is third in the United States.

History of tallest skyscrapers

At the beginning of the 20th century, New York City was a center for the Beaux-Arts architectural movement, attracting the talents of such great architects as Stanford White and Carrere and Hastings. As better construction and engineering technology became available as the century progressed, New York and Chicago became the focal point of the competition for the tallest building in the world. Each city's striking skyline has been composed of numerous and varied skyscrapers, many of which are icons of 20th century architecture:
  • The Flatiron Buildingmarker, standing 285 ft (87 m) high, was one of the tallest buildings in the city upon its completion in 1902, made possible by its steel skeleton. It was one of the first buildings designed with a steel framework, and to achieve this height with other construction methods of that time would have been very difficult.
  • The Woolworth Buildingmarker, a neo-Gothic "Cathedral of Commerce" overlooking City Hall, was designed by Cass Gilbert. At 792 feet (241 m), it became the world's tallest building upon its completion in 1913, an honor it retained until 1930, when it was overtaken by 40 Wall Streetmarker.
  • That same year, the Chrysler Buildingmarker took the lead as the tallest building in the world, scraping the sky at 1,046 feet (319 m). Designed by William Van Alen, an art deco masterpiece with an exterior crafted of brick, the Chrysler Building continues to be a favorite of New Yorkers to this day.
  • The Empire State Buildingmarker, the first building to have more than 100 floors (it has 102), was completed the following year. It was designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon in the contemporary Art Deco style. The tower takes its name from the nickname of New York Statemarker. Upon its completion in 1931 at 1,250 feet (381 m), it took the top spot as tallest building, and towered above all other buildings until 1972. The antenna mast added in 1951 brought pinnacle height to 1,472 feet (449 m), lowered in 1984 to 1,454 feet (443 m).
  • The World Trade Centermarker officially reached full height in 1972, was completed in 1973, and consisted of two tall towers and several smaller buildings. For a short time, the first of the two towers was the world's tallest building. Upon completion, the towers stood for 28 years, until the September 11, 2001 attacks destroyed the structures. Various governmental entities, financial firms, and law firms called the towers home.
  • The Willis Towermarker (formerly Sears Tower) was completed in 1974, one year after the World Trade Center, and surpassed it as the world's tallest building. It was the first building to employ the "bundled tube" structural system, designed by Fazlur Khan. The building was not surpassed in height until the Petronas Towersmarker were constructed in 1998, but remained the tallest in some categories until the Burj Dubaimarker, currently under construction, surpassed it in all categories. It is currently the tallest building in the United States.

Momentum in setting records passed from the United States to other nations with the opening of the Petronas Twin Towersmarker in Kuala Lumpurmarker, Malaysiamarker, in 1998. The record for world's tallest building remained in Asia with the opening of Taipei 101marker in Taipeimarker, Taiwanmarker, in 2004. A number of architectural records, including those of the world's tallest building and tallest free-standing structure, will move to the Middle East with the opening of the Burj Dubaimarker in Dubaimarker, UAEmarker.

This geographical transition is accompanied by a change in approach to skyscraper design. For much of the twentieth century large buildings took the form of simple geometrical shapes. This reflected the "international style" or modernist philosophy shaped by Bauhaus architects early in the century. The last of these, the Willis Tower and World Trade Center towers in New York, erected in the 1970s, reflect the philosophy. Tastes shifted in the decade which followed, and new skyscrapers began to exhibit postmodernist influences. This approach to design avails itself of historical elements, often adapted and re-interpreted, in creating technologically modern structures. The Petronas Twin Towers recall Asian pagoda architecture and Islamic geometric principles. Taipei 101 likewise reflects the pagoda tradition as it incorporates ancient motifs such as the ruyi symbol. The Burj Dubai draws inspiration from traditional Arabic art. Architects in recent years have sought to create structures that would not appear equally at home if set in any part of the world, but that reflect the culture thriving in the spot where they stand.

For current rankings of skyscrapers by height, see List of tallest buildings in the world.

The following list measures height of the roof. The more common gauge is the highest architectural detail; such ranking would have included Petronas Towersmarker, built in 1998. See List of tallest buildings in the world for details.

Built Building City Country Roof Floors Pinnacle Current status
1873 Equitable Life Building New York 142 ft 43 m 8 Demolished
1889 Auditorium Buildingmarker Chicago 269 ft 82 m 17 349 ft 106 m Standing
1890 New York World Building New York City 309 ft 94 m 20 349 ft 106 m Demolished
1894 Manhattan Life Insurance Buildingmarker New York City 348 ft 106 m 18 Demolished
1899 Park Row Buildingmarker New York City 391 ft 119 m 30 Standing
1901 Philadelphia City Hallmarker Philadelphiamarker 511 ft 155.8 m 9 548 ft 167 m Standing
1908 Singer Buildingmarker New York City 612 ft 187 m 47 Demolished
1909 Met Life Towermarker New York City 700 ft 213 m 50 Standing
1913 Woolworth Buildingmarker New York City 792 ft 241 m 57 Standing
1930 40 Wall Streetmarker New York City 70 927 ft 283 m Standing
1930 Chrysler Buildingmarker New York City 925 ft 282 m 77 1,046 ft 319 m Standing
1931 Empire State Buildingmarker New York City 1,250 ft 381 m 102 1,454 ft 443 m Standing
1972 World Trade Centermarker (North tower) New York City 1,368 ft 417 m 110 1,727 ft 526.3 m Destroyed
1974 Willis Towermarker (formerly Sears Tower) Chicago 1,451 ft 442 m 108 1,729 ft 527 m Standing
2003 Taipei 101marker Taipei Citymarker Taiwanmarker 1,474 ft 448 m 101 1,671 ft 509 m Standing
2009 Burj Dubaimarker Dubaimarker 2,684 ft 818 m 162 2,684 ft 818 m Topped-out



Today, skyscrapers are an increasingly common sight where land is scarce, as in the centres of big cities, because they provide such a high ratio of rentable floor space per unit area of land. But they are built not just for economy of space. Like temples and palaces of the past, skyscrapers are considered symbols of a city's economic power. Not only do they define the skyline, they help to define the city's identity.

Supertall towers

At the time Taipei 101 broke the half-kilometer mark in height, it was already technically possible to build structures towering over a kilometer above the ground. Proposals for supertall structures of this sort have been put forward, including the Nakheel Tower, to be built in Dubaimarker of the United Arab Emiratesmarker; its developer, Nakheel, intends it to overtake the Burj Dubaimarker already set to claim world records in the same city. Other proposed buildings include The Mile Tower to be built in Jeddahmarker, KSAmarker and Burj Mubarak Al Kabir in Kuwaitmarker. Kilometer-plus structures present architectural challenges that may eventually place them in a new architectural category.

Future skyscrapers

The following skyscrapers are either approved or due to be completed in the near future:
  • Construction of the Burj Dubaimarker is underway in Dubaimarker. Its exact height is high, making it the tallest building in the world. The Burj Dubaimarker is due to be completed in September 2009.
  • Construction of the Pagcor Tower started in 2009, will be the second-tallest free-standing structure in the world when it is completed. Standing at a height of 665 meters, the tower will be located in Manila Baymarker near the Mall of Asia by the project of PAGCOR.
  • The Lotte Super Tower 123, a mixed-use skyscraper in Seoulmarker, South Koreamarker, will stand 555 meters (1,821 feet) in height upon its scheduled completion in 2014. The tower will house retail space, residences, and a luxury hotel.
  • Construction of the Shanghai Towermarker started on 29 November 2008. The tower will be high and have 127 floors. The building will feature a glass curtain wall and nine indoor gardens when it is completed in 2014.
  • Construction did start for a skyscraper in Chicago, however the estimated completion date is unknown, as the project is on hold. The Chicago Spiremarker, with 150 floors, would be the second tallest residential building in the world if completed. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, it would also hold the title of North America's tallest free-standing structure.
  • 1 World Trade Centermarker is now under construction and is the tallest tower comprising the redevelopment of the site of the former World Trade Centermarker following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Its antenna will reach a height of , a height representing the year of the United States Declaration of Independence.
  • The Port Tower is a building planned for Karachi, the financial capital of Pakistan, with the collaboration of local and foreign investors, in association with the Karachi Port Trust. When completed, the new structure will be 1,947 ft (593 m) high. The height of the tower has a special significance, representing the year Pakistan gained independence.
  • The Tour Generalimarker in Paris La Défensemarker, scheduled to be completed in 2013, Tour Generali - Paris, France / is an entirely green building office skyscraper that is set to be the tallest building in Paris and the second tallest in the European Union after the Shard of Glassmarker in London.
  • Construction of London's Shard of Glassmarker started in March 2009, and is scheduled to be completed in May 2012, in time for the London Olympics. At , it is set to be the tallest building in London, the United Kingdom and the tallest in the European Union.


The skyscraper as a concept is a product of the industrialized age, made possible by cheap energy and raw materials. The amount of steel, concrete and glass needed to construct a skyscraper is vast, and these materials represent a great deal of embodied energy. Tall skyscrapers are very heavy, which means that they must be built on a sturdier foundation than would be required for shorter, lighter buildings. Building materials must also be lifted to the top of a skyscraper during construction, requiring more energy than would be necessary at lower heights. Furthermore, a skyscraper consumes a lot of electricity because potable and non-potable water must be pumped to the highest occupied floors, skyscrapers are usually designed to be mechanically ventilated, elevators are generally used instead of stairs, and natural lighting cannot be utilized in rooms far from the windows and the windowless spaces such as elevators, bathrooms and stairwells.

Despite these costs, the size of skyscrapers allows for high-density work and living spaces, reducing the amount of land given over to human development. Mass transit and commercial transport are economically and environmentally more efficient when serving high-density development than suburban or rural development. Also, the total energy expended towards waste disposal and climate control is relatively lower for a given number of people occupying a skyscraper than that same number of people occupying modern housing. Indeed, though the city of Parismarker, for example, has almost the population density of Manhattanmarker, Paris' stringent building codes and unchanging borders have made it difficult to create the larger buildings and utilities needed for a growing population within the actual city limits. This inflexibility has led many important institutions and departments to locate outside of city limits (such as the La Défensemarker business district and the Department of Transportation).


:"What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? It is lofty. It must be tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exaltation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line."
::—Louis Sullivan's The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered (1896)

See also


  1. Data Standards: high-rise building (ESN 18727), Emporis Standards, accessed on line October 16, 2009.
  2. Data Standards: skyscraper (ESN 24419), Emporis Standards, accessed on line October 16, 2009.
  3. Penza State University of Architecture and Construction; Before The Workshop (1) Tower
  4. The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Cathedral Church of Lincoln, by A.F. Kendric, B.A
  5. Gregory S. Aldrete: "Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii and Ostia", 2004, ISBN 9780313331749, p.79f.
  6. Martial, Epigrams, 27
  7. Strabo, 5.3.7
  8. Alexander G. McKay: Römische Häuser, Villen und Paläste, Feldmeilen 1984, ISBN 3761105851 p. 231
  9. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2719, in: Katja Lembke, Cäcilia Fluck, Günter Vittmann: Ägyptens späte Blüte. Die Römer am Nil, Mainz 2004, ISBN 3-8053-3276-9, p.29
  10. Werner Müller: "dtv-Atlas Baukunst I. Allgemeiner Teil: Baugeschichte von Mesopotamien bis Byzanz", 14th ed., 2005, ISBN 978-3423030205, p.345
  11. Old Walled City of Shibam, UNESCO
  12. Manchester School of Architecture video YouTube
  13. List of Tallest skyscrapers in Chicago
  14. Chicago Building Boom
  15. - Chrysler Building. Quote: An exhibition in the building's lobby reports the height as 1046'...
  16. - Chrysler Building statistics
  17. America's Favorite Architecture: Chrysler Building ranked 9th
  18. Nakeel Tower announcement
  19. Kingdom Tower
  20. Zawya
  21. Burj Dubai, Dubai /
  22. Shanghai Tower Breaks Ground - Luxist
  23. Shelbourne Development - The Chicago Spire Achieves 30 Percent Sales
  24. Chicago Spire, Chicago /
  25. Freedom Tower, New York City /
  26. The Independent, UK and Worldwide News: London's 'Shard of Glass' Must Face Public Inquiry. Thursday 25 July 2002, Paragraph four line one, Quote:"...dubbed the "Shard of Glass", would be 1,016ft high..."'
  27. Tony Gee & Partners LLP: TGP and Gifford to analyse underground conditions by the 'Shard of Glass'
  28. Shard London Bridge, London /
  • Skyscrapers: Form and Function, by David Bennett, Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Further reading

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