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Our obsession with magnificent structures started long ago with the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Since the dawn of civilization, builders and architects have sought to build edifices to please their gods or to honor their masters. But in the 21st century, if you hear or speak the word city, you automatically imagine skyscrapers. Urban skylines have become a forest of towering buildings. Supertall skyscrapers, such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai or the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur are now used to announce the emergence of a city on the global stage. However, for millennia, we had cities without any skyscrapers. For example, most cities in Europe such as Rome is almost completely void of skyscrapers. But wait a minute, how did the skyscraper come into existence in the first place? What are the shortcomings that they had to overcome? Let’s talk about the history of skyscrapers.

Early Skyscrapers

The Great Pyramid of Giza
Oldest man-made skyscraper in history

The term skyscrapers historically referred to buildings with 10 to 20 floors in the 1880s. But soon the definition began to shift with advancing construction technology during the 20th century. The invention of skyscrapers was an example of how a city could solve its own problems by allowing collaborators and inventors to work as a creative unit. 

The history of skyscrapers goes way back to 2630 BC when Djoser Step Pyramid (204 ft.) was first constructed. For thousands of years, the great pyramid of Giza was the tallest man-made structure. It represented the coercive power of pharaohs as well as Egyptian engineering. But in the 14th century, finally, church spires began to push the boundaries by going above its 481ft. height. Lincoln Cathedral in England was the first one to reach 525ft. in 1311. But a violent storm destroyed it. After its destruction, the crown of the tallest structure was held by a series of church towers. St. Mary’s in Strassland, Strasbourg, St. Nikolai in Hamburg, Notre Dame in Rouen, and finally, Cologne which was built in 1880. But soon lost it’s preeminence to the towering Washington Monument and then the 300m tall Eiffel Tower in 1887.


Eiffel Tower
Eiffel Tower’s iron frame structure pioneered the use of iron frame structure

As far as the history of skyscrapers goes, Eiffel Tower played the most prominent role. The iron structure of the Eiffel Tower was the first to point out the central engineering element of the skyscraper. A cast-iron skeleton that bears the weight of the building. And then there was the conundrum with the elevator itself as there were no safety features if an elevator cable snapped. In 1857, however, Elisha Graves Otis came up with a safety mechanism that prevented elevators from falling dangerously. This spurred inventors to develop the electric motor elevator, making the elevator an easy way to get to the top of tall buildings. 

Architects then started using these two fundamental things to build high-rise buildings. And that lead to the construction of some astonishing early skyscrapers including the 45 m (148 ft) Rand McNally Building in Chicago, the 41 m (135 ft) Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri and the 103 m (338 ft) tall American Surety Building in New York, which was the world’s tallest building for many years. 

Modern Skyscrapers

Moscow State University
Moscow State University was one of the seven buildings that had been built after World War II

Just after the first quarter of the 20th century, the construction of skyscrapers entered into a three-decade-long era of stagnation. Mostly due to World War II and the Great Depression in 1930. And then soon after the war was over, the soviet union started building a series of skyscrapers in Moscow. Then the trend soon entered into other European countries including Germany, Poland, Ukraine, and Latvia.

Then from 1930 onward, skyscrapers started to appear in different parts of the world including cities in East and Southeast Asia as well as in Latin America. And from late 1950 onward, skyscrapers finally began to emerge in cities of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Oceania.

But by then one thing had changed in the history of skyscrapers; the rejection of the classical designs of the early skyscrapers. Instead, all the skyscraper projects began to embrace the uniform international style. And the style incorporated steel or reinforced concrete frameworks and curtain walls of glass or polished stone in their constructions. 

In the early 1960s, a Bangladeshi-American engineer and architect named Fazlur Rahman Khan introduced the “tube” structural system. He discovered that a steel frame structure was not the only way to build skyscrapers. His “tube concept”, using all the exterior wall perimeter structure of a building to simulate a thin-walled tube, revolutionized tall building design. That in effect paved the way for all the heaven reaching skyscrapers that we see today. 

Race to the top

Burj Khalifa
Tallest building on earth as of now.

The competition to build taller and taller buildings was the hallmark of corporate construction in the early 20th century. The first to rise to prominence were the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower (700 ft.), the Woolworth Building (792 ft.), and the Chrysler Building (1,046 ft.) in 1930. Soon after becoming the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Chrysler was outdone by the Empire State Building. It stretched 1,250 ft. and built during the Depression as a beacon of hope. 

The Empire State Building held the title for 41 years and has a special place in the history of skyscrapers. Then the original World Trade Center took the mantle in 1972, rising to 1,368 ft. with 110 stories. But it only managed to hold the top spot for two years as the Sears Tower became the world’s highest at 1,450 ft. But, in 1998, the king of the skyscrapers mantel left America when Malaysia completed the 1,483 ft. Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. 

Taipei 101 became the tallest in 2004 at 1,670 ft. and managed to hold strong until January 2010. And then the Burj Khalifa claimed the world’s tallest and one of the most extravagant buildings that extended to a height of 2,716 ft. and 160 stories. That said, the Burj also has the fastest elevators in the world, for obvious reasons.

The future tallest building

A rendition of Sky mile tower Tokyo
Proposed Sky mile tower Tokyo; when finished it will be the tallest building ever in the history

Among all the tallest under-construction buildings in the world, the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia will claim the top prize for the tallest building when completed. Currently, the construction is halted for some unavoidable reasons. But after completion, it will stretch 3,307 ft. towards the sky. There is a plan afoot in Tokyo for the Tokyo Sky Mile Tower. After it’s completion, it will become the tallest ever skyscraper in the history of skyscrapers at a whopping 5,577 ft. with more than 400 floors. 

The question is how high can we go? Experts suggest that even a one-mile building is possible with a buttressed core. To go two miles is theoretically possible, but would require a hollowed base like the Eiffel Tower.

Building professionals consider there to be no real limit on how tall a building can go and could conceivably outstretch the highest mountain as long as the base is spread wide enough. In terms of the highest structure though, the space elevator— elevated 100,000 km — anchored to the earth and extended beyond our atmosphere is more likely to lift us to the highest possible point ever.

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