Buildings that are great, not because they’re tall, but because of what they represent.
“The higher the buildings, the lower the morals,” said Noël Coward.
We don’t entirely agree.
In fact, we feel far too much is made of a skyscraper’s height, when there’s so much more to reflect on.
With the help of A. Eugene Kohn, founder and chairman of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), one of the world’s largest architectural firms, and Michael Greene, KPF Principal, here are 20 skyscrapers that have come to define the mood and character of their cities, and, in some cases, the world.
1. Empire State Building, New York, United States
The building that united a country.
Height: 437 meters
Cost to build: US$41 million
Completion date: May 1, 1931
Fast fact: The Empire State Building took only one year and 45 days to build, or 7 million man-hours, a record to this day for a skyscraper of its height.
“With the passing of the World Trade Center, it became even more entrenched in the hearts and souls of New Yorkers and the rest of the world.” — Michael Greene.
JAY-Z didn’t pick his song names out of nowhere. The 443-meter Empire State Building is the icon of New York, where “dreams are made” and King Kong went berserk.
Built during the Great Depression, this gigantic building has been an American symbol for 70 years, providing a solid anchor through the ebbs and flows of its economy. It is also the longest holder of the “World’s Tallest Building” title, from 1931 to 1972.
The building, whose exterior lighting changes regularly to promote charitable causes and mark significant events, is one of the few skyscrapers that offers wedding packages at its observatory.
2. China Central Television Headquarters, Beijing, China
Cutting through the Chinese smog.
Height: 234 meters
Cost to build: US$600 million
Completion date: January 2008
Fast fact: A building in the complex was badly damaged during a fire that was ignited by fireworks.
Reportedly nicknamed “big boxer shorts” by a Beijing taxi driver, the CCTV headquarters look like no other building.
Comprising a continuous loop of six horizontal and vertical sections, the design represents a running stream of “qi” in the building.
Given China’s monumental economic ambitions, the 234-meter-high structure is considered on the short side for a skyscraper.
But its light gray curtain of glass blends in perfectly with the notoriously misty skyline of Beijing, earning this one-of-a-kind skyscraper two awards at the annual Cityscape World Architecture Congress in Dubai.
See a time-lapse video of the building’s construction here.
3. Commerzbank Headquarters, Frankfurt, Germany
The world’s first ecological office tower.
Height: 300.1 meters
Cost to build: US$414 million
Completion date: 1997
Fast fact: There is no observatory or open area on top. The public can only get as far as the plaza level.
With the aid of a 50-meter mast, the Commerzbank Headquarters in Frankfurt soars past the 300-meter mark by a whopping 10 centimeters. The building is the tallest in Germany and second-tallest in Europe, for now. It will be surpassed by the Shard London Bridge in 2012.
Swimming against the tide marks it out for this list.
The Commerzbank Headquarters was the world’s first so-called ecological skyscraper, making use of natural systems of lighting and ventilation and reducing energy consumption as early as 1997.
In contrast to Europe’s conspicuous lack of grand skyscrapers, this building celebrates its rise above low-rise offices, making it not just a symbol of Frankfurt’s economy, but of Germany’s attempts to pioneer eco-architectural design.
4. Elephant Tower, Bangkok, Thailand
10,000 times bigger than a real elephant, and 10,000 times uglier too.
Height: 102 meters
Cost to build: NA
Completion date: 1997
Fast fact: The building contains a swimming pool.
If there’s one thing besides a smile that can represent Thai people, it’s elephants.
From pretty much anywhere in this dusty district in northern Bangkok, you can catch a glimpse of this 102-meter-high jumbo building, with its eyes and tusks towering above a busy junction.
As well as highlighting the importance of elephants in Thai culture and history, the building also nods toward Thailand’s coming-of-age, with high-tech offices, a shopping plaza and a floor of luxury residential suites.
This would never make a list of the most beautiful skyscrapers, but there’s no denying Elephant Tower’s place in local hearts. Plus, you just can’t keep your eyes off it.
5. Bitexco Financial Tower, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Helicopters welcome, rich residents even more so.
Height: 262 meters
Cost to build: US$220 million
Completion date: October 31, 2010
Fast fact: With speeds of seven meters per second, the elevators in the building are the third-fastest in the world.
The Bitexco Financial Tower may no longer be the tallest building in Vietnam, but it still defines Ho Chi Minh City’s skyline.
Designed to represent Vietnam’s national flower, the lotus, this 262-meter skyscraper is meant to characterize the beauty and growth of the city below.
It’s ambitious, and it’s in your face, much like its host city.
There’s an observation deck on the 47th floor, where visitors get a 360-degree view of HCMC, and a helipad on the 50th level, creating one of the structures most salient features.
6. Transamerica Pyramid, San Francisco, United States
San Francisco makes a point.
Height: 260 meters
Cost to build: US$32 million
Completion date: 1972
Fast fact: When The Pyramid’s three years of construction began in 1969, signs around the site proclaimed it “a San Francisco landmark since 1972.”
“The Transamerica Pyramid put San Francisco’s downtown on the map.” — Michael Greene.
Around San Franciso’s picturesque wooden Victorian houses, this skyscraper climbs like a rocket. Although not comparable to the futuristic designs of newer skyscrapers, the 260-meter pyramid has been the city’s most recognizable building for decades.
The structure has an unconventional tapered design — imitating a tree trunk — that allows natural light and fresh air to trickle down to adjacent streets.
Without obstructing much of the tranquil neighborhood, this slender style, together with the earthquake-safe design, allowed the building to get around strict building laws in the city, reaching a height unfamiliar to San Francisco.
7. Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong
You don’t need to be big to be noticed.
Height: 305 meters
Cost to build: NA
Completion date: May 1990
Fast fact: The building was criticized by feng shui masters for its sharp corners, which in feng shui terms means it will bring bad luck to its neighbors (notably the HSBC main building). Pei had to modify the design before construction began.
The Bank of China Tower was the first skyscraper outside of the United States to surpass the 305-meter mark and was once the tallest building in Hong Kong.
Reflecting lights like a glittering crystal, the unusual crystalline-like structure is inspired by the bamboo plant, mimicking its strength, vitality and growth.
It has for years been one of the most distinctive buildings in Hong Kong, out-shining its taller neighbors.
Together with Two IFC, the tower is part of the city’s Symphony of Light show, illuminating Hong Kong’s harbor every night at 8 p.m.
8. Kingdom Center, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
If this is a shovel, we’d like to see the hole it dug.
Height: 302 meters
Cost to build: US$458 million
Completion date: 2002
Fast fact: Ladies Kingdom claims to have “almost every thing a female would need” — even a ladies’ bank and a ladies’ mosque.
Some observers have drawn a connection between the Kingdom Center and a shovel stuck in the sand; a somewhat misplaced comparison for the tallest building in Saudi Arabia.
But get this: Riyadh building code forbids any building with more than 30 usable floors, but doesn’t impose height restrictions. So, thanks to the big void in the new Saudi Arabian icon, only 30 floors are used for normal purposes.
It features an area offering a refreshing break from usual social norms in the region, with a shopping mall that includes a female-only “Ladies Kingdom,” an entire floor designated for women to shop freely without needing to be covered.
9. Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Throwing the gauntlet down to Hong Kong as a financial capital.
Height: 452 meters
Cost to build: US$1.6 billion
Completion date: June 1996
Fast fact: National poet laureate A. Samad Said was commissioned to write a poem for the towers, which can be read here: http://www.petronastwintowers.com.my
“These towers changed the skyline of Kuala Lumpur, and jumped the existing scale there dramatically. Petronas was also an attempt to relate a tall building to a country’s culture and history, and to make a statement about its power and desire to replace Hong Kong as a financial capital.” — A. Eugene Kohn.
Employing the repetitive geometric principle of Muslim architecture and Islamic arabesques, architect César Pelli wanted the Petronas Twin Towers to exude Malaysian culture and heritage; and he succeeded.
Although nothing in Kuala Lumpur is nearly as colossal, the world’s tallest twin towers somehow feel at home amid the capital’s otherwise unassuming cityscape.
Completed in 1996, the sky bridge that connects the two towers symbolizes “a gateway to the future” and Malaysia’s sky-high ambition entering the millennium. Since completion, this 451-meter skyscraper has become Malaysia’s unmistakable icon.
10. Tokyo Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, Tokyo, Japan
Designed like a cocoon for Tokyo’s students to learn and grow.
Height: 204 meters
Cost to build: NA
Completion date: October 2008
Fast fact: It’s the second-tallest educational building in the world, next to the M.V. Lomonosov State University building in Moscow.
The tower is one of the few educational skyscrapers in the world, hosting schools of fashion, computer science and medicine.
As its name suggests, its exterior resembles the silky home of various larvae.
Students are educated inside the 50-level tower and metaphorically transformed into something bigger and more beautiful, culminating in generations of Tokyoites prepared to give this sprawling city, and its country, focus.
The Cocoon Tower is also a symbol of innovation — soaring above its older and shorter neighboring buildings not just literally, but figuratively.
11. Shanghai World Financial Center, Shanghai, China
Just one giant beer bottle to go, and Shanghai’s set to party.
Height: 492 meters
Cost to build: US$1.2 billion
Completion date: August 2008
Fast fact: The square “bottle opener” opening at the top that is designed to reduce stress of wind pressure, and was originally circular. However, Shanghainese citizens and the city’s mayor protested, claiming it was too similar to the rising sun design of the Japanese flag.
Just eight meters shy of the half-kilometer mark, this giant bottle opener overtook Gin Mou Tower in 2008 as the tallest building in China, and is the latest addition to Pudong’s smoggy skyline, signifying the city’s emergence as a global financial hub.
Like many magnificent architectures in China, the Shanghai World Financial Center has a subtle connection to Chinese beliefs: the opening atop represents earth reaching up to the sky, symbolizing an interaction between the two realms.
Originally, this opening was round. The central government forced the change to the current trapezoid, complaining that a circle was too close to Japan’s rising-sun symbol.
12. Hotel & Casino Grand Lisboa, Macau
Whether vulgar or beautiful, it’s certainly iconic.
Height: 261 meters
Cost to build: US$385 million
Completion date: 2008
Fast fact: The tower is inspired by the long plumes of a Brazilian girl’s headdress.
A golden structure designed to combine the visual effects of crystals, fireworks and a Brazilian headdress.
It isn’t particularly beautiful, but who needs beauty when what you’re really after is piles of gamblers’ cash?
Everything linked with money can somehow be intertwined with superstitions in Macau. This, the tallest skyscraper in Macau (261 meters) was built to resemble a bottleneck to avoid the leaking of cash -– a suggestion given by a feng shui master.
All the gold, crystals, fireworks and flowers are symbols of prosperity to guide the money home.
In Macau, known as the Las Vegas of the East, the Hotel & Casino Grand Lisboa is the eminent icon of gaudy profits.
13. Bahrain World Trade Center, Manama, Bahrain
Possibly the greenest building on earth.
Height: 240 meters
Cost to build: US$150 million
Completion date: 2008
Fast fact: It was the world’s first wind-powered mega-structure.
No doubt the futuristic Bahrain World Trade Center has given the island’s skyline a big, bright slap in the chops. But the maritime connection doesn’t stop at its stunning silhouette.
The two sail-inspired towers that reach vertically more than 240 meters are joined by three giant wind turbines in the middle to harness the power of nature, generating approximately 13 percent of the towers’ total energy needs.
In addition to showing its deep pockets, this emphatically sci-fi building also speaks volumes about Bahrain’s environmental consciousness.
14. Two International Finance Center, Hong Kong
Not the tallest Hong Kong building, but the most dramatic.
Height: 415 meters
Cost to build: US$2.5 billion
Completion date: August 2008
Fast facts: In “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,” Lara Croft leaped off the building. In “The Dark Knight,” Batman leaped from 2IFC to IFC.
Two International Financial Center is the definitive point of Hong Kong’s awe-inspiring skyline and a symbol of its wealth.
Located in the center of Hong Kong’s financial district, this shimmering 415-meter obelisk fits every criterion of a financial powerhouse.
It houses some of the world’s largest financial institutes, it is situated on 8 Finance Street and has 88 floors — the number eight is an auspicious digit in Hong Kong.
The building is topped with a crown that some liken to a beard trimmer.
15. Burj al Arab, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Seven-star hotel anyone?
Height: 321 meters
Cost to build: US$650 million
Completion date: December 1999
Fast fact: The hotel is the only seven-star hotel in the world, even though the hotel proclaimed itself so.
Influenced by the shape of the dhow, Burj al Arab isn’t only a popular computer monitor wallpaper; it has also established itself as the distinctive icon of extravagance in Dubai, housing the world’s only self-proclaimed seven-star hotel.
Sitting on a manmade island, the “sailboat” has a private beach and a private curving bridge that connects it to the rest of the city.
More notable, however, is Tiger Wood’s annual tee-off on the 24-meter-wide helipad, where Roger Federer and Andre Agassi also played a tennis match, 300 meters above ground.
16. Taipei 101, Taipei, Taiwan
Home to the world’s fastest elevator.
Height: 508 meters
Cost to build: US$1.8 billion
Completion date: 2004
Fast fact: The building is designed to resemble a growing bamboo stalk, a symbol of everlasting strength in Chinese culture.
Taiwan doesn’t have many ostentatious records in its humble history, but Taipei 101 defies this tradition.
It is the first skyscraper to soar past the half-kilometer mark and it sat at the pinnacle of the skyscraper world from 2004 to 2009.
Taipei 101 can also claim the “world’s fastest passenger elevator” title.
At an ear-popping 1,010 meters per minute, it takes merely 37 seconds to catapult passengers from the fifth floor to the highest point in Taiwan.
Ritualistically, Taipei 101 is supported by the lucky number eight in many aspects of its design, including the number of sections and super columns. It also incorporates the form of a Chinese pagoda and evokes the shape of sprouting bamboo flowers.
17. Torre Agbar, Barcelona, Spain
The torpedo in the middle of Barcelona.
Height: 142 meters
Cost to build: US$130 million
Completion date: 2004
Fast fact: The design is inspired by the power and lightness of a geyser shooting up, touching the skies of Barcelona.
“It has become not only a cultural symbol for Barcelona, but also a magnet for groups looking to bring attention to political issues.” — A. Eugene Kohn.
Torre Agbar may have the look a bullet, but it doesn’t have the metallic touch like other skyscrapers. Its design was inspired by the hills of Montserrat, letting it morph quietly into the most visible landmark of the city of blue and red.
The 144-meter-high building has two cylindrical layers. One topped by polished aluminum and the second clear and translucent glass with 40 different colors.
With a total of 4,500 yellow, blue, pink and red lights placed over the facade, the sensation of Barcelona’s skyline helps illuminate the city with floodlights at night, making it the most discernible figure for miles, after Lionel Messi.
18. Burj Khalifa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Tall, elegant, skinny. Sure it wasn’t inspired by Naomi Campbell?
Height: 828 meters
Cost to build: US$1.5 billion
Completion date: January 2009
Fast fact: Not only is this the world’s tallest building, it is also home of the world’s highest mosque, on the 158th floor. The tower is more than twice the height of the Empire State Building in New York.
Size isn’t everything — that’s what the little guys always say.
Standing 828 meters high and weighing half a million tons, Burj Khalifa towers above its city like a giant redwood in a field of daisies.
It has been been the world’s tallest building since 2010.
Gigantic doesn’t begin to describe it.
This “desert flower” stands out comfortably among other skyscrapers and has become the symbol of Dubai’s bling, which often goes hand-in-hand with figures of per capita carbon footprints –- which Dubai also tops.
19. 30 St. Mary Axe, London, England
Finally, a British skyscraper worth looking at.
Height: 180 meters
Cost to build: US$212 million
Completion date: 2003
Fast fact: Despite its curvaceous body, the entire building only has one piece of curved glass in its construction, and that is the lens at the top of the building.
“It’s extremely creative, and has had an enormous impact on the London skyline, particularly concerning its sculptural shape.” — A. Eugene Kohn.
Some say it’s in an egg shape; others call it the London Bullet Building or the Cucumber Building.
In any event, the Gherkin broke London’s tradition of building boring skyscrapers.
Officially named 30 St. Mary Axe, the harlequin-patterned building bulges out slightly from its base to reach a maximum height of 180 meters. It stands at the center of London’s financial district.
Together with its energy-efficient designs, its aerodynamic shape also minimizes wind loads and doesn’t deflect wind to the ground, improving wind conditions in the vicinity, winning London pedestrians’ hearts.
20. Turning Torso, Malmo, Sweden
The only building that likes yoga.
Height: 190 meters
Cost to build: US$80 million
Completion date: 2005
Fast fact: Tourists are not allowed in the building because it houses apartments and offices.
Designer Santiago Calatrava wanted to recreate the natural movements of animals and humans in this building.
By crossing the boundaries of strict geometry and modern technologies in architecture, he came up with a masterpiece that has more than a twist in its tail.
The spine-like skyscraper turns a full 90 degrees from top to bottom. In order to follow the rotation, the windows are leaning either inwards or outward zero to seven degrees.
No other skyscraper has achieved anything as extreme.
In line with Sweden’s low-emission promise, this tallest residential building in the country is also supplied with 100 percent locally produced renewable energy — a true symbol of modern Sweden.