Modern supertall skyscrapers thrust big buildings to dizzying heights

The projects in this article show how engineers are helping create a new generation of supertall buildings.

A supertall skyscraper's top floors break through the clouds.

Mark Smith

January 20, 2021

min read
  • The first skyscraper was built in Chicago in 1884.

  • Since then, the appetite for supertall buildings has skyrocketed.

  • This roundup features five stories about how modern supertall skyscrapers are changing skylines around the world.

When American architect and engineer William LeBaron Jenney designed Chicago’s Home Insurance Building in 1884, it rose to the then-astounding height of 180 feet, spawning fierce debate about its safety and forcing the city to change its building codes.

Generally considered to be the first skyscraper, the building employed skeleton construction, a technique still used to build today’s supertall buildings—though it’s unlikely that Jenney could have imagined buildings such as Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower, which will ascend 3,281 feet into the desert sky.

Modern supertall skyscrapers like the Jeddah Tower dot skylines around the world, from Tianjin, China, to New York City. Here are five stories about the age of the supertall skyscraper.

1. Japan plans for supertall wooden skyscraper in Tokyo by 2041

Think all supertall skyscrapers need to be constructed out of steel, concrete, and glass? Although the 1,148-foot W350 Project will consist of some steel (it’s currently designed to have a 9:1 wood-to-steel ratio), Sumitomo Forestry and architecture firm Nikken Sekkei believe they can build a beautiful wooden tower that will be able to withstand Tokyo’s seismic activity.

2. Supertall towers are driving an elevator revolution

With the boom in supertall future skyscrapers comes the problem of how to move people thousands of feet vertically, and elevator manufacturers such as Kone, Thyssenkrupp, and Otis Elevator have realized that the traditional method of using cables and pulleys leaves much to be desired. As a result, these innovators have been experimenting with everything from carbon-fiber cables to magnetic systems that would allow elevators to also move sideways, opening up new options in big building design.

3. The slender future skyscrapers changing New York’s skyline

As anyone who has tried to buy property in Manhattan will tell you, space is at a premium—and you will pay accordingly. To get around that issue, developers have begun to construct skinny supertall skyscrapers with width-to-height ratios ranging from 1:10 to 1:23, a trend that opens up new design opportunities and will drastically alter the Big Apple’s skyline.

4. Skyscraper builders rise to a supertall challenge in Tianjin

Rendering of the Tianjin Tower, one of China’s supertall future skyscrapers
The Tianjin Tower will stand 103 stories high and aims to achieve LEED Gold Certification. Courtesy of China Construction Eighth Engineering Division.

How do you build a 103-story supertall tower that meets LEED Gold standards? When the China Construction Eighth Engineering Division took on the project of building the Tianjin Chow Tai Fook Financial Center, the company used advanced BIM (Building Information Modeling), prefabrication, and industrialized construction processes to create an aerodynamic, curved structure that can withstand severe seismic activity.

5. Does the skyscraper still have a future?

COVID-19 brought the world to a halt in 2020 and may have forever changed the idea of what office life could be. There is still a need for office space in dense cities like New York, but there’s been a change in the idea of the modern workspace, post-pandemic. As more people have returned to offices, there has been a push for more open-air, outdoor spaces in offices.

Supertall skyscraper fast facts

  • The tallest skyscraper in the world is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai at 2,717 feet tall.

  • The Empire State Building in New York City, the first skyscraper with more than 100 floors, was built in 410 days.

  • Chicago's Home Insurance Building was the first building to use steel beams and columns in 1885. It is considered the precursor to the modern skyscraper.

This article has been updated. It originally published in April 2018.

Mark Smith

About Mark Smith

Mark Smith is a writer, editor, and musician based in Bellingham, WA.

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