Shanghai and the Return of the Skyscraper

Shanghai and the Return of the Skyscraper

In the late 19th century, a rapidly growing Chicago, flush with railroad and manufacturing capital, gave birth to an architectural icon that would change the face of the modern skyline. The discovery and implementation of steel-frame construction, first successfully used on the 138-foot Home Insurance Building, would eventually herald an age of taller buildings, better views, and increased density. Matching the character of the age, the skyscraper became a symbol of American innovation and ambition in a rabidly commercial town, as Chicago architects made their names and fortunes with ostentatious, beautiful Beaux-Arts buildings.


The age of the skyscraper reached full-scale boom proportions in the years before World War I, spreading to New York and the world beyond as technical innovation made them cheaper and more viable. Eventually, though, the fervor for skyscrapers calmed. The accumulation of countless utilitarian rectangular towers in every city seemed to tarnish the very idea, and tall buildings came to seem uninspired; even gauche.

Today, with the world’s population increasing at an alarming rate and the trend of urbanization showing no signs of slowing, the skyscraper is seeming less like an ambitious display of man’s engineering prowess and more like a necessity in a rapidly crowding world. Nowhere is the crunch for space felt more acutely than in the developing world. It is projected that China will see its urban population grow from the current 600 million to more than a billion by 2030! In burgeoning cities like Beijing and Shanghai, this means that there’s only one direction to go: skyward.

This past August, the Shanghai Tower celebrated its topping out with a ceremony and the hoist-ing of its final beam. While the building is still incomplete–interior construction is still under-way–the topping out brought the Tower to 2,073 feet, making it the tallest building in China and the second tallest building in the world, behind only Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the subject of our last installment of Amazing Buildings. Super-tall skyscrapers have been popping up throughout Asia, with American firms often finding homes for their most ambitious projects overseas.


Designed by Jun Xia at Gensler, the Shanghai Tower consists of nine stacked cylindrical buildings totaling 121 floors. It is located in the district of Pudong, accompanied by two other super-tall buildings: the 101-floor Shanghai World Financial Center and the 88-floor Jin Mao Tower. The three buildings form a kind of narrative trio of the past, present, and future of China.

Like any super-tall building, the Shanghai Tower is a marvel of engineering. Ultra-futuristic in design, it is encased in a spiraling glass facade that was engineered for wind resistance–important in a city that experiences regular typhoons. A 16-meter scale model of the building was tested for earthquakes up to 7.5 on the Richter scale. Since the Tower sits on clay-mixed soil characteristic of a river delta, 61,000 cubic meters of concrete were used in the foundation slab, poured continuously in a marathon 60-hour session.

When the Tower is complete in 2014, it will be one of the most sustainably advanced skyscrapers and it is projected to be LEED Gold certified. Here, again, the outer glass shell comes into play. By creating a buffer between the outside and the inner buildings, the space between the two curtains acts as an insulator, reducing heating and cooling costs. The Tower will also house an advanced rainwater collection system and vertically aligned wind turbines. Taken together, the sustainability strategies used in the building will reduce the building’s carbon footprint by 34,000 metric tons per year.


The Shanghai Tower is also a feat of planning, constituting an entire city contained within the building. The space between the outer glass facade and the inner column of nine buildings allows for ‘sky lobbies’, which contain landscaped public gardens and serve as plazas or town squares, encouraging neighborhood-style interaction and community. The nine buildings or zones of the Tower are defined by their use. The ground floor will contain retail space, with luxury boutiques, high-end dining, and cafes. Above this are five office zones with more conventional commercial space. Sitting above the offices are two luxury hotel zones. The ninth and highest zone will house an observation deck and cultural facilities, including an exhibition center and gourmet restaurants.

Buildings like the Shanghai Tower may help change perceptions of what skyscrapers mean. By integrating urban planning, sustainability, and engineering, super-tall buildings are able to achieve things that smaller buildings simply can’t. “This tower is symbolic of a nation whose future is filled with limitless opportunities,” said Qingwei Kong, the President of the Shanghai Tower Construction & Development Co., Ltd. Of course, Mr. Kong is correct. However, the tower may also be symbolic of the future of building in general. The skyscraper is not a fad, and we very well may be seeing a second golden age of the form.

Originally Published in:

THE NETWORK / DECEMBER 2013 – Amazing Buildings