Asia’s skyscraper supremacy

The Tribute in Light is seen behind the Empire State Building on September 10, 2011 in New York City. The Tribute in Light is an art installation honoring those who perished in the 9/11 attacks.

BANGKOK, Thailand — For Americans fretting over U.S. decline, here’s another thump to the ego: the nation’s mightiest skyscrapers will soon be bested by towers in cities you’ve probably never heard of.

Consider all the hype surrounding One World Trade Center. When it's completed in 2013, it will be America's tallest, but only third in the world — hundreds of feet shorter than towers in Dubai and Mecca. By 2015, it will slip to seventh globally, assuming all towers currently under construction are completed. And by the end of the decade it could drop from the top ten list, according to data from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Shanghai and Seoul will soon claim higher buildings. So will lesser-known Chinese megacities Shenzhen, Wuhan and Tianjin.

In a more ascendent U.S. era, America proclaimed its prosperity with steel and glass towers from New York to Houston to Los Angeles. But Asia’s ongoing skyscraper boom has put U.S. skylines to shame.

Of the world’s 50 tallest buildings, half now tower over cities in Asia. The balance will tip even further once proposed or under-construction buildings are complete. At that point, New York's 540-meter tall One World Trade Center is likely to be the only American tower among the top 20. 

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“Look at Chicago. It’s supposed to be the mecca of tall buildings architecture. But there’s nothing going on here now,” said Jan Klerks with the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which monitors skyscrapers worldwide.

“The U.S. just doesn’t have as much to prove anymore,” Klerks said. In China, however, it’s “not uncommon to find out some city you’re barely aware of is doing a 500-meter building.”

Beginning in 1901, nine American towers took turns sharing the “world’s tallest” superlative throughout the 20th century. The best known include the Empire State Building, Chicago’s Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower) and the World Trade Center. Prior to America’s skyscraper dominance, the world’s tallest building was a Gothic church in Germany.

This competition has since shifted eastward. Rising Middle Eastern and Asian economies are now waging the battle to build the world’s tallest tower. The titleholder seems to change countries every to six to seven years.

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An Asian nation first stole the title, with Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, finished in 1998. That feat was quickly bested by Taiwan’s Taipei 101, completed in 2004, and followed by the current champion, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, completed last year, and standing 828 meters tall.

The race is on to reach a new peak: the world’s first kilometer-high tower. For now, Saudi Arabia’s proposed “Kingdom Tower” is best positioned to be erected first. “They’ve got a serious proposal and serious money,” Klerks said.

From there, Klerks said, engineers will likely attempt a mile-high skyscraper. “From an engineering point of view, you could go a mile high and still stand up up to earthquakes and strong winds,” he said. (A mile-high tower would be roughly triple the height of the new 104-floor One World Trade Center.)

“If the question is how tall can you go, then you have to ask, ‘How deep are your pockets?’” Klerks said. “The taller you go, it gets exponentially more expensive.”

China, after three decades averaging 9 to 10 percent annual growth, has pockets that are plenty deep. Though unable to claim the world’s tallest building — planned towers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates are vying for the top two spots this decade — China by 2015 is slated to be home to 21 of the world’s top 50 tallest buildings.

In just a few years, China will have a total of 37 buildings with 60 or more stories completed, according to figures collected by the tall buildings council. The U.S. will have 10. One U.S. contender, the proposed 150-story Chicago Spire, would have been the 10th tallest. But construction was halted after the 2008 financial crash.

“Partly as a symbol of economic power and prestige, China is stepping towards these super-tall buildings of 80 stories or more,” said Jason Pomeroy, a Singapore-based architect and academic with the firm Broadway Malyan.

But China’s tall-building boom is more than just a display of economic might. Each person flooding into China’s boom cities needs a place to live, Klerks said, and tall towers help contend with population density.

“In Shanghai, you’ll see whole oceans of bland, ordinary buildings that are quite tall,” he said. “Those are not the sexy, super-tall buildings. But they’re taking care of the people problem.”

The same holds true for the Asian tropics, where flashy buildings of 50 stories or more are sprouting in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Cambodia, among the region’s poorest countries, is also feeling the skyscraper itch. Officials there have boasted, rather dubiously, of plans to build the world’s tallest structure in the capital Phnom Penh, a hardscrabble city where roosters still dart into traffic.

Some overly ambitious projects are doomed to fizzle, Pomeroy said. “We are always going to see very extravagant proposals or mile-high towers,” he said. “But we’ve found that most buildings in the 40-to-60 story bracket really come to fruition.”

Meanwhile, America’s skylines appear to be shrinking.

Of the world’s top 30 tallest demolished buildings, eight of the top 10 were destroyed in the U.S. (Three towers, the twin World Trade Center buildings and nearby 7 World Trade Center, fell during the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.) In recent decades, more than 750 floors of skyscraper construction have been demolished in the U.S., according to council figures.

But while America’s skyscraper glory is fading, and Asia’s skylines grow taller, Pomeroy notes a corollary between super-tall buildings and overreaching economies.

The Empire State Building opened amidst the Great Depression. Malaysia’s Petronas Towers opened in 1998, just as a financial crisis ripped through Asia. The current tallest tower, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, opened following the 2008 global financial disaster.

“Dare I say it? There’s a paradox there,” Pomeroy said. “The ultra-exclusive tower that symbolizes power and prestige can mark the cataclysmic effects of a coming depression.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct several innacuracies.