Why Do We Build Skyscrapers?

A lot of buildings in the world today, that are considered representatives of Modern Architecture, seem to have exceeded all natural limitations when it comes to height. The typically monolithic shape of the popular (from the looks of it) skyscrapers continue to increase in height. The tallest building in the world in the year of 2020 will be over 1 kilometer high.

This “mine is bigger than yours” contest has been going on between countries and continents ever since the industrial revolution. The United States held the title for over forty years with the Empire State Building, with its 102 floors and 380 meters, but now it is Little League in comparison with the newest super tall building structures, many of them located in Asia.

Perhaps the phenomena of Skyscrapers stems from our desire to reach skyward, which we can see examples of all through our history. From the time of the ancient pyramids of Egypt and the great cathedrals and towers of Europe, humankind have sought toward heaven in our buildings. The pyramids were built to guide the deceased kings and pharaohs towards their afterlife, whereas the cathedrals were built to inspire fear of God, piety and awe of the congregation. But these buildings also represent a more mundane quest for symbols of power and prosperity. In the Modern version of tall buildings this last factor has become predominant, and skyscrapers first and foremost represent the power of money.

A huge building like the Modern skyscraper can house a lot of people, almost like a little micro-city with vertical main streets in the form of stairs and elevators. But unlike a dynamic city these structures are inflexible and boringly predictable. The one floor plan is bound to be more or less like the next, and the next, and the next. It´s inherent monotony lacks the strength to stimulate us like a living city organism should. The functions of the floors are usually the same also, be it at huge corporate building with offices, a hotel, or an apartment building. You won’t find shops or hairdressers there, or cinemas and theaters, like you would in a city.

So, what´s the problem?

We seem to forget the fact that people need to feel secure and comfortable within their building environment. Even though we can appreciate the stunning beauty and impressiveness of a monolithic building structure, or a skyline filled with these impressive buildings that glow in the dark, up front they tend to make us feel small, inadequate and uncomfortable. They look their best from a distance, but seem to defy nature with their monstrous scale and use of man-made materials. In a way they represent humankind’s victory over nature, but still, they are inhuman in their nature.

This seems to be a paradox, but it is really just the result of having forgotten that human beings are an integrated part of nature. Human nature at its best is striving towards truth and understanding, peace and compassion, but at its worst it is ruled by cravings for wealth and power. In my opinion the skyscrapers of Modern Architecture represent the latter, and research shows that living in one even can be hazardous to your health.

The buildings that surround us are supposed to serve us – not the other way around. In regards to a dwelling, for instance, there should be access to private, semi private and semi public spaces for a rich social life to occur. The skyscraper´s vast elevation from the ground puts a distance between its inhabitants and the people on the ground, both physically and metaphorically. The same goes for the huge corporate buildings that put an emotional distance between themselves and their clients.

So, even though the trophy for “The Tallest Building in the World” is passed around from one continent to another, we could be losing something along the way. The need for shelter from the climatic forces is one of our most basic needs. People should not feel depressed and confused in their homes and workplaces, but rather safeguarded, stimulated and relaxed.

I believe Modern Architecture is a reflection of our society´s predominant values, and sadly, it isn’t always a pretty sight.