London skyline shot from top of St Paul’s Cathedral (Credit: Law Yoke Foong)

Defying gravity

By Law Yoke Foong, Director, Singapore Studio

3 June 2020

When imagination takes flight, architecture reaches new heights—with super-tall buildings.

The human race may have been born without wings, but we have always aspired to greater heights. In the world of design, architecture and engineering, this has taken the form of buildings growing taller and taller, until the term ‘skyscraper’ came into use sometime in the late 1880s. Today, ‘skyscraper’ is synonymous with super-tall buildings, but in the 1933 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, this is how it was explained:

Skyscraper (noun) /ˈskaɪskreɪpə(r)/
(1) A triangular sky-sail (nautical)
(2) A high-standing horse
(3) A bicycle with a very high wheel in the back
(4) An exceptionally tall man
(5) An exaggerated tale, or ‘tall story’
(6) A high building of many stories, especially one of those characteristic of American cities

The reference to the United States is likely because the world’s first skyscrapers were found in Chicago. Since then, the idea of building higher caught on, with generations of architects and engineers eager to outdo one another. Then it came the Chrysler Building; just a year later, the Empire State Building arose above it. And the list goes on. Even the 163-storey Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which has been lauded as the world’s tallest skyscraper since 2009, is expected to relinquish the title to Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia once the latter is completed.

In the beginning, the industry’s fascination with heights remained preoccupied with granular concerns about breaking down scale — we see filigree, frames, smaller window openings. In a not-too-functional way, the architect remained sentimental to finer details, scale and relationship. Then came creative sparks with iconic super towers that became taller, bolder, louder. Some were feats of defiance; others were game-changers that literally redefined the city skyline.

For the man on the street, there’s really no complaining. In a rapidly urbanising world that grows more densely populated by the minute, buildings that reach for the sky are, in the most practical terms, simply able to accommodate more people. And who would mind a view from the top, whether we are gazing out of the office window, lounging in the balcony at home, or enjoying another Instagrammable travel moment? London has her Walkie-Talkie and The Shard. Taiwan had her super pagoda Taipei 101 and Paris has her Eiffel.

The beauty of it is that skyscrapers place the world at our feet, while our feet remain firmly on the ground.