The Skyscraper Hall of Fame was established with the induction of the buildings that at one point have been the tallest skyscrapers in the world, including the current world’s tallest Burj Khalifa. As such, 15 skyscrapers, 17 if you consider twin towers to be a duo of individual buildings have been inducted. This is how far we can look back and confirm that these skyscrapers were the tallest in the world when they were completed. .
Credible looking sources start contradicting each other when researching the pre-Singer Building era, mostly because of different definitions and incorrect data. Wikipedia for example includes Philadelphia City Hall in the list, while most height is in the tower, not in the building. The Skyscraper Museum includes the 96-meter tall St. Paul Building, while a taller building, the Manhattan Life Insurance Building, was completed 4 years prior at a height of 106 meter.
Luckily we know Marshall Gerometta very well. Marshall dedicates a good portion of his life to height hunting, as he calls it. Because of it he was able to look back as far 1875, which added four skyscrapers to the list before the Singer Building. If anyone on this planet knows, it’s Marshall. But even for a guy like him things become shady when looking back further. Data on heights and dates is contaminated because of lack of sources, lack of guidelines for establishing comparable data, and most of all, lack of the buildings themselves as, most of them have (sadly) been demolished decades ago.
You now understand that there is no established oldest world’s tallest building. The Skyscraper Dictionary published an article on the first skyscraper, which concludes that a number of buildings can be considered as such, for as many different reasons. But that’s another category that might be inducted in the Skyscraper Hall of Fame some other day.
So, without further ado, here are the first Skyscrapers Hall of Famers!
Looking at the occupants of these skyscrapers, on notices changes of the business involved, starting with printed media and followed by industry, banking, trade and petrochemistry. It’s tempting to conclude that these were the sectors of economy that were strongest at the time of construction.
Looking at the architecture you can distinguish five stages of skyscraper design.
The first skyscrapers didn’t look like skyscrapers but more like overgrown mansions (New York Tribune Building) and temples (World Building). Obviously that’s because a dedicated skyscraper style just hadn’t been developed yet. In the earliest days of the skyscrapers, buildings got to a certain height because pinnacles were added to tall houses. The Jane Building, which by some can be considered to be the first skyscraper as it wanted to be tall, is a good example of that.
The first skyscrapers that looked like actual skyscrapers were built in Chicago in the 1880’s. During this decade tall buildings were erected that clearly stood out by height, but also introduced the trichotomy of the skyscraper; base, shaft and top, into the design. This is the time during which these buildings were actually referred to as skyscrapers. Especially the horizontal coronation at the top explains the word skyscraper because as a tool, the scraper uses a horizontal surface for scraping. The Manhattan Life Insurance Building combines the elements of these two elements, while the Park Row Building definitely shows the signs of the first skyscraper style.
Early 20th Century Skyscrapers
At the turn of the century, a new skyscraper design paradigm is introduced based on setbacks, slenderness and spires as the reflection of the skyscraper trichotomy. The next six world’s tallest buildings; Singer Building, Metropolitan Life Tower, Woolworth Building, Manhattan Trust Building, Chrysler Building (1) and Empire State Building, all fall within this category. As some of the early ‘real’ skyscraper tend to borrow design elements from classic buildings, such as the Metropolitan Life Tower which was modeled after the Campanile in Venice, Italy, this phase reaches it’s zenith when the art-deco architecture becomes mainstream in the 1930’s, mainly because of it’s vertical design elements.
The end of World War II was in many ways a break from the past, and the architecture of choice to shape the new world was Modernism. Design principles were based on space, size and rationality, and promised growth and prosperity for everyone. For having relative small floor plans, early 20th century skyscrapers were considered to be uneconomical and as such were brought down by the numbers. Gone were the days of crafted details, the self made commissioners and slender towers.
As the Empire State building had reigned the skyscraper world for 41 years, a new kind of skyscraper was introduced to overtake the height crown: the superscraper. These very tall buildings were named after the superstructure that required to reach these heights, such as framed tube design as used for the World Trade Center, and the bundled tubes structure of the Sears Tower (2). This is the era in which the engineering is part of the architecture and where beauty can be found in the efficiency.
Up until the completed of the Sears Tower, the skyscraper was a quintessential American affair. Not only did skyscrapers shape the skylines of the American cities, they embody the American culture and spirit as well. Up until 1970, more then 90% of the tallest buildings in the world were American. However, in 1980 that number went down to 80%, while in 2000, over 50% of the worlds tallest buildings can found outside the United States.
This can be attributed to the rise of the Asian economies in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and the emerging of the some of the Middle Eastern countries as modern destination for travel and business in the 2000’s. All three latest world’s tallest buildings can be found here. Their design is strongly influenced by cultural paradigms, such as numerology in case of Taipei 101, and Islamic design motives in the design of the Petronas Towers (3). With that, the skyscraper has become a global icon of development, growth, pride and vanity.
Today’s world’s tallest, Burj Khalifa, and the likely successor, the one-kilometer-tall Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, might the considered the first of a new breed of skyscrapers: the megatalls. Based on the round number coincidence that 600 meters roughly equals 2000 feet, this height is now being considered as the new threshold for those building that really want to stand out in today’s world. Where the height of the early skyscrapers can be party explained by rational motives, such as land prices and urban density issues, megatalls have no other purpose then to attract the eye of the world. But as that motive has been instrumental in spurring creative design solutions to reach the height of towers, tall buildings, skyscrapers and supertalls for centuries, it’s all just part of a continuing tradition.
Members of the Web-site skyscrapercity.com voted Petronas Towers as their favorite World’s Tallest. The tournament bracket can be found here.
1. the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building and Chrysler Building were constructed around the same time and competing which of the would be the world’s tallest. » learn more
2. the third tube strategy that was introduced in this era was the trussed tube, as used for the John Hancock Center in Chicago. » learn more
3. Petronas Towers surpassing Sears Tower triggered the debate on the inclusion of spires when measuring the height of skyscrapers