There's something inherently absurd about skyscrapers. They defy gravity and high winds. They require years of challenging high-altitude construction. They're dizzying to look at—from the ground and from their top floors, where a sense of vertigo is inevitable. They beg the question: Why do they have to be so tall?
Because cities need more space—and plenty of bragging rights. A skyscraper, after all, is the ultimate monument to technological genius. “They assume an iconic position within the cityscape,” Edward Orlowski, a professor of architecture at Lawrence Technological University, told me in an email. “Each city wishes to hold the distinction for the tallest, the most unique, and the most innovative skyscraper.”
In other words, tall buildings send a message for the city they're located in: We're risk-takers. We're innovators. Look at us! And whatever the message, a tall building sprouting in a city skyline is a dramatic feat. It's no wonder having a skyscraper immediately makes a city look more like a city. What’s happening to a skyline is often how people can tell which cities are booming.
Just look at Shanghai. Since the late 1980s, the city's financial district has steadily grown from an unremarkable cluster of buildings into a forest of skyscrapers. In a little more than 25 years, an influx of investors and of people moving into the city—increasing the population by about 10 percent each year between 1993 and 2013, to a total of more than 23 million residents today—transformed the area from a city of the past into a city of the future. "Shanghai is the beacon for the futuristic look," said Russell Gilchrist, the design director and senior associate at the architecture firm Gensler. "It's usually considered the epicenter of the future of tall buildings."