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High-flyers: China is on top of the world for skyscraper construction

The Chinese construction sector has attracted around $4 billion in investment, with Shenzen a hotspot. Image: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Adam Jezard
Formative Content
China seems determined to reach the stars by building ever-taller skyscrapers. In 2017 it saw the construction of 144 high-rises of more than 200 metres (660 feet) in height, including 15 described as “supertall” structures that tower above 300m (980 ft), according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

The city of Shenzhen is a particular tall-building hotspot, with CNN’s architectural journalist Christopher DeWolf writing in July 2017 that 11 of 128 tall towers built in the past year had been constructed within its environs. This was more than were built in the US, and twice the number in any other Chinese city.

The reason for the city’s attractiveness is due to its designation in the 1980s as a special economic zone, in which companies are subject to less regulation. The need for office space and accommodation for businesses and workers trying to make the most of its competitive advantages has powered the city’s vertical growth.

However, the Chinese construction sector overall has been an enticing draw for non-domestic lenders, attracting around $4 billion in inward investment, with Taiwan, France and the US being among the biggest bettors on the sector, according to fDi Markets, a Financial Times company that monitors financial speculation in global markets.

In 2016, Shenzhen topped the list of Chinese cities with both the fastest-rising property prices and number of inhabitants, having enjoyed a population increase of more than 6000% between 1985 and 2015.

High-rise, high finance

But, while China may be leading the field, it is not the only emerging and developing economy to be fixated on stretching its towers as high as it can.

According to a 2015 report by Global Construction, Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, is home to more than 160 towers of more than 160m (525 ft), while the Burj Khalifa in Dubai tops 828m (2717 ft). Meanwhile, the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia has the ambition of being the first building in the world to be a kilometre high when it is completed in 2020 – and so deprive the Burj of its crown as the world’s highest building.

It is perhaps no accident that high-rise buildings have often been associated with high finance. The first skyscrapers appeared in the late 19th century, with the Jenney’s Home Insurance Building in Chicago, completed in 1885, often cited as the first to meet the definition: it was a steel-framed building of more than 10 storeys.

Building in Chicago, completed in 1885, often cited as the first to meet the definition: it was a steel-framed building of more than 10 storeys.

Image: Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

The financial and commercial centre of New York soon followed in Chicago’s wake, with the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, completed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, providing pioneering examples of how cities aspiring to international greatness could use the size of their constructions to demonstrate their commercial virility.

But the world order is changing, and Asian and Middle East nations are now vying with older, established economies to be the future leaders in finance and technology-based industries.

 

Fawlty Towers?

According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat: “The distribution of the world’s 100 tallest buildings [completed in the previous year] broadly reflects that of the wider set of 200 metre-plus buildings worldwide. Asia leads with 54, followed by the Middle East with 26, North America with 15, and Europe with four.”

However, it is notable that the European four were constructed in the emerging economy of Turkey.

So does the emergence of ever-taller skyscrapers tell us anything about which countries and cities will be successful – or can the continual rise of buildings in metres and feet be used to predict their economies’ downfall?

In 1999, property analyst Andrew Lawrence developed what he called the Skyscraper Index: Fawlty Towers, that argued the construction of record-breakingly tall skyscrapers could be used to predict coming financial crises. The British author C. Northcote Parkinson had also observed that it was mainly failed or failing organizations that had good-looking, well-planned buildings.

Image: Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

While more recently researchers have rejected Lawrence’s claims, they say there may be some correlation between increasing gross domestic product and skyscraper height, and that taller buildings may be being completed at or near the height of business cycles.

However, with economists asking if markets around the globe are overvalued, and experts particularly worried whether China’s economy is overinflated with debt, speculators may be looking at the world’s fastest-rising buildings and wondering if the value of the tall structures they have invested in could have a long way to tumble.

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