Skylines are like a medal that people show off when someone visits their home. Historically, it can be observed amongst dynasties to build structures that are unique to the place, that help citizens and visitors to develop associative values. Post-industrialization, a higher skyline was possible, supposedly synonymous with pride and progress in the lifestyle of people of the city.

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Lunch atop a Skyscraper ©New York Herald-Tribune

Today, cities worldwide are in a war to have the highest skyline. The higher skyline represents the epitome of technological advancements that the city has achieved. Super tall, super skinny, super expensive pencil towers have become a prejudiced symbol of the development of the city and the country they are located in.

The trend of taller skyline emerged soon after World War I ended. New York saw a boom in the mass production of elevators and steel. Neal Bascomb wrote in his book Higher: A historic race to the sky, an architecture firm “Severance & Van Alen, Architects” was on the rise. The unpopular rivalry between Severance and Val Alen was to change the history of New York’s skyline forever. The Manhattan Company tower and the Chrystler Building were in a race for skyline supremacy. Van Alen won the race with Chrysler Tower being the highest building in the world for a short time. Since then, there has been a worldwide race to building the highest.

It has become a trend to build higher, since. Let’s look at a few city skylines and how they developed from around the world.

1. Hong Kong, China

Hong Kong administrative area has over 1500 skyscrapers standing taller than 100 mt (328 ft). Thecombined height of these skyscrapers is approximately 333.8 km, which makes Hong Kong the world’s tallest urban agglomeration. The unique geographical feature, specifically mountains become the background, and Victoria Harbor a foreground for the skyline to sit proudly.

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Panoramic view of the Kowloon Peninsula skyline with Hong Kong Island in the background ©Ryan Cheng

2. Seoul, South Korea

Seoul’s surrounding is a brilliant amalgamation of greenery and skyscrapers. Seoul is a poly-centric city. Most of the skyscrapers are located along the Han River that divides the city into north and south. The city has varied regulations, permutation, and combination of which allows architects to come up with unique and interesting design solutions. Seoul has one of the top 10 tallest structures of the world, the Lotte World Tower, at 123 stories and 555 meter high.

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Han River Seoul skyline ©USAGI

3. Dubai, UAE

Dubai has the tallest skyline in the world currently, with Burj Khalifa being the tallest manmade structure. Dubai Marina has 6 of the 10 tallest residential towers on the planet. Dubai is not only expanding vertically, it has been expanding horizontally by increasing the land area and building giant man-made islands of the coast of the city, like Palm Jumeirah and “World” islands. Dubai transformed from a center of the pearl-diving industry into a mega-trade center. The new city center is located along Sheikh Zayed Road accommodating a string of skyscrapers.

Contrary to other modern cities where pedestrians are given importance and space in the public realm, Dubai is one not designed at all for pedestrians. It has reached the heights of the capitalist skyline, yet failed to address the human scale and social behavior.

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Dubai Skyline ©WAM

4. Shenzhen City, China

Geographically, Shenzhen is a narrow strip of land between mountains and the Hong Kong Border. Shenzhen quickly transformed from a small city of 30,000 inhabitants into a major economic hub after being declared a ‘special economic zone’ in 1979. The rapid growth rate of Shenzhen led to a term called ‘Shenzhen speed’, with which the city became grounds of experimentation for economic reforms and liberalization.

Shenzhen can be described as a wall of shimmering skyscrapers if seen from a distance. There is nothing stopping Shenzhen from experiencing soaring land prices while noting that the area has highest per capita GDP than any major city in China.

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Shenzhen skyline with shimmering skyscrapers ©kohn Pedersen fox associates

5. Moscow, Russia

Moscow is known for onion-shaped domes of the Red Square. The Moscow International Business District is a new identity, the city is striving for. Present here is the Moscow Federation Tower, the tallest skyscraper in Europe at 373.7 meters. It has a striking outline, altering the Moscow skyline, and attracting business and tourists both.

However, many of the structures remain vacant, possibly due to the economic recession. It was reported in 2014 that rental prices were low in the supposedly premium-class buildings. But the race to sky continues with more and more buildings coming up, many with innovative designs to dot the Business District and be the new identity of the city.

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Moscow International Business Centre ©Igorkhait

6. New York, USA

The trend of skyscrapers started in New York, specifically from Manhattan. Manhattan has had one of the most dynamic skylines in the world, one that is ever-changing and has an impression even in the minds of people who have not visited. The city’s most high-profile development is concentrated in Manhattan. Pencil-thin skyscrapers are underway and will be standing strong in the near future.

The skyline housed the Twin Towers, which were the tallest skyscrapers in the world at the time. Post 9/11 terror attack, One World Trade Centre was constructed as the tallest building standing in the USA.

Manhattan in the shadows of tall buildings ©Anthony Quintano

Architecture has been a medium to convey status and power, more often in a system of capitalism. To celebrate a capitalist personality – height, glamour, and prestige are a prevalent means. This trend has been Omni-present for almost a century now, and it’s not wrong to say that it will stay for a long long time.


Forum Shah swims on waters of Architecture, Art & Cities post her job-ly routine of working as an architect. She is currently pursuing her master’s in Urban Design from CEPT University. Often, she will be smilingly looking at you speak while fantasizing about Parisian cafes, Italian pizzas, and some red wine.