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China’s Skyscraper Boom a Sign of Future

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The trend in skyscrapers highlights the shifting landscape of global economics: the tallest buildings are no longer being constructed in America but in China and Dubai. But as go the skyscrapers, so do the economic futures of nations.

Demand for high-end office space is an indicator of real economic power. Skyscrapers arose in the late 19th century in what were then the most important cities: Chicago, London, New York, all places of intense economic growth. That economic activity made these capitols of capital the places to be if you wanted to make money: this is where you went if you had ambition, it was the place to locate your corporate headquarters. Many came for the opportunities these early global cities offered.

Growing population density in urban business districts called for buildings that would reach for the sky as architects found new ways of cramming more people into shrinking urban spaces. The skyscraper thus became a sign of economic vitality and wealth. America’s economic might has indeed been indisputable for much of the late 19th and 20th centuries. But now the global economic balance of forces is shifting and the shift is expressed in the percentages of tall buildings being constructed.

Courtesy Wikipedia. The Petronas Towers.According to an Urban Habitat 2008 Report from the Council on Tall Buildings, “Geographically the Tallest Ten Buildings Completed in 2008 reinforces what is becoming a well known doctrine in the tall building world – namely that Asia and the Middle East are the current center of high-rise construction globally. There are now more tall buildings in Asia than in North America, and of the ten tallest buildings on the 2008 list, six are located in Asia (all in China) and three in the Middle East (all in Dubai).”

America once had the world’s highest percentage of skyscrapers, the tallest of the tall buildings of the world. Now that telling statistic has shifted East, along with economic prowess. While financial problems have mired building dreams in Dubai and elsewhere, the economic deluge of troubles has left the shores of the Middle Kingdom untouched. There, construction on dozens of high-rises is in progress. But in America, once the land of high-end building dreams, only a handful of towers are now under construction, indicating low confidence of investors in America’s ability to surge ahead in the near future—why build spectacular office spaces if there won’t be wealthy businesses to occupy them? (The work on one of these, the Chicago Spire, has stopped.)

“Tall buildings—like many large, intensive developments—are inextricably linked to the confidence inspired by a buoyant market, i.e. they are often conceived at the height of a market,” according to the report. Tall buildings are made possible by easy money. They often mark areas where capital inflow is intense, hubs in the global capital flows. And those flows have been shifting in the last two decades to places like China and Dubai and other emerging economic rivals. “This shift in skyscraper construction location has occurred at a staggering pace; as recently as 1990, 80% of the 100 Tallest Buildings in the World were located in North America. By 2010, just two decades later, this figure will have decreased to just 22%.”

One could argue, of course, that real estate is no longer relevant in the age of the Internet. Perhaps corporate nerve centers can be moved to campus-like settings while data and communication are handled by cloud computing. China could be building the world of yesterday while we’re moving ahead, digital pioneers staking out a new and better future in the digital domain. What is indisputable, however, is that investors are confident about China and other places and tall building booms abroad reflect that. If the future were only digital, investors would not be investing in a race for the sky. But they are, suggesting that tangibles and face-to-face interaction matter.

That building boom abroad is, of course, a summary of the economic realities in this country: incomes for the vast majority of Americans have remained stagnant, and many Americans have seen their spending power decline in the face of rising costs of health care and education and retirement. The U.S. faces economic Armageddon unless it is able to do the politically impossible: cut spending and raise taxes on all Americans. The economic vitality that once graced these shores has moved on, a sign of where investor confidence now lies. New centers of economic life and growth have emerged on distant shores. Building booms have been recently populating the skylines of cities in Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, and the Gulf States with tall wonders of high-rise art, all signs of the changing landscape of the global economy, one in which America is fast becoming not a land of opportunity but of diminished circumstances.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org