Shanghai Tower illustrations are displayed outside its construction site in Shanghai.
Visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao, in Chicago today, will see a city famed as the birthplace of the skyscraper, for decades the towering symbol of U.S. economic ambition and power. These days, China has taken over as the skyscraper’s home.
If the fast-rising nation continues its current rapid pace of urbanization, China could build a new Chicago every year until 2030 — more than 1,500 new buildings that are over 30 stories high — wrote Jonathan Woetzel, a director at consultants McKinsey & Co. in Shanghai, in a January report “China’s cities in the sky.”
China is building 44% of the 50 skyscrapers to be completed worldwide in the next six years, increasing the number of skyscrapers in Chinese cities by over 50%, says Andrew Lawrence, an Asian property analyst at investment bank Barclays Capital.
China is already host to six of the 15 tallest, completed buildings in the world, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. The USA has three.
Dubai’s world-beating Burj Khalifa, at 2,716 feet, should remain top dog for several years, but the Shanghai Tower, at 2,073 feet, and Wuhan’s Greenland Center, at 1,988 feet, will take the world No. 2 and 3 spots in 2014 and 2015.
“The appetite in China for high-rises, in the last five years and the next five, is bigger than ever before in the history of building,” says Silas Chiow, China director for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the U.S. architectural firm, founded in Chicago, responsible for the Burj Khalifa.
The firm is currently engaged in 50 China projects, including the tallest buildings in eight separate cities.
Chinese government officials believe high-rises “show their progress in terms of urbanization and modernism,” spur wider development by boosting investor confidence, and symbolize “a city’s desire to become modern and international,” says Chiow, a Chinese-American based in China for the past 15 years.
While an architect three decades ago might be lucky to design a handful of skyscrapers, today in China, “one architect or firm can do a dozen or more super high-rises,” says Chiow, 51. The boom is producing both startling designs and innovations in energy-use and sustainability, he says.
Chinese have mixed feelings.
“I feel proud to see these new high buildings, but they’re not much use for ordinary people,” says Fan Quanzhou, who has a newspaper stand opposite the dramatic new headquarters of national broadcaster CCTV.
Fan, 26, says business is falling as the neighborhood is cleared for Beijing’s tallest building, a 1,640-foot skyscraper in the style of a traditional Chinese wine vessel. Fan earns less than $250 a month, and he and his wife, migrants from rural Henan province, pay $120 a month in rent.
“Property prices are way too high. The government should do more to build low-cost houses,” he complains.
The building boom has produced “some waste and bad examples, but overall it’s justified,” says Ting Lu, a China economist at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong. “Many people believe China is overbuilding subways and transport infrastructure but they have no idea how many people there are in China.”
Lawrence, author of the Skyscraper Index, warns that the completion of the world’s tallest buildings has proven an indicator of an economic crisis to come. “Overly optimistic developers, a political desire to create ‘statement buildings,’ and banks overly keen to lend,” lead to problems, he says. Thus far, the data “suggests China won’t break the trend.”
Via USA Today