Skyscrapers are usually considered signs of success, steel-framed declarations of triumph. But they’re equally associated with corporate hubris, architectural ego and recession – the latter tallied via the Skyscraper Index, which plots the striking correlation between the completion of a new “world’s tallest building” and the arrival of a global economic downturn.
The failure of Norman Foster‘s Gherkin is just the latest example. Made unprofitable by changes in currency exchange rates, it was recently put into receivership and is now up for sale at an estimated price of £640m. It may yet recover, of course, but for now it joins the already long list of skyscraping architecture’s most conspicuous flops.
The Empire State Building
The architects of the longest-serving “world’s tallest” – which reigned from the early 30s until the mid-70s – were given a staggeringly idiotic brief. In a possibly apocryphal story, the boss of General Motors picked up a pencil, balanced it on the desk and asked, “How tall can you make it without it falling over?” One hundred and three storeys was the answer, but it became the first of the recession-predicting skyscrapers on the Index, known as the “Empty State Building” through the Great Depression, and presaging other Index members such as the World Trade Centre (mid-70s recession), the Petronas Towers (the Asian financial crash) and the Burj Khalifa (the current recession).
There are several skyscrapers that faced sudden obsolescence when their countries’ respective economies collapsed, leaving them perpetually unfinished – such as “Skeletor”, the tallest building in Krakow, an office block begun in 1975 and abandoned in 1981 as an empty steel frame. Designed for the Polish Federation of Engineering Associations, it is now used as a giant frame for billboards.
The Ryugyong Hotel
The tallest building in Pyongyang, begun in 1987, is the most notorious example of this genre. Now an insanely overambitious remnant from when North Korea was as rich as South Korea, it was left unfinished as the Soviet collapse plunged the country into famine. It is now finally being completed, 27 years on.
This unfinished, partly mirror-glass-clad Caracas office block has been a cause celebre for those few architects more interested in social than architectural change: years after being abandoned, it was squatted by a tightly organised group of citizens, creating a “vertical slum”. After years with the tacit support of the Chávez and Maduro governments, it is now being sold to Chinese developers and its inhabitants rehoused elsewhere. It remains an exceptional example of a skyscraper being claimed by the masses, rather than by big business.