As we approach the end of the Christian millennium, however, the tallest buildings in the world are no longer in Africa, Europe and the United States, but in the rapidly growing cities of the Far East. Cities such as Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Kao-hsiung, Hong Kong and Chongqing are shooting skywards at a pace that makes the great New York and Chicago building booms of 1900 to 1930 appear almost tame.
Not only are the tallest buildings soaring from the Far East, but brand new cities are also reaching for the sky there. Shenzhen, to the north of Kowloon is a special economic zone in the People's Republic of China. It is also one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Here, several skyscrapers - none of them beautiful - are rising every month as China invests massively in a Far Eastern trading empire that will make the European Union look small beer 20 years from now.
The scale of these latest skyscrapers is astonishing. The Petronas Towers, being built in Kuala Lumpur, will be the tallest construction on earth when completed in 1996. Designed by Cesar Pelli, the Argentine-born architect based in New York, these twin commercial peaks will rise to 1,475ft - some 25ft higher than the Sears Tower, in Chicago, which has held the record for the past 20 years.
The decision to go those extra 25ft was a deliberate one, encouraged by Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's Prime Minister, who wanted to capture the record from the Americans. His is a symbolic act. Dr Mohamad wants to make the point that Malaysia is at the heart of South-east Asia's economic miracle.
The towers rise from Kuala Lumpur like a huge cruet set. The stainless steel and glass- clad constructions are linked by a bridge at the 44th floor so that, together, they form a titanic gateway. Mr Pelli has made free use of Islamic motifs in the external design of the towers. Inside, the floor plans are based on a pattern of superimposed squares and circles symbolising unity, harmony and strength. The interiors will be dressed in local stone, timber and fabric to root the enormous salt and pepper shakers in local culture. So Mr Pelli says.
Mr Pelli is also the architect of Canary Wharf Tower, the tallest building in Britain. At 800ft it is dwarfed by its Malaysian cousins. And where Canary Wharf Tower has only gradually gained tenants, the Petronas Towers will be occupied immediately, half the floor space being taken up by Petronas, the Malaysian state oil company.
The Chinese, however, have no intention of letting the Malaysians rest on their laurels. A year after the completion of the Petronas Towers, the Chonqing Tower is expected to open in Chonqing. This 114-storey building, partly office block and partly hotel, will loom 1,500ft over the Yangtze and Jialing rivers.
The tower - not the prettiest - has been designed by Haines Lundberg Waehler, a firm of New York architects. The building makes an overt display of the geomantic principles of feng shui.
What this means in practice is that the building is based on the Chinese lucky number, eight. Offices are located on the eighth to the 80th floors above an eight-storey entrance lobby, and the office floors are punctuated by eight-storey atria. As with the Petronas Towers, the building's height is symbolic.
The Japanese are talking of building even higher. The Millennium Tower designed by Sir Norman Foster and Partners for Tokyo will be more than 2,600ft tall, if built. Though design has been taken to a detailed stage, it may yet prove to be a magnificent publicity stunt on the part of the Japanese. Although vast, it is quite beautiful when contrasted with the muddled profiles of the Petronas Towers, Chonqing Tower and the Sears Tower in Chicago.
Architects, engineers and building contractors face relatively few difficulties today when building into the clouds. Skyscraper technology is long established. When Frank Lloyd Wright, the flamboyant American architect, designed a mile- high skyscraper - the Illinois - 60 years ago, he was not simply being silly. The tower could have been built. The question to be asked when such vertiginous schemes are planned is not how, but why.
In the case of the Petronas Towers and the Chonqing Tower, the answer is very easy. The Chinese and Malaysians are in a race to build towers whose height symbolises the two countries' economic aspirations.
Building high, however, is also a reflection of land prices. When an economy is booming, prices rise, and where a city is confined - Manhattan and Hong Kong are two of the most extreme examples - the only way to build is up.
Even so, vanity, ambition and challenge are the only reasons why skyscrapers end up as tall as the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Petronas Towers, and even tiny Canary Wharf Tower and the Messerturm in Frankfurt, at 850ft Europe's tallest building.
In Hong Kong and Tokyo, the perceived economic need to build higher means that relatively new skyscrapers are torn down and replaced with taller buildings within a few years. At the height of the Tokyo construction boom of the late Eighties, there were even cases of towers being demolished before they had been completed so that a taller building could earn higher financial returns.
The same was true of the towers and spires of medieval cathedrals when bishops competed with one another to reach God first. Then, however, enormous structural risks were taken to satisfy the vanity of the clergy. The celebrated story of the second-stage tower and spire of Salisbury Cathedral has been immortalised in fiction by William Golding's The Spire; even today, it is something of a miracle that the 404ft building still stands.
The race to build high is also a reflection of economies on the ascendant. The height of the towers rises in a curve that can be plotted loosely against the rate of economic growth.
The greatest number of new skyscrapers is in Shenzhen, China. It is an extraordinary place, an ugly concatenation of skyscrapers, executive hotels, concrete flyovers and elevated pedestrian walkways.
Just 10 years ago it was an insignificant huddle of 320,000 peasants scratching a living among fields and rice paddies. Today its population is close to 2.5 million, and its per capita income (about dollars 1,750) is about seven times the Chinese national average. From 1980 to 1992, the gross domestic product of the special economic zone grew at an annual rate of 46 per cent. Industrial production grew in the same period by 61 per cent each year and exports by 63 per cent.
Across the Pearl river estuary, the story of Shenzhen is being repeated, if not quite to the same frantic extent, in Zhuhai, another special economic zone. In both new zones, or cities, building beautifully is hardly a priority. The towers of Shenzhen and Zhuhai are brutally functional. They do not push the art of building or architecture forward in any way.
Only too aware of the potential ecological damage that a mass of tall buildings can cause when packed together as in Hong Kong and, increasingly, Shenzhen, architects such as Ken Yeang are researching and designing a new wave of 'bioclimatic' skyscrapers.
Yeang, trained in London and now practising in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, is shaping a new generation of towers that are competitive from a commercial point of view, but also responsive to local climates and ecologies. His 'green' skyscrapers are becoming a noticeable part of the skyscape of the Malaysian cities of Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Johor. His Ho Chi Minh City Tower, due for completion this year, is a green 'boulevard in the sky' and, although a mere 26 storeys high, symbolises Vietnam's economic resurgence.
As the Western economies abandon manufacturing and and continue their pursuit of ever more food and leisure, the skyscraper is packing its spires and finials and moving inexorably east.
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