Skyscrapers have always been vertical extrusions of corporate or civic vanity. But, leaving aside the genuinely iconic Art Deco crown of the 1930 Chrysler building in New York, the increasing peculiarity of tower tops has certainly created a new species of 21st-century buildings whose uniqueness depends on the architectural equivalent of penis extensions.
Lurid fussing with the upper reaches of skyscrapers began with the 1998 Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The form of the top portions of the two linked buildings are based on Islamic geometry, but they might also suggest ribbed condoms. The Shanghai World Trade Centre has a cut-out in its sharply tapering summit that makes the tower look like a designer bottle-opener. Mind you, that’s better than a tower that focuses death-rays onto pavements.
This trend towards reach-for-the-sky empty bits seems perfectly in tune with a zeitgeist in which it’s admirable to have skinny bow-legs, provided your upper torso is inflated like a grenade with turbo-whey. The Burj Al Meel tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, will be 1,600 metres high: more than a third of its verticality will be taken up with a pinnacle – or perhaps pin-headed – observatory.
The original breed of classic towers has become an endangered species. Skyscrapers used to be architectural hard-nuts who didn’t need a nickname, or wear funny hats. Two masterpieces of this genre are in the greatest skyscraper city of them all, Chicago: the Hancock and Sears (now Willis) towers – big, black, beautifully designed. And no cock-and-bull height extensions.