Is sky the limit for tall buildings in Asia?
The Cheese Grater, the Talkie Walkie, the Gherkin: sounds like a shopping list, but it’s actually an extract of London’s skyscrapers hall of fame. And the above trio is just a small sample of the creative nicknames many high-rise buildings bear in the UK capital city. Indeed, there’s more in the shopping trolley: the Cucumber, the Scalpel and the Can of Ham are all due to complete before 2020.
Not that having a moniker guarantees popularity. Some of the buildings above, by making as bizarre a mark in the cityscape as their names suggest, have yet to win the hearts of Londoners. Fortunately for the developing world, few skyscrapers in emerging capitals enjoy the same privilege. Kuala Lumpur’s tallest buildings, for instance, keep it low profile: while a proportion of its fifty 150m-plus buildings bear the name of a corporate patron, many others remain anonymous.
When it comes to skyscrapers, mind you, KL is not Asia’s leader. It ranks at a modest 14th in the region in terms of 150m-plus buildings completed, according to the Skyscraper Center. Tall buildings have been mushrooming faster in other countries: while there were 19 towers of more than 300m in the world in 2009, the club now counts 69 members; about 40 percent of them are in China (and 28 percent in the United Arab Emirates).
This Asian dominance is reflected in Knight Frank’s latest skyscraper index, which provides a measure of a city’s significance as a centre of high-rise business and living. Each year, the property consultancy assigns scores to the world's largest urban centres based on indicators such as skyscraper office rent and yield, the spread offered by investing in tower blocks compared to national bonds, the number of high-rises built and growth prospects for the city.
Granted, Western cities grab a fair share of the ranking’s top spots. But Hong Kong comes first. And at $250.50 per square feet per year, it is also the world’s most expensive city for skyscraper rent.
Both are probably helped, Knight Frank says, by the fact that Hong Kong is on an island. But other dynamics are also at play: the return of city centres as knowledge-based economic clusters, a political desire to accommodate population growth by building upwards, efforts to cut commuting time and global capital's appetite for investing big sums in real estate.
Gulf states will probably retain their crown as host to the world’s tallest building in years to come: the construction of Saudi Arabia’s 1km-high Jeddah Tower is due to complete by 2020. But in Asia the effort will likely be more sustained and broad-based, notably because the region’s leading cities aren’t very exposed to the oil slump. And as they become even bigger knowledge and financial centres, it will be a tall order to match them.