The Stories Behind 11 Iconic Skyscrapers

iStock
iStock

You may have snaked through a long line of fellow tourists to trek to the observation deck for a breathtaking view from the top of the city, but do you know the stories behind many of the world's most iconic skyscrapers? In honor of Skyscraper Day, we've stacked up some of the details.

1. WILLIS TOWER // CHICAGO

In 1969 the world’s largest retailer, Sears Roebuck and Company, decided they needed an office space for their roughly 350,000 employees. Four years, 2000 workers, and enough concrete to build an eight-lane, five-mile highway later, the 110-story Sears Tower was complete. (In 1988, Sears moved out of the building; 21 years later it was renamed the Willis Tower after global insurance broker Willis Group Holdings.) As a memorable finishing touch, 12,000 construction workers, Chicagoans, and Sears employees signed the building’s final beam.

2. BANK OF CHINA TOWER // HONG KONG

When famed Chinese architect I.M. Pei was tasked with designing this 70-story structure, he was dealt a number of challenges. He needed to craft a tall building (it stands at 1209 feet) in a typhoon zone and create a design that was pleasing to local residents. His masterpiece—opened in 1990 after a five-year construction—is supported by five steel columns meant to resist high-velocity winds, and is inspired by bamboo shoots, which symbolize strength and prosperity.

3. CHRYSLER BUILDING // NEW YORK CITY

A mere 11 months after it gained the title of tallest building in the world in 1930—thanks to the last minute addition of a 186-foot spire—this art deco wonder surrendered its title to the Empire State Building. But it has long been known as one of the world’s prettiest structures. When automobile tycoon Walter P. Chrysler took over financing, he strove to add glamour to New York’s East Side. The design already featured a multi-story section of glass corners and a stainless steel crown, but he requested the addition of eagle-esque gargoyles designed like the hood ornaments on his cars.

4. THE GHERKIN // LONDON

London's The Gherkin, 30 St. Mary Axe
iStock

Known informally as "The Gherkin" for its pickle-esque shape, 30 St. Mary Axe was dreamed up after a 1992 explosion in London’s financial district destroyed the Baltic Exchange building. Plans for the original design—the much taller Millennium Tower—were scrapped for fear it could affect air traffic into the Heathrow Airport and the sightlines of St. Paul’s Dome. It turns out that the pickled inspiration was a winner; when the cylindrical building opened in 2004, it gained quick notoriety, and was soon used as a symbol for London on bid posters for the 2012 Olympic Games.

5. PETRONAS TWIN TOWERS // KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA

The world’s tallest twin towers (88 floors each) were completed in 1996 after a three-year build. The steel-and-glass façade was created to reflect elements found in Islamic art, while the sky bridge—between the towers’ 41st and 42nd floors—was crafted with safety in mind. It’s not bolted to the main structure, but rather designed to be able to slide in and out of the buildings to keep it from snapping during high winds.

6. HOTEL & CASINO GRAND LISBOA // MACAU, CHINA

When crafting this 58-floor hotel and casino, the Hong Kong architects didn’t take any chances. The $385 million structure, which opened in 2008, was built to resemble a bottleneck—the idea being that it would keep any cash from leaking out, according to feng shui. The outlandish exterior, meanwhile, was intended to look like a combination of crystals, fireworks and the plumes of a Brazilian headdress—all thought to symbolize prosperity.

7. EMPIRE STATE BUILDING // NEW YORK CITY

For four decades, the famed Manhattan skyscraper held tight to the distinction of being the world’s tallest. (It was eclipsed by the World Trade Center towers in 1972.) But the $41 million structure—featured in movies such as King Kong (1933) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993)—also scored another record: It was built in just one year and 45 days, the quickest for a building of its size. Each week, 3000 workers erected four-and-a-half new floors.

8. SHANGHAI WORLD FINANCE CENTER // PUDONG, SHANGHAI

This 101-floor behemoth was built to withstand destruction. There are fireproof floors, wind dampeners, and a glass skin to protect against lightning. (It can reportedly survive a magnitude 8 earthquake.) The building has also weathered adversity. Slated for construction in 1997, progress was delayed due to the Asian financial crisis before it was finally completed in 2008. And the initial design, which featured a circular opening at the top rather than the now rectangular one, had to be reconfigured when critics complained it too closely resembled the rising sun on the Japanese flag.

9. TAIPEI 101 // TAIPEI, TAIWAN

Fashioned to resemble a growing bamboo stalk—a Chinese sign of everlasting strength—this $1.8 billion building boasts two records. When it was opened in 2004 (construction took five years), it was the first skyscraper to surpass the half-kilometer mark. It also claims the title of fastest passenger elevator. After boarding on the fifth floor, riders reach the 89th floor observation deck in a speedy 37 seconds.

10. CN TOWER // TORONTO, CANADA

In a bid to demonstrate the strength of Canadian industry, railway company Canadian National set out to build the tallest tower in the world. For 40 months, 1537 workers toiled 24 hours a day, five days week, reaching completion in April 1975. (A 10-ton helicopter dubbed "Olga" was commissioned to bolt the 44 pieces of the antenna in place.) In 1995, the American Society of Civil Engineers deemed it one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, but 15 years later, its height was surpassed by China’s Canton Tower.

11. BURJ KHALIFA // DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

At 2716 feet (more than twice the height of the Empire State Building!) and half a million tons, the gleaming desert structure holds a number of records. Among them: tallest building in the world and the tallest freestanding structure. The $1.5 billion, state-of-the-art mega skyscraper was designed by the same firm that dreamt up the Willis Tower and New York’s One World Trade Center, and it opened in 2010 after six years of work. The opening ceremony featured a light and water effects show and some 10,000 fireworks!

All images via iStock.

This article originally ran in 2016.

Why 1 Million People Live in Cold War-Era Bunkers Under the Streets of Beijing

iStock.com/Wenjie Dong
iStock.com/Wenjie Dong

In Beijing, anywhere between 100,000 to one million people live underground in old bomb shelters. Dubbed the shuzu, or "rat tribe," these subterranean citizens occupy a cramped, musty, and windowless world located dozens of feet below the bustling streets of China's capital city. This extensive network of largely illicit bunker housing is unlike anything found in any other major metropolis in the world.

The roots of Beijing's invisible underworld were laid during what could be called the other Cold War. In 1969, tensions between China and the Soviet Union escalated, with the two communist-led countries clashing at the Sino-Soviet border. When Chinese troops ambushed Soviet border guards that year at Zhenbao Island—a disputed territory located in the middle of the Ussuri River separating northeastern China from Russia's Far East—the hostilities turned bloody, prompting both countries to prepare for a possible nuclear attack. In China, Chairman Mao Zedong advised his cities to build nuclear bomb shelters. Beijing responded by constructing approximately 10,000 bunkers.

By the late 1980s, China's government had started to liberalize and tensions with the Soviet Union had cooled, leading the Office of Civil Defense to lease these shelters to local landlords, who in turn began leasing the spaces to desperate migrant workers and young people. For many, living dozens of feet underground in a windowless bunker was the only way to chase their dreams of scaling the social ladder. That remains true today.

It’s a familiar tale: The cost of living in Beijing is high and still rising. With more than 21 million people now calling the city home, it is among the world’s most expensive places to live. The rising cost of rent far outpaces the average person's income, yet people continue to flock to the area because it brims with social and economic opportunity. “[W]ith limited access to public, affordable housing, nuclear bunkers are one of the few feasible options for migrant workers,” Ye Ming writes for National Geographic. A small, shared dorm in a concrete bunker can cost as little as $20 per month.

For many, the central location makes these bunkers worthwhile despite the lack of space and sunlight. As Annette M. Kim, an associate professor of public policy at USC, writes in the academic journal Cities, “[T]he priority for the lower-income, often migrant population in Beijing is for rental housing located in the central city. The ability to walk and/or bike to jobs as well as low rents, both of which allow for the possibility of accumulating savings, is worth making the choice to live in small underground rooms.”

As you might expect from a converted nuclear fallout shelter, the spaces have some of the basics—plumbing, sewage, and electricity—and very little of anything else. There’s no natural light, there's very little ventilation, and most amenities, such as kitchens and bathrooms, must be shared with neighbors. And while Ming reports that local law requires apartments to have at least 43 square feet per tenant, that rule is clearly not enforced. Some apartments might as well be closets.

But as Kim explains, super-dense housing conditions aren't unique to Beijing. “[T]his is not an idiosyncratic situation. History shows that immigrants coped by living in crowded basement units as well as tenements during the west’s rapid urbanization.”

The question is whether that trend should—or will—continue in the future. In 2010, the city announced a ban on residential use of nuclear shelters, but the decree has done little to stop people from making their homes there. “If it is desirable to not allow people to live underground, we are challenged with the task of finding other spaces for roughly a million people,” Kim writes.

For foreigners, it can be difficult to gain access to this underground shelter city. In 2015, the Italian photographer Antonio Faccilongo managed to sneak below, capturing life in the bunkers for a series entitled Atomic Rooms. For a look inside, you can view his work here.

Architect Creates Renderings of Frank Lloyd Wright Designs That Were Never Built

Frank Lloyd Wright designed more than a thousand works in his lifetime, but hundreds of his ideas were never built. One of those was the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, a tourist attraction commissioned in 1924. Now, thanks to new renderings by Spanish architect David Romero, you can get a better idea of what the proposed project might have looked like had it been completed, as Curbed reports.

Romero is the creator of Hooked on the Past, a project in which he translates plans for Frank Lloyd Wright's unbuilt designs into photorealistic scale renderings. He imports data and plans Wright drew up for the projects into modern modeling software in order to create the most accurate renderings possible of what these structures would have looked like. For the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective images, he collaborated with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which recently ran the images in its magazine, Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly.

A spiraling building on top of a mountain
David Romero

Intended to stand atop Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the plan for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective called for a planetarium and restaurant to accompany a scenic overlook. Its developer, wealthy Chicago businessman Gordon Strong, envisioned it as a destination where families would drive for the day from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The design shifted substantially from draft to draft. In some, it called for a dance hall instead of a planetarium; in another, a theater. He also designed in waterfalls, pedestrian paths, bridges, an aquarium, and a car showroom.

A rendering of a pedestrian bridge
The unbuilt Butterfly Wing Bridge
David Romero

Above all, it was to be a destination for drivers, as the name suggests, and visitors would have driven up to park along its spiral structure—similar to the one that would later come to life in the design of the Guggenheim museum, which Romero looked to as inspiration while translating Wright's failed plans into 3D renderings.

A rendering of a spiral-shaped building at night
David Romero

Romero also painstakingly researched the context and location of the building, including adding era-appropriate cars, traces of rain and dirt on the building, and other details in order to bring the project to life. As a result, at times it can be hard to tell these are illustrations rather than stylized photographs.

Romero has also created similarly detailed renderings of other unbuilt or demolished Frank Lloyd Wright projects, including ones that have long since been destroyed, like the demolished Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York and the burned-down Rose Pauson House in Arizona. You can see more here.

[h/t Curbed]

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