The Commanding Heights

As a fan of both architecture and economics, it's disconcerting to conclude there is a connection between something I like aesthetically, which is tall buildings, and something I don't like, which is greater inequality of wealth and income in a society. But that's exactly what I'm concluding.

I don't recall exactly when I began to notice this, but at some point I found myself noticing that the places that had lots of tall buildings seemed to be in countries with more inequitable distribution of resources. I hadn't done any formal study, but when I thought about soaring skyscrapers I thought of New York City, Chicago, and a slew of Asian cities, such as Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and Dubai.

Then I thought about prosperous countries that, at least in my mind's eye, did not have as many tall buildings. France, Germany, Holland and all the countries of Western Europe came to mind. Japan came to mind. Most of the classic cities of Europe, such as Paris, Barcelona or Copenhagen are relatively low-rise environments. And perhaps not incidentally, these countries also have a much more even distribution of wealth than either the United States or many developing Asian countries.

Now this was disturbing. The chrome spire of the Chrysler Building had long lifted my step when I spotted it coming out of a subway. How sad to think it might be associated with not only great height, but great monetary distances between rich and poor.

To quench my curiosity, I checked out my hunch with a little research recently. As a starting point, I looked at the world's tallest buildings on Emporis, a database on buildings developed by an international real estate company. Then I matched it with a list of income inequality of countries as found in Wikipedia, the open source online encyclopedia. The author measured the income inequality of countries as defined by their Gini Coefficient, which is a standard statistical tool to measure inequality.

The picture that emerges is not black and white, in part because there is no single definition of skyscraper. But some trends emerge. The European Union and Japan, which in general top the list in terms of having more equitable economies, have fewer tall buildings in general and in particular have fewer of the really soaring skyscrapers, the ones that top the charts. Of the top 100 tallest buildings according to Emporis, which range from the 101 story tower in Taipei at 1671 feet in position number one, to the New Century Plaza Tower in Nanjing in China at 52 stories and 837 feet, only three are in Japan or Western Europe. And those are in relatively low positions, with the Yokohama Landmark Tower in Jpan at 39th place, and two towers in Frankfurt at 90 and 94th.

The majority of the tallest 100 skyscapers are in the United States, (35), and China (27). It is a remarkable story to see how China, which a generation ago probably had no tall buildings, now has almost as many as the United States. The other countries in the top 100, in order of the number of buildings they had, were Dubai (7), Malaysia (3), Australia (3), Canada (3), Singapore (3), Saudi Arabia (2), Taiwan (2), Bahrain (2), Germany (2), South Korea (2), Qatar (1), Russia (1), Philippines (1), Thailand (1), North Korea (1), and Japan (1). This list of countries mostly repeats itself when I looked at the top 200 tallest buildings. Again, the USA and China dominated, with a smattering of other countries listed above.

In general, the countries that have the bulk of the skyscrapers fare poorly on the inequality rankings. The United States and China rank quite low in income equality, at 73rd and 85th out of 126 countries. Part of China's inequity ranking is shown in that it still actually has a per capita income of about $1700 per year, less than Guatemala. Given that, it's amazing it's been able to lead the world in production of skyscrapers. Other countries on the top 200 list also ranked low. Malaysia was at 98th; Singapore was at 85th in income equality.

So it would seem my hunch that there is some connection between the presence of really tall buildings and greater income inequality has something to it. But as my sister the epidemiologist likes to remind me, correlation is not causation. Perhaps it's a simple coincidence, or dependent on other factors, that relates tall buildings to large gaps between rich and poor.

In addition, this picture may be changing. Japan has several really tall buildings under design or construction, and according to Emporis, rapidly growing Spain is leading Europe in the production of tall buildings. But turning to speculation, why might large inequities in wealth and income lead to taller buildings?

Well, the simplest explanation that comes to mind is that tall buildings are a physical manifestation of inequality. They are a physical example of the heights between rich and those less rich, and the ability of the former to dominate the latter.

I suspect that only people of great wealth can marshal the huge resources, both physical and political, to get a great tall building constructed. Skyscrapers, while great to look at, are not necessarily great to work in or around. They blot out the sun of their neighbors. They dominate their denizens by requiring long elevator rides. They dwarf their individual inhabitants. In that, is both the awe they generate and their inhumanity, or at least their lack of human scale.

In a more equitable political environment, where more people have more political power, I suspect really tall buildings are harder to construct. I think a similar thing is demonstrated when one looks at whether tall buildings are allowed on a prominent public waterfront. Only in cities where a few have great power is it possible to block access visually and physically to the waterfront. Sadly, this is too often the case in much of the Tri-state region.

Looking historically, there seems to be a correlation between building huge things and disparities between rich and poor. I remember traveling through the Loire Valley in France once, and seeing the huge chateaus built in the 1400s and 1500s. Then I traveled to Amsterdam, and saw the much lower-rise city, which even then was famous for a broader middle class and an absence of great individual wealth.

So what am I to draw from this? We are hardly likely to stop building skyscrapers. And to do so would be grasping the wrong end of the stick. Rather than judging tall buildings, it would be nice if we worked for a broader distribution of income in this country, and then it will be interesting to see what happens with those buildings.