A mile-high skyscraper? That may indeed be possible as soon as 2025, Bloomberg News reported this week. You may view this as a sign of architectural evolution -- of mankind reaching for the stars and of the promise of emerging nations that are sure to compete to build the world’s tallest tower. I tend to wonder if we'll all be homeless 13 years from now.
My worry: the Skyscraper Curse. For whatever reason, there's an uncanny correlation between architectural one-upmanship and financial crises. Examples include Dubai in 2008, Kuala Lumpur in 1997, Chicago in 1974, New York in 1930 and even in biblical times with the Tower of Babel. It's also worth noting that China is home to nine of the world’s highest 20 buildings now under construction just as its economy is hitting a wall. Coincidence?
There's nothing particularly scientific about this topic. Economists who've studied it, including Andrew Lawrence at Barclays Plc. and Mark Thornton at Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, offer intriguing theories. They boil it down to this: Record-breaking skyscrapers say as much about hubris as wealth, ambition and technology.
The common thread is often easy credit, which fuels irrational growth and valuations, and, well, ego. Skyscrapers can be viewed as visual punctuation marks -- giant billboards made of steel, glass and concrete that say, "Our economy has arrived." That explains why a disproportionate number of tallest-building projects will be, for better or worse, in Asia or elsewhere in the developing world. And remember, aging, developed economies are relying on emerging ones to generate the growth of the future.
The Skyscraper Curse isn't foolproof, of course. Taiwan avoided it in 2004 when the 508-meter (1,667 feet) Taipei 101 was completed. Nor did Japan's economy crash in 2011 when the finishing touches were put on the Tokyo Sky Tree, a 634-meter-tall (2,080 feet) broadcasting tower. Then again, some may argue that last year's massive earthquake and tsunami were crisis enough for Asia's No. 2 economy.
We will just have to hope that the mile-high monstrosities of the future aren't the omens of doom they have been in the past. Because if they are, I'll see you at the local homeless shelter.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)
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