The Unexpected Stories Behind 10 Skyscrapers That Were Actually Built

As long as there have been buildings mankind has sought to construct its way to the heavens. From stone pyramids to steel skyscrapers, successive generations of designers have devised ever more innovative ways to push the vertical boundaries of architecture. Whether stone or steel, however, each attempt to reach unprecedented heights has represented a vast undertaking in terms of both materials and labor – and the more complex the project, the greater the chance for things to go awry.

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Ryugyong Hotel. Image © José Tomás Franco

Ryugyong Hotel / Baikdoosan Architects

Envisioned as a glorious statement for and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—North Korea—the Ryugyong Hotel was to have been the tallest hotel in the world. When work began on the tower in 1987, speculation abounded as to what prompted its construction: some believed it was a response to the completion of a massive hotel in Singapore by a South Korean developer, while others considered it architectural one-upmanship in response to South Korea hosting the 1988 Winter Olympics. Whatever the true motivation for building the Ryugyong, however, it was to have been decidedly impressive.

The Ryugyong Hotel consists of three wings radiating out from a central core, each rising at an angle of 75 degrees to come together in a conical pinnacle. It's 105 floors were to hold seven revolving restaurants and no less than 3,000 hotel rooms. The concrete structure of the tower was completed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union—North Korea’s greatest financial benefactor—in 1991. The resulting economic downturn in North Korea, which triggered a famine that starved an estimated 1 million people, also forced work on the Ryugyong to grind to a halt in 1992. For the next two decades, the North Korean government made a concerted effort to avoid acknowledging the embarrassing concrete hulk that dominated the skyline of Pyongyang.

Despite claims that low-quality concrete and misaligned elevator shafts made completion of the Ryugyong Hotel impossible, in 2009 the Egyptian telecommunications company Orascom were tasked with the project as part of a deal to run a cellular network in North Korea. Over the next few years, the concrete structure was strengthened and clad in reflective glass, finally giving the outward appearance of a finished building; however, by 2013, international tensions as a result of North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons led to foreign investors pulling out and, once again, leaving the Ryugyong Hotel a highly visible white elephant with an uncertain future.

John Hancock Tower. Image © José Tomás Franco

John Hancock Tower / Henry Cobb, I.M. Pei & Partners

With its reflective blue glass cladding, which almost seamlessly blends into the sky on a clear day, the John Hancock Tower was designed to be as inconspicuous as possible – for a skyscraper, at least. Situated next to Boston’s historic Trinity Church, the monolithic skyscraper was intentionally laid out in a way that would not overshadow its neighbor. Unfortunately, these good intentions were marred by a series of staggering engineering issues, the worst of which infamously involved many of its large plate glass windows spontaneously coming loose and falling to the surrounding streets.

The Hancock Tower, now the tallest building in Boston, was originally conceived as the John Hancock Company’s response to the 52-story offices of Prudential, its New Jersey-based insurance rival. When the company chose a site on historic Copley Square, the city’s residents protested the construction of such a large building immediately adjacent to some of the city’s most notable historic landmarks, particularly Trinity Church. It was consciousness of this threat to Boston’s historical urban fabric that informed architect Henry Cobb’s design: an extruded trapezoid clad in uniform sheets of mirrored plate glass. The obsequious angling of the tower preserved views to the church and indicated it as the compositional center of Copley Square; the mirrored façade, rather than call attention to itself, reflected the historic architecture of its neighbors.

Unfortunately, the Hancock Tower’s reputation suffered for years due to a series of escalating engineering mishaps. Excavation for the tower’s foundation led to soil settling that damaged surrounding structures and, in 1975, warnings of potential structural collapse under certain weather conditions delayed completion as a series of cross-braces were added to the building’s framework. The building was also notorious for the tendency of its window panes to unexpectedly pop out of their frames, showering the sidewalks and streets below with falling glass and necessitating costly replacement of the entire façade. Once these problems were resolved, however, Cobb’s design was vindicated by critics and observers alike, and the Hancock Tower is now a celebrated aspect of the Boston skyline.

F&F Tower. Image © José Tomás Franco

F&F Tower / Pinzon Lozano & Asociados Arquitectos

The spiral form of Panama City’s F&F Tower began as a purely theoretical experiment in the offices of Pinzon Lozano & Asociados Arquitectos. Although not originally intended for actual construction, the concept caught the eye of a potential client which subsequently teamed with Pinzon Lozano to develop it into a practical design. The result is 52 floors twisted into a helix around a concrete core, the skewed alignments of which allow for four small office balconies at each level. The floors at the top of the skyscraper gradually shrink toward the base of the spire that crowns the whole building.

This striking design developed in spite of two major constraints: a relatively small site in the city’s banking district and a strict budget of $50 million USD. A neighboring gas station with underground wells had to be accommodated in the tower’s foundations, while its above-ground bulk was initially hampered by setback requirements. Despite these challenges, the glass-wrapped helix was completed in 2012.

At 233 meters (764 feet) tall, the F&F Tower is just one of the many skyscrapers built in Panama City in the last several years. The city actually tied with Busan, South Korea for the highest number of new skyscrapers completed in 2012; however, this construction boom has outpaced the country’s business growth, resulting in a glut of unused office space and declining rental values. The F&F Tower is not immune to these issues and, in combination with its limited number of passenger elevators, its innovative formal strategy has not yet yielded commercial success.

Tour Montparnasse. Image © José Tomás Franco

Tour Montparnasse / Cabinet Saubot-Jullien, Eugène Élie Beaudouin, Louis-Gabriel de Hoÿm de Marien, Urbain Cassan, A. Epstein and Sons International

In the uniformly low-lying urban fabric of central Paris it is impossible to miss the abrupt aberration that is the Tour Montparnasse. From the moment its design was proposed in 1959, the city revolted against what they felt was a hideous incongruity in the historic city center. Permission to begin construction was not granted for nine whole years, and even then only with the personal support of then-President (and architectural aficionado) Georges Pompidou. Extensive prefabrication allowed the skyscraper to grow six floors a month, and construction was completed in 1973 – over a decade after it was supposed to have begun.

At 210 meters (689 feet) tall, the Tour Montparnasse was the tallest skyscraper in Europe for almost twenty years. It is the second-tallest structure in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower standing at 324 meters (1,063 feet). Although it consists almost entirely of office space, the tower does offer some public amenities, most notably an observation deck on the 56th floor and Le Ciel de Paris, the city’s highest restaurant. In an echo of sentiments originally expressed toward the Eiffel Tower, it has been stated that the view from the building’s observation deck is the best in Paris as it allows one to see everything but the Tour Montparnasse itself.

After its completion, the city government of Paris passed new codes forbidding the construction of any new buildings over seven stories tall. This law, evidently drafted in response to the public outcry over the tower in question, ensured that no more skyscrapers would be constructed within the limits of the city center. Recently, the owners of the Tour Montparnasse have launched a competition calling seven firms to propose major renovations to the tower, removing asbestos and revitalizing its much-reviled façade to make its blatant modernity more acceptable to the people of Paris.

CCTV Headquarters. Image © José Tomás Franco

CCTV Headquarters / OMA (Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren)

In 2002, Rem Koolhaas was forced to make a decision: whether to focus on proposals for the new World Trade Center in New York or for the new headquarters of CCTV (China Central Television) in Beijing. In the contentious political debate that grew around the former, Koolhaas, feeling that such an atmosphere could not hope to produce architecture of real value, elected to turn his sights toward Beijing. Politics followed him, however, and he was criticized for designing a monument to what many claimed was a propaganda machine for the Chinese government.

Rather than shrinking from further controversy, Koolhaas and his design partner Ole Scheeren created a radical formal strategy that spurred even greater debate. It was, according to OMA, a “skyscraper in a loop” – two towers rising from a studio block and bridging together at the top. As its layout makes a conventional core impossible, the structure is composed of a diagonally crossed network of steel tubes, with areas under high stress visibly supported by denser concentrations of tubes. During construction, the two sections had to be joined in the morning to minimize the effects of thermal expansion on their alignment.

The construction process was fraught with setbacks. An inferno caused by a botched fireworks display all but destroyed a neighboring building also designed by Koolhaas; the incident resulted in the incarceration of 20 people for negligence, including the project manager. Later, a Chinese critic claimed that the CCTV Headquarters’ form was based on a pornographic image of a woman on her hands and knees, prompting a wave of bad publicity so severe that Koolhaas was forced to issue an official denial. Despite these unfortunate incidents, however, the CCTV Headquarters has become one of the most celebrated architectural icons of Beijing – a symbol of modernity in one of the most ancient cities in the world.

Chrysler Building. Image © José Tomás Franco

Chrysler Building / William Van Alen

As the 1920s drew to a close Walter Chrysler, owner and founder of the Chrysler Motors Corporation, approached architect William Van Alen with a commission to design his company’s new headquarters in Midtown Manhattan (New York). He had a simple mandate: to make the new building taller than the Eiffel Tower, which by then had been the tallest structure in the world for almost forty years. The dazzling Art Deco skyscraper that resulted from this order, with its gleaming steel crown, sunburst windows, and automotive decorative motifs, was an enduring icon of the heady “Roaring Twenties” in which it was conceived.

Before work began on the Chrysler Building, Van Alen was alarmed to discover that his professional rival, H. Craig Severance, was already breaking ground on a tower at 40 Wall Street downtown that was also projected to be the tallest in the world. What followed was a series of mid-construction design changes as each architect strove to outdo the other: dimensions were stretched, penthouses were added, and, ultimately, Severance placed a 50 foot (15 meter) flagpole at the top of his skyscraper that seemed to be the final word in the unofficial competition. Once 40 Wall Street was topped out, Severance, along with most of the world, assumed that it had won the race.

However, Van Alen had a trick up his sleeve – or more precisely, inside the pinnacle of his tower. Unbeknownst to Severance and the general public, a spire had been secretly constructed inside the Chrysler Building’s steel-plated crown, its existence concealed until 40 Wall Street had reached its final height. At that point, the 185 foot (56 meter) tall spire was hoisted up through the crown and mounted into place, bringing the building’s total height to 1,048 feet (319 meters) and earning it the title of World’s Tallest Building. While the Chrysler Building only held that accolade for 11 months before losing it to the nearby Empire State Building, its clandestine spire remains a celebrated feature of one of the world’s greatest Art Deco masterpieces.

Cayan Tower. Image © José Tomás Franco

Cayan Tower / Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)

Having already designed the world’s tallest building in Dubai, SOM was tasked with building the world’s tallest twisted skyscraper in the same city. Like Sweden’s Turning Torso—the previous record holder—the Cayan Tower turns exactly 90 degrees from the ground level to the top floor, with the entrance facing the Dubai Marina and the uppermost apartments looking out over the Persian Gulf. The Cayan Tower’s floor plates are larger than the Swedish tower’s, however, requiring the entire structure to twist with them for the 1.2 degree turns between each floor.

Initial plans to name Dubai’s latest record-breaking skyscraper the Infinity Tower were shelved when it was determined that the name was shared by a number of other building around the world; the name Cayan Tower was chosen specifically for its uniqueness. The tower’s developers stated that they would not replicate Cayan’s design in any other projects, as they were as dedicated to preserving the rarity of its form as they were its name.

A catastrophic mishap during construction almost prevented there being any Cayan Tower in the world at all. In February 2007, roughly a hundred workers were nearly finished excavating for the building’s foundations when a loud, sharp sound caught their attention. Shortly afterward, as sand began running down the edges of the pit, the workers were ordered to evacuate the site; thankfully, there were no fatalities as the wall holding back the waters of the marina collapsed and flooded the work site with seawater. Although construction took a full seven years due to the setback, there have been no major mishaps since the Cayan Tower’s opening in 2013, when the twisted skyscraper was awarded fourth prize in the annual Emporis Skyscraper Awards.

Citigroup Center. Image © José Tomás Franco

Citigroup Center / Hugh Stubbins and William LeMessurier

Although the Citigroup Center’s 45-degree roof stands out in the Manhattan skyline, it is the nine-story stilts at its base that make this skyscraper unique. Rather than supporting its corners, the enormous columns stand at the center of each of the building’s four faces, allowing the upper levels to cantilever over a church standing at the corner of the site. A series of inverted steel chevrons direct the structure’s weight toward these pillars and into the ground; a tuned mass damper in the upper floors, one of the world’s first, counteracts the tower’s tendency to sway in the wind.

After the Citigroup Center’s completion in 1977, an architecture student named Diane Hartley called the offices of William LeMessurier, the tower’s structural engineer. Her calculations had indicated that while the building could withstand high winds against any of its faces, high quartering winds—that is, winds hitting two faces at a diagonal—posed a serious risk unaccounted for by his firm. After assuring Hartley that they had indeed prepared the Citigroup Center for such conditions, LeMessurier looked into her claims and found, to his horror, that she was right: due to a change from welding to bolting of the steel framework during construction, a storm capable of toppling the skyscraper would hit New York approximately once every 55 years. Worse still, should the power fail and the tuned mass damper be rendered inoperable, the number fell to every 16 years.

LeMessurier presented his findings to Citigroup, prompting a secret scramble to strengthen the building before a storm could destroy it and the surrounding urban fabric. A convenient newspaper strike helped to keep the story from breaking as workers swarmed the tower each night to correct the issue. Contingency plans made with the NYPD and Red Cross were almost put into effect as Hurricane Ella approached the city in 1978; fortunately, the storm never made landfall, and the Citigroup Center was made safe before disaster had a chance to strike. The near-disaster is now cited as a prime example of professional ethics thanks to LeMessurier’s swift and decisive response in spite of the threat to his credibility. As for the unintentional heroine of the story, Diane Hartley remained unaware of the effects of her 1977 phone call until she heard the full story in a BBC documentary in 2000.

Find out more about this project, here.

Torre Velasca. Image © José Tomás Franco

Torre Velasca / BBPR

The Torre Velasca has a unique characteristic: it manages to blend in and stand out at the same time. Set amid the historic domes and bell towers of Milan, the skyscraper is virtually impossible to miss; indeed, the fact that it was constructed in the 1950s might lead one to believe it was built with Modernist disregard for the established urban fabric. Closer inspection of the Torre Velasca’s unusual top-heavy form and aesthetic details reveal, however, an intentional reference to Milanese architectural tradition.

The Torre Velasca is fundamentally a medieval watchtower of gargantuan proportions. Its stone walls, small windows, and pitched copper roof are clear references to this model, dating back to a time when the Italian peninsula was an embattled collection of city-states. The projection of the upper levels, while allowing greater space for the apartments contained within, mimics the Gothic styling of surrounding Milanese landmarks – an homage made even more apparent by the exposed struts supporting the upper levels.

This odd blend of historicism and modernity was the result of an ongoing debate in Italian architecture during the 1950s. Rather than eschew traditional aesthetics for international uniformity, a movement rose in Italy which prized the local and vernacular over placeless rationalism; the Torre Velasca was one of the most prominent built works of this school of thought, despite its architects’ claim that its unusual form was simply a means of accommodating its mixed residential and commercial program. Whether the Torre Velasca represents an irrational, and even ugly, rejection of Modernist design thinking or an ingenious contemporary interpretation of historical architecture has never been settled. The only point on which everyone seems to be in agreement is that there is nothing quite like it.

Find out more about this project, here.

Robot Building. Image © José Tomás Franco

Robot Building / Sumet Jumsai

Thai architect Sumet Jumsai has earned a reputation for whimsical buildings; in 1997, his design for the Chang Building—known more colloquially as the Elephant Building—achieved the rather narrow superlative of “world’s largest elephant-shaped building.” A decade before, when tasked with creating the headquarters for the Bank of Asia, Jumsai produced a design that unmistakably resembled an enormous robot.

Formally, the Robot Building is a simple stack of boxes with setbacks necessitated by building regulations. While its massing is unremarkable the same cannot be said for its ornamentation: a pair of lightning rods resemble futuristic antennae, enormous metal circles fixed to the side façades look like bolts, and a pair of large circular windows form the robot’s eyes, complete with sunshade eyelids. Adding to the overall sense of whimsy, the eyes are designed to wink in time with a composition by Thai composer Jacques Bekaert entitled “Robot Symphony.”

The Bank of Asia Headquarters’ robotic aesthetic, purportedly derived from a toy owned by Jumsai’s son, carried symbolic intent beyond mere fantasy. The choice of a robot was, according to Jumsai, meant to reflect the increasing computerization of the banking industry during the 1980s; that the robot appeared benign evoked the friendlier aspects of technology. Aside from serving as a commentary on computerization, the Robot Building was also Jumsai’s personal counterpoint to the rise of the Postmodern style toward the end of the 20th Century, which he decried as a protest seeking to “replace without offering a replacement.” Exactly how Jumsai would categorize his own designs is unclear, but there is no question that the Robot Building remains one of the most peculiar skyscrapers ever to have been built.


  1. Ryugyong Hotel: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5]
  2. John Hancock Tower:[1], [2]
  3. F&F Tower:[1], [2]
  4. Tour Montparnasse:[1], [2], [3], [4], [5]
  5. CCTV Headquarters:[1], [2], [3], [4]
  6. Chrysler Building:[1]
  7. Cayan Tower:[1], [2], [3], [4]
  8. Citigroup Center:[1], [2]
  9. Torre Velasca:[1], [2]
  10. Robot Building: [1]

About this author
Cite: Luke Fiederer. "The Unexpected Stories Behind 10 Skyscrapers That Were Actually Built" 24 Jan 2017. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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