Design We Love – Sky’s The Limit

Up, Up and Away: Three ways design changes our view of skyscrapers

The defining feature of a skyscraper is no longer height. In 1931, when the Empire State Building opened, the sheer height of it was a wonder. At the time, it was the tallest skyscraper in the world. The design was simple: rectangular in shape, made of limestone, periodically punctured by windows on each of the 102 floors. It only took 410 days from start to finish.

There are now more than 25 buildings taller than the Empire State Building, and that number is growing.

So how are developers and designers changing the way we look at buildings to make them standout? One of a designer’s greatest tools is illusion. But don’t be fooled: the building is not nearly as tall as it looks.


Skyscrapers draw the viewer’s eye upwards, making the building look taller than it really is. This particular design has two definitive breaks that create vertical lines that ascend into the sky. Strong vertical lines force the viewer to move their eyes upward to follow them to the top of the building. The lines twist around the building, looking as if they could go on and on, spiraling up into the sky.


When I was a kid, we grew up stacking blocks on top of each other to try and make the tallest structure in the room. If I had known that buildings with tiered roof heights look taller, I would have done that with my blocks.

Currently Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest skyscraper in the world. It will be dethroned by three others in the works. The defining features of Burj Khalifa are the multiple pillar-esque structures that combine to make one building. They look as if they’ve been stacked on top of one another in order to reach the highest point in the sky. As they get closer together, our eyes follow the building higher and higher, looking as if they will continue to climb on past where they end.


If we look at any skyline of any city, the tallest buildings are dominated by one material on the outside – glass. The look of glass makes the building seem light and airy. During the day, the glass helps the building to seamlessly blend with the infinite expanse of the sky. As the skyscraper disappears into the sky, we can no longer gauge exactly how tall the building is, leaving us to guess the number of floors.

At night, in contrast, the building’s lights shine out through the glass, making it standout as a beacon along the skyline, drawing our attention. If unlit, it disappears right back into the night sky.

I love the idea of illusion – that design can trick us into thinking something is different than it really is. Cities are bound to become taller – maybe in the future, the trick will be making them seem smaller than they really are.

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