A rendering of Shanghai Tower. (CBRE)

A combination of necessity and desirability has made Asian cities the world leaders in vertical living. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs World Urbanization Prospects, Asia has 362 cities with a population exceeding 500,000—more than the rest of the world combined. Yet its urbanization rate is only 48 percent, well below the 73, 82, and 83 percent levels seen in Europe, North America, and South America respectively.

Furthermore, many Asian nations are still seeing population growth, and all Asian nations—even Japan—are seeing further urbanization. While Japan’s population is falling, major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka are still growing.

This population pressure, combined with a scarcity of developable land, means that Asia is compelled to build upward. Asian cities tend to be taller than their counterparts in most other regions, and this vertical development continues. Since 1996, 15 skyscrapers taller than the Empire State Building have been constructed in Asia.

Paul Noritaka Tange, president of architecture firm Tange Associates, providing the closing keynote to the ULI Asia Pacific Summit 2015, held in Tokyo in June, said: “Asian cities are very different, but many of them are high-density.”

However, Tange, who showcased a number of his designs, is not an advocate that taller is necessarily better, even in a dense environment. “Context is important,” he said. “Time, function, locale, scale, and history provide the context for each project.”

Tange said he tried to reduce the size of the lower parts of developments such as Tokyo’s Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower in Shinjuku, “even though the plot is very small,” in order to maximize the open space available at ground level. The development also features triple-height “student salons,” which he said act as “vertical schoolyards.”

Toward the top of the building, the sides slope inward “in order to give the building more sky,” he said.

His design for the Orchard Gateway development in Singapore has bridged Orchard Road and features sky gardens and public space. Orchard Road, Singapore’s main shopping street, features a string of malls and hotels but is, as Tange noted “very linear.” It is also the case that Singapore’s climate makes walking along that street uncomfortable. “With the heat and humidity, it is hard to walk more than 500 meters,” he said.

In response, Orchard Gateway flows upward, from a plaza at ground level with multiple access points to a sky garden on the roof.

Tange bemoaned the fact that Hong Kong, a high-rise city hemmed in by hills and water, was losing its unique identity, characterized by frenetic street life. In designing the One, a 29-story shopping mall on Nathan Road, Tange said he tried to re-create the “street energy” of the old Hong Kong. “I wanted to create a vertical shopping experience that is like a street,” he said.

The development features five distinct zones with different types of retail and restaurants as well as open terraces, roof gardens on three levels, and terrace restaurants that not only provide green spaces for relaxation, but also make the building more sustainable. In addition, the facade’s surface variation, which reflects the different zones inside, creates a wind-breaking effect at street level, reducing the wind’s impact on pedestrians.

The layout of each floor is not uniform, which “changes the visitor’s mind-set” as he or she experiences the mall, said Tange.

His work is intended to be a blend of form and function, of utility and livability. However, the rise of the vertical city in Asia is most clearly delineated by the rise of the “super-tall” building, above 984 feet (300 m) in height.

According to a recent CBRE report, Asia is home to 55 percent of the world’s tallest buildings, while China alone accounts for a staggering 71 percent of the super-tall towers set for completion over the next five years.

“Within Asia, there is a perception that a high density of tall buildings is synonymous with being a successful financial hub. Super-tall office buildings are viewed by Asian authorities as a means to enhance the competitiveness of their business environment so their city can establish itself as a financial center or to reposition their economy under the impacts of globalization—a ‘build and they will come’ strategy commonly adopted by emerging financial markets in Asia,” said Andy To, executive director, asset services, CBRE China.

CBRE research suggests there is some quantifiable value in building tall; taller buildings command a rental premium of 10 to 40 percent compared with their shorter neighbors. However, construction costs increase as buildings get taller.

Nonetheless, China does need denser development, in order to take advantage of expensive land in its major cities and in order to avoid urban sprawl and to preserve farmland. China’s most forward-thinking municipal governments have been strict with planning in order to rationalize height.

For example, Shanghai’s Lujiazui financial district contains some of the most spectacular tall buildings in the world, including the 2,073-foot (632 m) Shanghai Tower. On the opposite side of the Huangpu River, in Puxi, new buildings along the riverside can be no taller than 328 feet (100 m), while further back from the river they may be gradually taller. This has the double effect of making the river frontage more open and accessible, while also allowing for wider views toward Lujiazui on the Pudong side.

Perhaps a more concrete example of “ego-driven” vertical development would be the United Arab Emirates, which has fairly low population density and little pressure on land but which is home to 13 of the world’s 50 tallest buildings.

Tange, however, remains more interested in building to a human scale than to the skies and even professes little interest in new construction techniques that will allow developers to build higher. “I am not much of a techie,” he told the ULI Asia Pacific Summit audience. “I prefer to talk about people-friendly spaces than about high tech. People are often scared about high-density development. How do you fit these buildings into a city? How do you make spaces more civic?

“If land is not scarce, why do it? If there’s no necessity, why do it?”


The relative density of some of the world’s largest cities. Click to zoom in. (LSE Cities)