Tall & Urban News

In the Media: CTBUH Quoted in Daily Mail and CNN About China's Supertall Skyscraper Limits

Limits on supertalls, like the 492-meter Shanghai World Financial Center (left) are among the topics being discussed in a round of new legislation changes released in China.
Limits on supertalls, like the 492-meter Shanghai World Financial Center (left) are among the topics being discussed in a round of new legislation changes released in China.
16 June 2020 | Beijing, China

The Daily Mail

China has banned all cities from building new supertall skyscrapers except in "special" circumstances to improve urban landscapes, according to a directive.

The central government has prohibited regional officials from 'blindly designing and building' towers taller than 500 meters (1,640 feet).

The construction of those taller than 250 meters (820 feet) will be "strictly limited," the document adds.

China has the largest number of tall buildings in the world. 

It boasts more than 2,177 towers no shorter than 150 meters (492 feet) and 85 buildings taller than or at 300 meters (984 feet). 

In comparison, the United States, the world's second-largest skyscraper country, has 807 buildings that measure 150 meters or above and 25 that stand at least 300 meters in height, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH).

But now, it seems that the Chinese government is determined to slow down the country's breakneck construction to manage the appearance of its cities.

The new restrictions were rolled out by the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-rural Development on April 27 2020.

The authority claims the regulation was approved in line with the nation's "new-era architectural principle" which requires urban structures to be "practical, economical, ecological, and beautiful."

The Ministry vows to clamp down on "huge, foreign-worshipping and wacky" buildings. Copycat designs will be strictly forbidden.

Officials also demand cities to come up with building designs that can "strengthen cultural confidence" and "represent Chinese characteristics."

If any city does need to erect new supertall skyscrapers, relevant officials must first pass "strict inspections" from the firefighting, earthquake, and energy-saving authorities.

Then, they will have their proposals assessed by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-rural Development – and eventually by the National Development and Reform Commission.  

The Ministry also instructs the local authorities to tighten the approval process for buildings taller than 100 meters (328 feet) and protect natural areas and historic buildings. 

According to CTBUH, a Chicago-based organization specialising in the design and construction of tall buildings, the new directive didn't come as a surprise.

Daniel Safarik, a spokesperson for the group, told MailOnline: "For several years, China's top leadership has been quoted in the media alluding to an opinion that there should be "no more weird or strange buildings."

"This appears to be the formalization of that commentary."

Although Beijing has not revealed any further reasons behind the decision, Mr. Safarik suspected economic risks could be one of the contributing factors.

He said: "Many tall buildings have been constructed without a full guarantee of tenancy at the beginning of development, and significant levels of debt have been incurred in order to complete them."

He used one supertall skyscraper in northern China as an example.

"The Goldin Finance 117 building began construction in 2009 and has been delayed several times due to various economic difficulties, for instance."

The building in Tianjin was topped out at 596.5 meters (1,957 feet) in 2015, according to Chinese state media. But the project is yet to be completed due to financial reasons even though the construction began more than 10 years ago. 

A broad interest in culturally relevant architecture designs can also be a potential reason behind the clampdown, Mr. Safarik added.

He said: "It is a worldwide phenomenon, not limited to China, that skyscrapers can be a homogenizing force, with highly similar buildings being constructed all around the world, which obscure the identity of these places."

In the past year, Chinese cities built 40 percent fewer skyscrapers compared to the previous year.

Nevertheless, it still completed the world's tallest building of the year, the 530-meter-tall (1,738 feet) Tianjin CTF Finance Centre in Tianjin, according to a CTBUH study.

Before that, the nation had achieved the feat four times in a row since 2015. 

The tallest complete skyscraper in China at present is the Shanghai Tower, which measures 632 meters (2,073 feet) in height and opened in 2016.

For more on this story, go to The Daily Mail.


An end to "copycat" buildings and a ban on skyscrapers taller than 500 meters (1,640 feet) are among the Chinese government's new guidelines for architects, property developers and urban planners.

Outlining what it calls a "new era" for China's cities, a circular issued by the country's housing ministry and the National Development and Reform Commission earlier this year also proposes other sweeping measures to ensure buildings "embody the spirit" of their surroundings and "highlight Chinese characteristics."

With height restrictions already being implemented in places like Beijing, and a 2016 government directive calling for the end to "oversized, xenocentric, weird" buildings, the guidelines appear to formalize changes that were already underway.

But according to Chinese architecture experts, some of the less eye-catching suggestions -- such as an appeal for heritage protection, a credit system for designers and the appointment of chief architects -- may signal a subtler evolution in the way China's cities are planned.

"The document is really not just about height," said Li Shiqiao, a professor of Asian architecture at the University of Virginia, in a phone interview. "It's about Chinese culture, the urban context, the spirit of the city and the appearance of modernity."

"This has been in the academic discussion a lot, but somehow not in a government document until now."

Of the 10 completed buildings measuring above 500 meters around the world, half are found in mainland China.
Among them are the planet's second-tallest skyscraper, the twisting Shanghai Tower at 632 meters (2,073 feet) tall, and Shenzhen's Ping An Finance Center, which is 599 meters (1,965 feet) from base to tip.

In the last two years, they've been joined by Beijing's CITIC Tower and the Tianjin CTF Finance Center, the world's seventh and ninth tallest buildings respectively. But the tide against soaring skyscrapers has been turning for some time.

The number of new buildings measuring 200 meters (656 feet) or above in China fell by almost 40 percent last year, according to construction data from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). In Beijing's downtown Central Business District, a height restriction was already being applied to new proposals -- a cap of just 180 meters (591 feet) according to a 2018 report by property firm Jones Lang LaSalle.

Elsewhere in the country, the Wuhan Greenland Center had its projected height cut from 636 meters (2,087 feet) to under 500 -- a decision made in 2018, after construction began, necessitating a significant redesign -- with local media citing airspace regulations. The Suzhou Hungnam Center has since had its planned height cut from 729 meters (2,392 feet) to 499 meters (1,637 feet), with upcoming skyscrapers in the cities of Chengdu and Shenyang also "suffering the same fate," according to state-run tabloid Global Times.

Fei Chen, a senior architecture professor at the UK's Liverpool University, described the 500-meter limit as "quite arbitrary," adding that skyscrapers measuring 499 meters are "still very, very tall buildings." But the new document confirms growing intolerance for buildings that are "out of scale or out of context," she said.

Chen also pointed to official concern around the "reckless" use of tall buildings, whereby expensive and unprofitable towers are used by real estate firms to brand their developments -- or by local governments to put their cities on the map.

"(The guidelines) respond to the identity crisis that we've all noticed since the 1980s, when cities started to borrow standards and building types from international contexts," she said in a phone interview. "And since the 1990s, cities have been promoted as being competitive in the market through the construction of landmarks and large public buildings."

As such, the new restrictions are as much about economics as design. Above a certain height, the cost of constructing skyscrapers increases exponentially with each additional floor. China's skylines are now littered with unfinished towers as economic growth slows and developers face a squeeze on credit.

According to CTBUH data, around 70 Chinese buildings that were meant to stand above 200 meters are currently "on hold," having already started construction. Three of them were expected to measure over 500 meters, including Tianjin's soaring Goldin Finance 117, which broke ground over a decade ago. Wuhan's aforementioned Greenland Center has stood unfinished and largely untouched since 2017, despite having its planned height reduced.

In Li's view, the government's new measures epitomize a "new paradigm" for Chinese cities -- one less reliant on marketable skyscrapers and speculative financing. To illustrate the shift, he compares Shanghai's Pudong district, the soaring financial quarter that rose from almost nothing in the last two decades, to Xiongan, a brand new city being built 100 kilometers southwest of Beijing. Unlike Pudong, the new 2.5-million person satellite city will be relatively low-rise, with its property market subjected to tight state controls.

"If you take Pudong as the paradigm for Chinese urbanization from 2000 to today, then you look at Xiongan -- which is not dominated by real estate speculation or iconic buildings -- as the new paradigm ... then that's quite an amazing change we're witnessing."

Yet Li maintains that the 500-meter height restriction is, from an academic standpoint, "probably the least interesting" part of the new government guidelines."

Elsewhere, the circular contains a range of other measures, including the prohibition of "plagiarism, imitation and copycat behavior." China's very own Eiffel Tower and a London-inspired Thames Town outside Shanghai are two of the more extreme -- and ridiculed -- examples of how imitation architecture thrived in the 2000s.

This official shift, again, may simply reflect the changing design culture in China. But an explicit ban on plagiarism could nonetheless prove useful in a country where the "degree of quality is so diverse," Chen said.

"There's already an acknowledgment in the architecture industry that (copying) is not welcome," she said. "But China is huge, and some cities are doing better than others.

"In east-coast cities, or more developed areas, architects have better design skills, so they produce better buildings. But in inland cities you still see buildings that copy others' styles or architectural languages, and that doesn't result in very good design."

The government document also proposes a credit system -- and, conversely, a blacklist -- for architects, to encourage compliance with planning laws and regulations. It warns against demolishing historical buildings, traditional architecture or even old trees to make way for new developments, a move in keeping with the growing emphasis placed on heritage preservation in China. (Two Shanghai art museums, created from disused industrial oil tanks and an old power station, are among the recent high-profile renovation projects in a country once known for indiscriminately razing old structures).

But one of the government's new suggestions proposes something entirely new in China: chief architects for each city.

Moscow and Barcelona are among cities that already appoint an individual to approve or veto new proposals. Li welcomed the idea as a way to ensure designs fit the overall urban context.

"The hesitation is whether ensuring uniformity means that a city becomes predictable and uninteresting, or whether you actually sustain some degree of creativity," he added. "But we have a new generation (of Chinese designers) that is great at both maintaining the urban fabric and creating very interesting architecture. The key is instituting a system that guarantees that process."

How -- or even whether -- the government's more exploratory suggestions come to fruition remains to be seen. The new guidelines provide a broad framework for cities, but finer details must be resolved at a local level, said Chen, whose research focuses on urban governance in China.

Characterizing the circular as a series of red lines not to be crossed (more "don'ts" than "dos"), she also suggested that work is still required to positively articulate what constitutes good design.

"There are policies and documents talking about what you shouldn't do... which is a good thing, but they've never said what you should do," she explained. "Architects and urban designers may benefit from quite specific guidance on what good design is.

"But this needs to be related to the local context, so I wouldn't expect the national government to produce guidance like this. What works in one context may not work in another."

For more on this story, go to CNN.