For the first seven decades of the past 100 years, the U.S. reigned supreme as the home of the tallest buildings in the world. Specifically, New York City dominated the top and made history with its iconic towers, such as the Woolworth Building, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. Later, Chicago — the birthplace of skyscrapers — took back its crown in 1974 with the construction of the Sears Tower.
Then, beginning with the 1990s, skyscraper construction boomed in Asia, and the East gradually took over the list of the tallest skyscrapers. Tower after tower rose in China, eventually eclipsing even the tallest buildings in the U.S. In Kuala Lumpur, the Petronas Twin Towers became the tallest buildings in the world in 1998, followed by Taipei 101 in 2004 and, finally, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2010.
Europe, on the other hand, has largely stayed out of the race with the exception of the 1950s, when its Eastern Bloc made its own shot for the sky.
With the help of the dynamic bar chart below, we’ll explore the skyscraper race, looking at the 10 tallest buildings in the world from 1920 to the present day. These are the buildings that still stand today, each a tribute to its age, city and culture, creators, as well as the feats that made it possible.
1920s-1930s: Skyscraper Construction Takes Off in the US
We start the race in 1920, when the Woolworth Building was the tallest building in the world at 792 feet. Since its completion in 1913, it had towered over the Lower Manhattan skyline, overtaking the previous title holder, the 700-foot Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower that was built in 1909. Nicknamed “The Cathedral of Commerce,” the Woolworth Building was not only designed to stand as a trophy, but also for notable profit, offering prime retail locations and highly desirable office space for lease in TriBeCa.
But the Woolworth Building alone would not satisfy the demand for office space for rent in New York City in the Roaring Twenties. Spurred by favorable economic conditions at the time, the city soon added several other tall office buildings, including the Barclay-Vesey Building, the New York Life Building, the Chanin Building, and the Mercantile Building.
By the end of the decade, architects and former business partners William Van Alen and H. Craig Severance were engaged in a famous race to build the tallest skyscraper in the world. Van Alen was working with Walter P. Chrysler on the Chrysler Building — the skyscraper that would eventually become an Art Deco monument, as well as a symbol for the rise of the automobile industry and the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age. Meanwhile, Severance was commissioned to build the Bank of the Manhattan Company Building, a state-of-the-art office tower at 40 Wall St.
The Bank’s building topped out first, rising to 927 feet — two feet more than the Chrysler’s projected height. Severance was sure he had won, but Van Alen had a trick up his sleeve. He had assembled a secret, 185-foot spire inside the upper floors of his tower and, on October 16, 1929, he lifted it through the roof, making the Chrysler Building the tallest building in the world. At 1,046 feet, it was even taller than the Eiffel Tower. But the Chrysler Building didn’t get to keep the crown for long. Just 11 months later, another iconic New York City skyscraper would claim the prize.
The Empire State Building opened to the public on May 1, 1931, after taking only one year and 45 days to build. It rose to 1,250 feet, its spire alone being 200 feet, 17 stories high. Despite being built during the Great Depression — one of the darkest periods in U.S. history — the Empire State Building has become a symbol for America’s resilience and global influence, recognized all over the world, even today. It held the title of the tallest building in the world for 41 years until the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers surpassed it by 118 feet in 1972.
Four other new towers joined the New York City skyline and the world’s top 10 tallest buildings list in the 1930s, one of which was 30 Rockefeller Plaza — a skyscraper that created thousands of jobs during the Great Depression. But when World War II began, skyscraper construction came to a halt. However, in the post-war economic boom, skyscrapers would rise again taller than ever before.
1950s-1980s: The Post-War Skyscraper Boom
In the 1950s, Russia and Poland built the tallest towers in the world outside of New York City. The Main Building of the Lomonosov State University in Moscow — inspired by the Manhattan Municipal Building — claimed the seventh spot in the top 10 in 1953. Later, the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw took the eighth spot on the list in 1955. But since then, Europe has fallen out of the skyscraper race. Its tallest building to date — the Lakhta Center in St. Petersburg built in 2019 — is 1,517 feet tall. Likewise, Western Europe’s tallest tower, The Shard, is 1,016 feet tall — 30 feet shorter than the Chrysler Building.
In the U.S., skyscraper construction ramped back up in the 1960s, culminating in a skyscraper boom in the 1980s. During this period, several well-known and loved U.S. towers rose on their cities’ skylines, including: the MetLife (PanAm) Building in NYC; the U.S. Steel Tower in Pittsburgh; the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco; the Aon Center in Los Angeles; the JP Morgan Chase Tower in Houston; and the John Hancock Center and Sears Tower in Chicago.
With the construction of the Sears Tower in 1974, Chicago now had the tallest building in the world. The tower was built for Sears Roebuck & Co. by none other than architect Bruce Graham and structural engineer Fazlur Khan — the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill team that created the 1,128-foot John Hancock Center. Rising to 1,451 feet, the Sears Tower would be the last American skyscraper to hold the crown.
1990s-Present: Asia Takes the Lead
In 1990, Asia officially entered the skyscraper race, with the 1,205-foot-tall Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and, in just one decade, it took over the top 10 tallest building list. By 1999, seven of the world’s 10 tallest buildings were located in Asia, including the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur (#1), the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai (#3), the CITIC Plaza in Guangzhou (#4) and the Shun Hing Square in Shenzen (#5).
The Petronas Twin Towers — standing at 1,483 feet each — were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004. Today, they remain the tallest twin towers on the planet. Not only did they race against the world, but Tower One and Tower Two also competed against each other. Initially, it looked as though Tower One, which had a one-month head start, was going to win. But in the end, Tower Two snatched the victory by being the first to lift its spire higher than the Sears Tower.
Then, in 2004, the Taipei 101 tower put Taiwan on the map, standing 1,667 feet, 101 stories high — 184 feet higher than the Petronas Towers. A paragon of modern engineering, the tower was safely constructed not only in a seismically active zone, but also in one where typhoons were expected to hit every year. In 2002, it successfully passed nature’s test when a 5.0 earthquake hit Taipei mid-construction, yet left the tower’s structure intact.
However, all of these amazing skyscrapers would be dwarfed in 2010, when the 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa was officially completed. The glamorous tower stands undefeated even today, with the only other skyscraper to surpass the 2,000-foot mark being the 2,073-foot Shanghai Tower built in 2015. In addition to being the tallest building on the planet, the Burj Khalifa holds several other records as well, including the highest outdoor observation deck, the tallest free-standing structure, the highest occupied floor, the highest number of stories, and the elevator with the longest travel distance.
While we have yet to learn all the ways in which our current time will reshape architecture the world over, it appears as though the Middle East will emerge as the new skyscraper epicenter. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been working on a building that will surpass the one-kilometer (3,821 feet) mark — the Jeddah Tower. At the same time, on the other side of the continent, China’s skyscraper frenzy has come to a screeching halt. The country imposed a 500-meter (1,640 feet) building restriction in April 2020.
This study reviews the top 10 tallest buildings in the world between 1920 and 2020. It includes only inhabitable buildings that still exist today, which are ranked by their official height, as recorded by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). Each building enters the top in the year in which it was completed. By CTBUH’s definition completed refers to buildings that are topped out structurally and architecturally, fully-clad, and open for business, or at least partially occupiable.
* Joseph J. Korom, Jr., The American Skyscraper, 1850-1940: A Celebration of Height (Boston: Branden Books, 2008), page 303.
** Judith Dupré, Skyscrapers: A History of the World’s Most Extraordinary Buildings (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1996), page 115.
The World’s Skyscraper Race racing bar chart in this study was made using Flourish.