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Required reading: The skyscraper

Western Europe's tallest building is open to the public at last. So why do skyscrapers continue to fascinate and infuriate in equal measure?

The Shard, London’s new 95-storey skyscraper, opened its doors to the public last week. Tickets to the viewing deck – with views all the way to the North Sea on the Essex coast – are selling out weeks in advance.

At 306 metres, the tower is the tallest building in Western Europe. But the Italian architect Renzo Piano’s construction has divided Londoners: for some, it is both an eyesore and a reminder of the UK capital’s reliance on overseas money (it was funded by a consortium of Qatari investors); for others, it’s a contemporary symbol of London’s ambition.

Just what is it, then, about skyscrapers and their ability to define the cities in which they stand? We need only the smallest tower of books to help us find the answers.

It’s commonly accepted that the first skyscraper was built in Chicago in 1884. Read Judith Dupree’s Skyscrapers: A History of the World’s Most Extraordinary Buildings to learn about the 10-storey Home Insurance Building and its use of a steel frame structure – an innovation that fueled the age of the skyscraper.

It was in New York in the 1920s, though, that skyscrapers came of age. Lewis W Hine: The Empire State Building collects Hine’s iconic photographs of the building’s construction: at 432m, it was the world’s tallest for 40 years. Meanwhile, Manhattan Skyscrapers by Eric Peter Nash paints a portrait of the world’s most famous skyline.

After a long reign, New York City is no longer home to the world’s tallest buildings. Read about Taipei 101 and the Shanghai World Financial Centre – both were at one time over the last few years the world’s tallest building – in The World’s Most Amazing Skyscrapers. Then move your attention to the current holder of that title: Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which stands (as if you didn’t know) at an incredible 829m, but you can build your own version if you follow the instructions in Burj Khalifa: Cut and Assemble (Dover Publications, Dh63).

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