Tall order: The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Jorge Silva/Reuters

Short answer: Because they can!

When Carl Henrik Knusten traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia several years ago and went to see the Petronas Towers, he thought he was just going to see the tallest twin towers in the world. Instead, he experienced a glorious—and confounding—symbol of state power.

“At the time, the guide told us several of the floors were vacant,” Knutsen says. “It sounded like a lot of waste, but they were extremely beautiful. That’s when I started thinking about the excess of these towers if they weren’t even used for the purpose they were built for.” Having completed his Ph.D dissertation on regime types and economic growth at the University of Oslo, Knutsen began to think that skyscrapers can tell us something about who built them.

That’s the logic at the foundation of a new working paper by Knutsen and his co-author Haakon Gjerlow at the University of Oslo. They find that the heights and styles of skyscrapers might help measure something much less tangible than steel and concrete: drawing the line between autocracy and democracy.

These looming towers continue to rise up, scaling increasingly absurd heights. Saudi Arabia has plans to build the Jeddah Tower—a 1,000 meter (3,280 ft) supertall structure with an estimated price tag of $1.2 billion USD by 2020. Dubai is willing to spend $1 billion to build a 928 meter (3,045 ft) structure ominously called “The Tower.” Skyscraper projects seem to be the modern analogue to the ornate palaces that un-elected leaders once lavished public expenditures on. But they seem to capture the imaginations of both elected and unelected leaders, with some of the tallest towers planned for the future turning up in cities from London to Moscow.

Still, Knutsen suggests there is something different about why different governments build such towers. “In democracies, you get more skyscrapers as urbanization increases or as income increases,” Knutsen says. “But you don't find this in autocracies. They basically build skyscrapers no matter what.”

The 105-story Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

To get at the question of how government type influenced the construction of skyscrapers, the paper compared data from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s Skyscraper Center to the global standards defined by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) indicators such as the number of political parties, perceived political corruption, or press freedom.

One of Gjerlow and Knutsen’s models finds that controlling for factors such as urbanization, income, and population, autocracies build roughly 150 more meters of skyscrapers each year compared to democracies.

“The problem is it is so hard to find comparable measures across space and time,” Knutsen says. “For instance, corruption is hard to measure and often relies on expert perceptions of it. But with skyscrapers, it’s specific and comparable: You’re just dealing with height.”

Knutsen says that skyscrapers are a handy way to compare the difficult-to-define concepts that his dissertation covered. He understands why autocrats feel the need build them, but he finds their costs at the expense of citizens unnerving.

Take for example, the Ryugyong Hotel, also known as the “Tower of Doom,” a 330-meter pyramid in North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang. ”It's an enormous skyscraper in a very poor country. It’s never been put to use as the hotel it was intended to be,” he says. “This project took a lot of resources and never served the society, except for standing as a symbol for the regime.”

Modern skyscrapers are taking off, as seen in this chart comparing the heights for structures built between 1900 and expected to be built by 2020. (Gjerlow and Knutsen)

A skyscraper’s height can sometimes serve a real economic purpose—adding floors to a residential building to pack more people into Manhattan or downtown Tokyo pencils out. But autocrats build towers to signal power—even in times of economic crisis—siphoning money from public budgets to build enormously unnecessary buildings.

One telling example of the excess that Knutsen points to: the Burj Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates, the current tallest building in the world. It measures 828 meters tall (2,717 ft) but 29 percent of its height is non-occupiable. To separate utility from excess, Knutsen says his co-author Gjerlow came up with the idea of measuring the difference between top of the building and the highest inhabitable floor.

The Burj Khalifa dominates the Dubai skyline. Much of the building’s upper reaches are uninhabitable. (Mosab Oma/Reuters)

“If our argument is right—that skyscrapers get built for signaling power or as a ‘white elephant’ projects—we would expect more of this ‘vanity height’ in autocracies than in democracies,” Knutsen says. (The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat notes in an email that it has since shied away from the using the term “vanity height” in favor of “gross-to-net height,” given the pejorative connotations of the original term.)

Gjerlow and Knutsen found that autocrats tend to build skyscrapers with more vanity height, when you compare similar buildings in equally wealthy countries. They also found that autocratic skyscrapers feature more meters per floors and meters per ground floor area than otherwise similar democratic skyscrapers.

The 10 buildings with the tallest vanity meters, as of July 2013. (CTBUH)

This speaks to the constraints put on elected leaders that prevent excessive skyscraper building. “If you're up for reelection and people get to know the costs of this project and it comes at the cost of building schools for children, it’s a bad idea,” Knutsen says.

Large-scale construction projects can also be very useful tool for autocrats, providing a way to conceal payoffs to supporters with overpriced buildings that have opaque accounting. One V-Dem measure that was even more predictive of skyscraper height than corruption: lack of an independent press.

“A lot of construction we can attribute to the features of autocracy,” Knutsen says. “But we find the strongest predictor to be access to information in the public: media freedom.”

That may lend a bit of hope to those who fear the anti-democratic tendencies and tower-fixation of the current U.S. leader. Unless Washington D.C. manages to eliminate its signature height restrictions on new buildings, at least no American autocrat will be able to plant a skyscraper over the nation’s capital.

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