America’s first spaceships were lumbering beasts made of iron, steel, and fireproof terra cotta. One of the earliest prototypes was manufactured in Chicago in 1885. It had no engine and remained firmly rooted to Earth for all of its 46-year existence. But this trailblazer allowed its occupants to spend long stretches of their day at the dizzying, almost incomprehensible height of 138 feet, and in 1885 that qualified as space travel. It was the 10-story Home Insurance Building, often described as the world’s first skyscraper. (Though purists insist that its lack of a complete steel frame, a primary characteristic of skyscrapers, invalidates that claim.)

In the late 19th century, as ever-taller buildings began to lift man closer to the heavens in Chicago, New York, and other American cities, they inspired awe, envy, and, of course, regulatory efforts to impede their development. As Keith D. Revell, a professor of public administration at Florida International University, notes in an essay that appears in the 2005 anthology The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories (Cambridge University Press), early skyscrapers were charged with “rampant individualism,” “robb[ing] pedestrians of light and air,” and even threatening public health by “blocking the salubrious rays of the sun.” In 1891 Boston outlawed buildings greater than 125 feet in height. In 1904 Baltimore set the limit of architectural aspiration to a measly 70 feet.

The country’s most avid architects and industrialists eventually overcame such restrictions, but only at great cost. As Revell recounts in his essay and his 2002 book Building Gotham (Johns Hopkins University Press), early city planning advocates used the threat of looming skyscrapers to enact New York’s 1916 Zoning Resolution, landmark legislation that dramatically expanded the city’s power to privilege broader community goals over individual property rights. The ordinance divided the metropolis into three use districts (“residence,” “business,” and “unrestricted”) and five height zones, and normalized the idea that city bureaucrats had the legal authority to closely regulate the design, placement, size, and usage of all types of buildings in the city, not just skyscrapers. 

Indeed, perhaps the only thing in 20th century New York that grew faster than its skyscrapers—which were governed by no fixed maximum height limit as long as they observed “setback” rules designed to reduce the shadows they cast on their environs—was its zoning code. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser notes in the March 2011 issue of The Atlantic, city officials amended the code more than 2,500 times from 1916 to 1961, ultimately expanding it into a 420-page document that divided New York into “13 types of residential district, 12 types of manufacturing district, and no fewer than 41 types of commercial district.”

But if skyscrapers helped usher in an age of rampant civic regulation in the name of the public good, they also remained, in the eyes of their critics, potent symbols of unchecked ego and greed—too big, too resource intensive, too wedded to the notion that we can shape the world to our own ends, without limits. When the World Trade Towers collapsed in the wake of a terrorist attack on 9/11, many onlookers declared it the end of the skyscraper era. The digital age had supposedly rendered skyscrapers’ primary utility—concentrating a great number of people in limited space—superfluous. Concerns about substantial energy needs in an age of climate change had made them seem like the SUVs of architecture. Skyscrapers were unnecessary, unfashionable, unsafe, obsolete.

Which of course meant a renaissance was coming. As architectural historian Mark Lamster notes in the September 2011 edition of Scientific American, “2011 will go down as the single greatest year for the construction of tall buildings in history, with more than 97 skyscrapers over 200 meters (including 22 supertalls) slated for completion.” (A “supertall” is a building reaching 1,250 feet or higher.) According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, an industry trade group based in Chicago, more than 350 buildings measuring at least 663 feet have been constructed since the end of 2001, more than doubling the world’s population of skyscrapers. (From the dawn of the skyscraper era through 2001, 235 buildings that high or higher were constructed.)

So while we may be speeding straight toward Mayan doomsday, there are at least a few optimistic developers who are not quite ready to declare 2012 the year of the underground bunker. Instead, they’re building skyscrapers —towering, dazzling, environmentally pragmatic skyscrapers. Granted, the idea of a green skyscraper may seem paradoxical, especially given the values that are usually attached to “sustainability.” There is no such thing as an artisanal or handmade skyscraper. Eco-hippies cannot make one out of mud, straw, or rammed earth. An Amish village cannot erect one in a single afternoon of humanistic, closely bonded hammering and nailing. Skyscrapers require armies of engineers, architects, designers, and construction workers, plus giant pools of capital. They need great amounts of materials and energy to construct elaborate systems for lighting, heating, cooling, and navigation once they’ve been built. 

But skyscrapers aren’t just getting taller; they are also getting more sophisticated. In 2010 the Bank of America Tower, a 1,200-foot building in New York, became the first skyscraper to achieve the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] platinum rating. Solar panels, wind turbines, rainwater collection systems, designs that maximize natural light, and building monitoring systems that deploy elevators with maximum efficiency and regulate other energy uses are becoming more common, but the greatest green attribute skyscrapers offer is the density they create. As New Yorker writer David Owen suggests in his 2009 book Green Metropolis (Riverhead), density facilitates sustainability: The residents of Manhattan use much less energy per capita than people who have to drive their Ford F-150s 30 miles every time they want to pick up a six-pack at Walmart. 

In the middle of the Dubai desert, where the world’s tallest skyscraper, the 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa, resides, the benefits that come with greater density may not be necessary. But in China, where the majority of skyscrapers are being constructed today, it’s a different story. Hundreds of millions of Chinese will migrate from rural areas into cities during the next 25 years. This is the general trend throughout the world. According to United Nations statistics, the percentage of people who live in urban areas will increase from 49.2 percent in 2005 to 61 percent in 2030, for a net urbanization gain of 1.8 billion people in just 25 years. One way to accommodate these migrants is to build upward on a massive scale and to further popularize mixed-use buildings that combine work space, living space, and commercial space all in one building, thus making the cities of tomorrow even denser than the cities of today. 

As environmentally pragmatic as such buildings may be—who needs buses and taxis, much less individually owned cars, when your commute to work is a 30-second elevator ride and your next-door neighbor is a Starbucks?—their greatest appeal may be their virtuality. If the 19th-century skyscraper was a testament to the growing importance of land, the 21st-century skyscraper is a testament to the fact that land (or more broadly, the physical world) isn’t as important or compelling as it once was. As we spend more of our lives in cyberspace, we come to expect its primary characteristics (convenience, efficiency, abundance) to define our off-screen lives as well. And supertall, mixed-used skyscrapers are currently the most potent physical approximations of the virtual world we have. They’re environments designed for maximum convenience and efficiency, with elevators functioning like hypertext, taking you almost instantly from one mode of existence to the next. Push a button and you’re at work. Push another button, you’re at home. 

Even in the 21st century skyscrapers continue to function as a kind of spaceship, carrying us into the future. Today’s most striking examples even look the part. They are self-contained Starship Enterprises that offer their occupants everything they need to sustain themselves for years on end. Plus a really great view of planet Earth below. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.