Autocrats Really Do Build More Skyscrapers

Harsh autocracies are more likely to build skyscrapers, whether or not they make economic sense.

Ryugyong Hotel tower.

Photographer: Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images

The Ryugyong Hotel towers over the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, a 105-story concrete pyramid that’s been dubbed, alternatively, the Hotel of Doom and the “worst building in the history of the world.” Construction began in 1987, halted five years later, and then resumed in 2008. The exterior was eventually completed, but according to reports, the hotel has yet to open.

It’s the kind of building that only a dictator could love.

Political scientists have long noted autocratic rulers’ proclivity for “white elephants”—expensive and effectively useless construction projects. Yet quantifying the relationship between concentrated power and vanity skyscrapers has presented a tricky problem: Not all autocracies are alike, nor are all boondoggles.

In a working paper published last month, two researchers at the University of Oslo proposed a clever solution, cross-referencing a database of completed skyscrapers against a mechanism for scoring governments across time, country, and the degree to which political power resides with the people. 1 The data on skyscrapers—defined here as buildings at least 150 meters tall, or about 500 feet—come from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats. The data on governments come from the Varieties of Democracy Institute and score governments on a scale of 0 for a harsh autocracy to 1 for a high-quality democracy.

After controlling for population, income, urbanization, and other factors, the researchers found that a harsh autocracy builds 1.6 more skyscrapers per year, on average, than a high-quality democracy. Crunching the numbers another way, the worst dictators can be expected to build an additional 150 meters of skyscraper each year. While not all skyscrapers built by authoritarian regimes are white elephants, the paper found that autocracies are more likely to construct tall buildings even in the absence of clear economic incentive. 2 The model computes these numbers on a three-year lag, since skyscrapers take time to build. As such, an abrupt switch from a high-quality democracy to harsh autocracy would yield additional skyscrapers three years into the new regime.

“It could just be that they think the building is cool, or it could be that building has the power to put them on international stage,” said Haakon Gjerlow, a Ph.D. candidate and lead author of the paper. 3 Co-authored by Carl Henrik Knutsen.  Alternatively, it could be a connection between dictators and corruption. “They can give valuable construction contracts to their allies in the system,” Gjerlow said.

The model wasn’t designed to describe why countries build specific buildings. The point, Gjerlow said, was to filter out factors such as population density and relative wealth as a way to isolate the role a government has in undertaking the construction of skyscrapers. That distinction lets the researchers conduct some interesting experiments.

Autocracies are more likely to build skyscrapers in countries that haven’t experienced the kind of urbanization that traditionally leads to high-density construction, according to the research. Strongmen are also more likely to build what Gjerlow calls vanity meters—buildings with uninhabited floors or other structures intended to increase the height of the building without adding traditional functionality.

Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yammasoukrou

The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro.

Photographer: Pascal Guyot/AFP via Getty Images

Of course, dictators don’t have a monopoly on vanity height. One World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan is topped by a 408-foot spire designed to take the building to a symbolic height of 1,776 feet. But autocratic rulers routinely exhibit a flair for the superfluous. Gjerlow’s paper cites the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, which was built in the 1980s as a replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 4 Actually, Gjerlow reports that the Yamoussoukro church is taller by 30 meters.    The construction project doubled the national debt in a nation where only 20 percent of the population was Catholic, according to Gjerlow.

There are checks on an autocrat’s power to build unnecessarily gigantic structures, including popular access to information from a free press or other nongovernment sources. “When people are informed of the costs involved,” Gjerlow said, “even autocrats will not dare to pursue such projects.”

Research into the links between popular government and skyscrapers also allows for some interesting alternate history. Based on Gjerlow’s ranking system, for instance, the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote, improved America’s score for self-government by enough to lower the nation’s expected output of skyscrapers. Had the women’s suffrage movement failed, the U.S. would have built about 17 more skyscraper meters by 1923, according to Gjerlow, and 1,500 meters more in the decades to follow if women were prevented from voting. That finding is based on the degree to which the expansion of voting rights improved the American democracy; it’s not intended as a commentary on the reason men are sometimes presumed to build skyscrapers, though maybe it should be taken both ways.

A casual survey of worldwide skyscraper construction gives anecdotal support to the theory that autocrats build higher. In recent years, of course, China has dominated the field of tall structures: Out of 128 buildings exceeding 200 meters that were completed last year, 84 were in China—the ninth straight year the country has built the most tall buildings. The United Arab Emirates and Singapore—both of which have built notable skyscrapers in recent years, and neither of which boast flourishing democracies—weren’t included in government rankings used by researchers but would seem to fit the pattern.

Even if the giant towers commissioned by autocrats don’t prove to be sound investments, there are other arguments for building tall. A skyscraper can be a means to raise a country’s profile on the world stage or sound a call to urbanization. “Maybe the leaders had a developmental strategy,” Gjerlow said of the dictators who have amplified the tower-building boom. There might be a broader economic benefit to paying for a tall building not immediately represented by the population trends studied by social scientists. “If that’s the case,” he noted, “autocrats tend to use that strategy more than democracies.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.