Mark Kirby, the general manager of the Armani Hotel in Dubai, is in no doubt as to the appeal of its location - high, high, high up in the Burj Khalifa, for now the tallest building in the world.

"It assures guests the experience of staying in a global icon, which opens to spectacular views," he says. "For residents the appeal of high-rise living is no doubt centred on the views it offers, as well as being located in the heart of the city. For us, the Burj Khalifa has been a demonstration of the can-do ability of Dubai."

Kirby is certainly not alone in taking that position - the world is seeing an unprecedented tall building boom. With some 3,552 towers more than 150 metres currently up in the world, this number is expected to double in the next decade. Look to some cities and the boom is positively frenetic: some 250 tall buildings of 20 storeys or more are currently consented or proposed across London alone.

But it's a divisive issue: one 2014 study found that 40 per cent of respondents did not agree with the statement "there are too many tall buildings in London", while 34 per cent did. Polls in Paris have showed higher antipathy: 63 per cent against, with campaign groups the likes of SOS Paris routinely demonstrating against the proposed 48-storey Tour Triangle. Sometimes such groups are successful: the city of St Petersburg's approval of a 100-storey building was recanted following widespread complaints. Those in opposition argue, simply, that to so radically change the skyline of a city - and an historic city in particular - is to destroy its very essence. "Thankfully NIMBYs are increasingly doing what they should: being NIMBYs," says Barbara Weiss, an architect and founder of Skyline, a campaign to curtail London's proposed tall building boom.

"This push towards more towers is especially a pressure, aesthetically at least, for cities of historic architecture. Yet, it's not limited to them. Every city has its own DNA and towers are part of what makes, for example, New York.

"But there are still good and bad ways of doing towers - and they're doing a lot of bad ones," she adds. "Shanghai strikes me as a monster city precisely because no thought has been given as to what people want a city to be. This tower boom is really a world-wide crisis. You're either potentially losing something precious or, at best, missing a real opportunity for positive city planning."

Indeed, just what are all these towers for anyway? According to Antony Wood, executive director of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat - effectively the global trade organisation for the developers and builders of tall buildings, and the body that moderates all the record-breaking - building upwards, rather than outwards, is the only practical response to the unstoppable global macro trend of population shift into cities. Every day, he says, some 189,000 people are urbanising - being born in or moving into cities.

"And the answer is to increase densities by building up, not ever expanding urban sprawl outwards, which would never work in the end because of the necessary energy usage," he argues. "There's no clear understanding of the ideal way of achieving densification, but, given the scale of population movement we're seeing, skyscrapers do seem the best answer [to date]. The fact is that we have to get used to the evolution of a city's tapestry, to the creation of a successful melting pot. Nobody is talking about knocking down ancient buildings to do this."

Philippe Honnorat, head of building services for WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff - one of the world's largest structural consultancy firms, operating in 40 countries and the company behind London's Shard, Hong Kong's Bank of China Tower, and New York's coming Freedom Tower - agrees that providing shelter is, in the long run, what the skyscraper mania is in essence all about. But he also offers perhaps a more immediate and nebulous reason for the rush upwards - tall buildings are statements of civic pride, cultural lighthouses whose beacons put a city front of mind for the national, and perhaps global, business agenda.

"A tall building has become a city's signature," he says. "And cities want to signal themselves to the rest of the world. Of course, a high-rise is not the only way of doing that but it's easiest to understand. You could have a fantastic stadium or incredible airport - but would they be as effective?

"Tall buildings are not about being part of some fashion - the economics of building them are just too complex and it's actually incredibly difficult to take these projects forward, not just in structural terms but given the responsibility that goes with making something so highly visible. It's important to preserve the character of a city. But nor should we freeze them at a particular point of time forever."

Unsurprisingly, the creation of iconography, or many of the other reasons put forward for tower building, are not convincing to Weiss. She argues that towers currently proposed arguably do little to benefit a city's general populace, let alone address the likes of London's affordable and social housing crisis - far from providing homes to an urbanising population, many skyscrapers of this on-going boom only provide yet more empty office space or investment opportunity to the world's super-rich and often absent jet-setters. Meanwhile proposed schemes are often too tempting a means for strapped local authorities to cash in to be denied.

The outlook for this debate, even from the very top floor, with blue skies and a summer's day, is far from clear. Surprisingly, even the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat might find common ground with the anti crowd. Dario Trabucco, head of research for the council, argues that if density is really the objective, buildings start to become counter-productive much above, say, 200 metres tall.

"And after then a tall building is all about ego - the ego of whoever wants to build it so much higher," he says. "Ultimately then it is just about creating a landmark. But that can work. Nobody, so to speak, knew about Taipei before the Taipei 101 went up. And that's tellingly named. The Shanghai Tower is pointedly called as much, and, like many tall buildings, it's much taller than is strictly necessary."

Certainly, if more skyscrapers are to be built - and they will be, in droves - the reasons, and the results, need refocusing. Wood argues that there is a strong, indeed crucial, need for tall buildings to be better connected to a 3D city across the ground plane, for example, for them to offer much more public and green spaces; for, in short, tall buildings to work for the people, for the many rather than the few.

"Most tall buildings built today are built to create icons, or on a commercial agenda - and no one would spend the many millions on these buildings without the market behind them," he says. "They fulfil a need. The question is whether that need is justified. I'd like to see more skyscrapers making a contribution to the wider fabric of the cities they're in, making a contribution to society at large. I'd like to see fewer of these attention-grabbing tall buildings, a lot of which are pretty ****. We need to build up but we need to build much better too."

 

CONCRETE SOLUTION

Composite mega columns, the use of vegetation as cooling systems, even - good news to some ears - how best to demolish them are all hot research topics in the skyscraper world. But the real buzz comes with pushing the heights: at more than 1km tall, the new world's tallest building, Jeddah's Kingdom Tower, is going up and up.

Indeed, providing the foundations and base area are big enough. There are, technically at least, no real limits as to how high a building can be - wind can be compensated for, and lift shafts staggered (science only allows for shafts no greater than 800 metres).

The limit is more economical. And that is why many of the tall buildings of tomorrow are likely to be predominantly concrete rather than steel structures. Concrete has a more stable price than steel; it can be sourced locally - good for developing countries, such as Vietnam; it counters post-9/11 fears about the safety of all steel structures; and - worryingly, or maybe reassuringly - concrete does not require the same level of precision building as steel.