Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Skyscrapers in Cairo: A Dazzling Skyline Amidst Environmental Pressures

Skyscrapers in Cairo are consistently integrated into Urbanism plans by the state despite their socioeconomic and environmental drawbacks.

Skyscrapers in Cairo
A​​​​​​ view of the Iconic Tower at the administrative capital of Egypt, which started to be built in 2015 to solve the population density and traffic congestion in one of the most populous cities in the world. Fareed Kotb / Anadolu Agency (Photo by Fareed Kotb / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu via AFP)


As cities have evolved and economies expanded, Skyscrapers have grown to become a key utilitarian architectural and urban element all over the world. With their extravagant scale, intimidating exterior, and towering presence, skyscrapers have proven to shape more than just skylines. In fact, numerous studies spotlight their significant environmental and sociopolitical drawbacks.

The battle between civilization, development, and simple organic living has revealed the prevailing dominance of urbanization, resulting in an environment where large-scale buildings loom over us. Between trying to feed energy to those huge concrete, steel and glass monsters and trying to save those affected by the negative impact of these skyscrapers, hope for the future lies in balancing the scales and reenvisioning what a civilized urban context and society should embody.

With that in mind, developing cities like Cairo should reconsider the achievability and socioeconomic impact of implementing the urban structures of Dubai and New York in the MENA region.


Architecture and Engineering have always been open platforms for innovation and creativity. With the ever-changing needs and demands of civilization and the economic sphere, new building designs have emerged to meet those needs.

As a result, in the late 19th century the skyscraper was introduced as an innovative solution to meet the requirements of this era. Their purpose was to make city centers more accessible for a larger population, accommodating those moving into the city. Moreover, skyscrapers provide large scale offices and commercial outlets.

This movement later transcended to the Middle East region in the early 80’s, finally reaching Egypt’s capital, Cairo. Up to recent years, the need to continue designing those types of building grew to have different purposes. For example, metropolitan cities, such as Shanghai, with large populations tend to build more skyscrapers as a solution to the availability of limited land. Consequently, they resorted to expansion in the vertical direction instead of horizontal, as it is already dense and occupied.

The concept of mass production has also influenced the design process and the building needs in general. This is reflected in how skyscrapers are a unified design with a mass-produced system of commercial units, offices, housing, etc., to accommodate all choices for all buyers.

However, the movement has different trends when it comes to new cities like the new capital city of Egypt. Although urban planning for this new capital has the capacity to expand horizontally across the new infrastructure, building extravagant high-rise buildings still has the lead. In creating new city centers in a relatively compact area, urban planners aim to promote the new capital as the new central business district with luring investments and a luxurious skyline.

These ‘unplanned’ planning concepts have led to dangerous and long-term problems that the cities of tomorrow will have to try to minimize their effect. This ongoing vital issue has brought on some important questions surrounding the alleged utility of skyscrapers, as opposed to the pursuit of alternative forms of urban development.

Such questions are crucial for identifying the main objectives to addressing the insistent problem of creating a healthy environment for Cairo’s dense urban fabric, all while accommodating the undeniable necessity of modern skyscraper architecture.

Narrative Body

“Less is only more where more is no good”- Frank Lloyd Wright.

The famous quote represents how human aspirations can be too much to handle and how they could backfire in a negative attribute.

Throughout the years, skyscrapers have proven to increase energy consumption, the heat island effect, microclimate, CO2 emissions, and by extension climate change crises. Additionally, the lack of social consciousness is a byproduct of misuse and unfair distribution of energy needs.

One of the most commonly used materials in building envelope of skyscrapers is glass. The production of this material has a high carbon footprint, and it’s very difficult to recycle due to the type of fixations used in construction.

According to research, glass’s lifespan is approximately 30-40 years until disposal. This is a very short life cycle for buildings which are expected to last a very long duration. This issue also attributes to the use of such material in the climate of Cairo which, due to high wind speed and sand particles contained in air, leads to faster deterioration of glass.

Not to mention, extreme weather conditions and high temperatures necessitate the use of specially treated glass units to withstand these conditions. Yet again, according to the life cycle assessment it is considered not a valuable investment. The vast glass façade with its sophisticated and sleek design represented modernism and luxury style in the race for leading capitals around the world.

Consequently, Egypt has joined this race with the aim of promoting its ability to compete among the business capitals of the world and try to set a valuable market base for itself by imitating what is considered a successful prototype of what a modern city should look like.

This, however, comes with the price of very complex and expensive cooling and heating energy loads. The excessive use of glass as an exterior results in poor insulation in winter, while in summer, it traps heat and causes a greenhouse effect.

As for electrical needs, in order to meet the required energy for those large high-capacity buildings, the result is year-round excessive electricity usage. This includes lighting, machines, devices, and systems running 24/7 even during the night.

This aerial view shows Kuwait City’s al-Hamra tower caught in heavy fog early on January 13, 2022. (Photo by YASSER AL-ZAYYAT / AFP)

With the international energy crisis, Egypt’s energy market has shown an increase in prices of electricity and petrol throughout the last decade. This shows the extreme necessity for a dedicated plan of energy-efficient building technology methods.

However, while Egypt’s made progress, there is still no clear future plan for how to integrate renewable energy into its urban plans, especially for high-consumption mega buildings like skyscrapers.

This issue is generally negligible in cities like Dubai, as it is energy-rich, but in the case of Cairo, it is detrimental, especially considering its national GDP and large population.

Studies have shown that energy requirements for a skyscraper are approximately two and a half times more than the energy needs for a standard 6-story building.

Furthermore, another complication that stems from skyscrapers is the Heat Island effect. This phenomenon occurs as high-rise buildings tend to increasingly reflect incident solar radiations which increases the temperature of the surrounding urban context.

As a case study, in the Summer of 1995, Chicago experienced one of the deadliest heat waves in their history. With the temperature going up to 100 Fahrenheit for many days, hundreds of citizens died of heat strokes. As a result, the government started tearing down one of the tall building housing projects.

Although they may seem like unconnected events, a report by the UN tackled the relationship between climate change and “urban geometry”. The report investigates the effect of increasing temperatures in cities and the phenomenon of urban canyons, which results in skyscrapers and tall buildings blocking air from cooling streets and neighboring buildings.

This issue is reported in many major cities like Tehran and Kolkata, for example, in which the temperature is higher than in other cities with the same climate conditions. The result of all these environmental imbalances is a vicious loop of energy needs, emissions, rising temperature to even more energy needs. Following these serious effects, it was crucial to introduce laws and regulations to realize the inefficiency of old design methods that were suitable for the old climate.

Sociologists studying urban society and the relationship between people and buildings discuss how Skyscrapers make people feel disconnected. They explore how the vast difference in scale, and the geometrical aspect of their construction tend to take over the city with a vertical view rather than supporting ground-level human interaction.

By extension, these buildings have proven to be a negative influence in the city of Cairo, a very hectic city with an urban fabric consisting of a mixture of formal and informal planning. These skyscrapers created a clear barrier between humans and their use of buildings, which led to the informal creation of a more suitable and affordable scale of settlements for everyday use.

The construction of new skyscrapers in Cairo’s city center, with their vast arrangement of mass-produced housing units and large commercial and administrative buildings, reveals the segregation and entanglement within society.

This development has erased the once-existing urban harmony, where residential, commercial, and public gathering spaces worked together seamlessly to achieve community functionality. Now, it is replaced with gigantic-scaled buildings that are expanded vertically leaving no interaction spaces and unfair distribution of businesses.

Hence, a fair integration between large and human-scale approaches is crucial for the sustainability of such projects. The integration should negate the need for interference and improvisation from the communities that attempt to neutralize the severe overwhelming cancellation of human-scale existence.

In a competition held in 2015 by the Egyptian government, Norman Foster and partners created a design vision for a way of integrating both modern skyscraper architecture and a simple traditional urban design prototype for the community’s residence. This has set a positive example of how a society could move forward with technology without compromising the integrity and functionality of the city.

However, investors were laser-focused on money. Consequently, they chose an all-modern-all-high rise building solution, which confined all residents of the district in a compact and inaccessible footprint.

Many solutions have emerged as a hopeful attempt to overcome or limit this danger. The solutions span a range from the microscope of architectural details, such as building envelope design, glass typologies, and material choices, to the macro scope of incorporating elements within the urban context. These broader strategies include expanding green footprints and implementing smart roofs.

Building envelope solutions were developed through advancements in the architectural and building technologies field, introducing many passive techniques to control the indoor environment, as well as reducing energy needs and CO2 footprint.

Some of these remedies include self-shaded glass, double and triple glazing, double skin facades, and even treated laminated glass. Although it’s not sufficient to eliminate all needs, it contributes to their decrease. Another approach is to control natural ventilation. This, however, comes with the risk of negatively impacting indoor air quality, especially in large heavily polluted and noisy cities.

On a larger scale, the attempt to neutralize the effects of skyscrapers includes increasing green footprint on roofs, streets and plotting land to reduce CO2 and decrease temperature. Smart roofing, like reflective roofs, also helps with mitigating sun radiation by reflecting it back into the sky, without significantly affecting air temperature.

All those design techniques can counteract negative impacts if done effectively and on the large scale of cities.

Regarding the social consequences of skyscrapers, as architects incorporate more green human-friendly elements they will foster a more welcoming urban fabric. Additionally, the seamless integration of small and large scales inside and around the context of skyscrapers, will reduce the stark contrast between the two scales, resulting in a harmonious urban environment.


The future of skyscrapers in cities like Cairo, whether old or new, is hopefully leaning towards a positive direction. With the influence of more smart investments and the application of regulations that center on sustainability, we can achieve an effective problem-solving framework.

The new generation of skyscrapers should reach a carbon-neutral footprint and social justice for all. Governments and stakeholders should abide by these new extreme measures in order to control climate change and maintain the health and safety of the population.

It is also important to recognize the vital role of social awareness organizations in ensuring ethical urban planning and monitoring development projects. The overall result should lead to a more sustainable and eco-friendly Cairo, where skyscrapers are contributing to the urban fabric rather than alienating itself from the heritage of a 1400-year-old city.


Rise of the glass giants: how modern cities are forcing skyscrapers to evolve, David Nicholson-Cole, December 6, 2016.

cities & citizens series bridging the urban divide, Cairo, a city in transition, UN Habitat

“Vertical Cities: Can Mega-Skyscrapers Solve Urban Population Overload?” Vertical cities could be much more than monolithic luxury towers, but the idea has its skeptics, Kayla Matthews,2018.

“Most buildings were designed for an earlier climate – here’s what will happen as global warming accelerates”, Ran Boydell, July 2, 2021, Heriot-Watt University.

High-rise buildings much more energy-intensive than low-rise, UCL news, 28 June 2017.

Future Buildings & Districts – Energy Efficiency from Nano to Urban Scale, CISBAT 2017, 6-8 September 2017, Lausanne, Switzerland.

International Conference on Sustainable Synergies from Buildings to the Urban Scale, Quantifying Energy Consumption in Skyscrapers of Various, (Heights, Tassioglou, I.A.Meirb, T.Theodosiou), 2017, Volume38.

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Kawthar Metwalli
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