Metropilis illustration

Property is emerging as a mainstream asset class, and the world’s biggest and most eye-catching buildings are particularly in demand by investors.

The Financial Times’ lead illustration shows a selection of the world’s most famous buildings, reflecting the main markets that we cover. These buildings also provide a window into how the global property industry and its investment trends have evolved over the past century.

Stretching from Depression-era make-work schemes to a business district that has become the subject of a 2014-2015 takeover squabble, these landmarks range from luxury mega-projects to fusions of art and architecture that become tourist attractions.

The global skyline in order

● 1. Golden Gate Bridge
● 2. The MAC
● 3. Willis Tower
● 4 Two World Trade Center
● 5. One World Trade Center
● 6. The Gherkin
● 7. One Canada Square
● 8. Commerzbank Tower
● 9. Petronas Towers
● 10. Burj Al Arab
● 11. BSE Towers
● 12. HSBC Building
● 13. Oriental Pearl Tower
● 14. Sydney Opera House
● 15. Sydney Harbour Bridge

The oldest building in our assemblage is the Sydney Harbour Bridge, started in 1923. The newest, Two World Trade Center in New York, has not yet been built.

The most recent to change hands was London’s 30 St Mary Axe office tower, affectionately known as the Gherkin, bought by a Brazilian billionaire in November for a record price. But most of the buildings in the list have never been put up for sale, demonstrating how hard it can be for investors to find prime buying opportunities.


Building: Golden Gate Bridge

Location: San Francisco, USA

Built: 1933-37

Owner: Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District

Construction cost: $27m

Last sold: never

Traffic moves slowly across the Golden Gate Bridge in the high winds and rain Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014, in this view from Sausalito, Calif. A storm expected to be one of the windiest and rainiest in five years swept across the San Francisco Bay Area on Thursday, knocking out power to tens to thousands and delaying travel by air, train and ferry. Pacific Gas & Electric is reporting outages are widespread across the Bay Area due to weather, but officials weren't immediately available to give a specific number of outages.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
© AP

Now a symbol of San Francisco’s booming tech economy, the Golden Gate Bridge was originally an icon of economic failure. Constructed in the Great Depression to provide local jobs, the bridge is an example of how property investment can be used as an economic stimulant.

No state or federal funds were involved: it was funded by a $35m bond, which was bought in its entirety by Bank of America after failing to find other investors.

The bond issue was paid off in 1971, with bridge tolls having funded nearly $39m of interest charges as well as the initial $35m principal.


Building: Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (aka the MAC)

Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Built: 1991-96

Owner: Niterói municipality

Construction cost: unknown

Last sold: never

A view of the Contemporary Art Museum (MAC) designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer in Niteroi city near Rio de Janeiro February 7, 2006. Niemeyer designed the MAC, a giant replica of a flying saucer resting on a cement pedestal, in the 1990s. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes
© Reuters

The Niterói, also known as the MAC, is an example of how buildings can become tourist attractions. The flying saucer-style gallery was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil’s most famous modernist architect, and has become an emblem of the country’s emergence as a global economic power.

Its opening in 1996 foreshadowed the launch the following year of the world’s best-known fusion of art and architecture, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.


Building: Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower)

Location: Chicago, USA

Built: 1970-3

Owner: Joseph Chetrit and other investors

Sale price: $840m

Last sold: 2004

Naming one of the world’s best-recognised buildings has become a very desirable trinket for many companies. It used to be the convention that a corporation had to take ownership or majority tenancy in a building in order to name it after itself.

But this is changing and the trend was set by insurer Willis when it moved into Chicago’s landmark Sears Tower in 2009.

The company only took three floors in the 108-floor building, but it also secured the naming rights, despite local protests.


Building: Two World Trade Center

Location: New York, USA

Built: not yet constructed

Owner: Larry Silverstein, the US property billionaire

Construction cost: unknown

Last sold: n/a

The replacement for the second of the Twin Towers destroyed in the September 11 2001 attacks, Two World Trade Center has yet to be built. After developer Larry Silverstein fought off an attempt by the Port Authority to reduce the building’s scale, the foundations were laid in 2010. But Mr Silverstein is now in search of tenants before committing to the rest of the construction work.

His pause illuminates the difficulty for developers in getting the world’s largest buildings off the ground. Timing the economic cycle correctly can be critical for attracting occupiers and maximising rental income.


Building: One World Trade Center (aka “Freedom Tower”)

Location: New York, USA

Built: 2006-14

Owner: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

Construction cost: $3.9bn

Last sold: never

HOBOKEN, NJ - SEPTEMBER 11: People attend an interfaith memorial as the "Tribute in Light" shines from the Manhattan skyline next to One World Trade Center to commemorate all those who were lost on 9/11 on September 11, 2013 in Hoboken, New Jersey. The lights are located at West and Morris streets in lower Manhattan. The nation is commemorating the anniversary of the 2001 attacks which resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people after two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia and one crash landed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images)
© Getty

The replacement for the first of the Twin Towers destroyed in the September 11 2001 attacks, One World Trade Center opened in autumn 2014. The construction of the western hemisphere’s tallest skyscraper has been an expensive saga.

A first round of designs were unpopular with the public; a second round was won by Daniel Libeskind but his proposal underwent years of reworking.

A new subway station underneath the WTC complex has earned the title of the world’s most expensive, costing $4bn, after security and construction plans changed.

Site leaseholder Larry Silverstein fought a series of battles with insurance companies over the policies covering the original World Trade Center towers.

While Mr Silverstein retains control of other parts of the WTC site, the Port Authority has taken ownership of the WTC1 building.


Building: 30 St Mary Axe (aka the Gherkin)

Location: City of London, UK

Built: 2001-03

Owner: Brazilian billionaire Joseph Safra

Sale price: £726m

Last sold: November 2014

The Square Mile’s Gherkin became a symbol of the financial crisis when it slid into administration in 2009 and a sign of the London property market’s return to boom times when administrators sold it for a record £726m last autumn.

Joseph Safra, the Brazilian billionaire and the new owner, aims to raise rents and attract high-profile new tenants in order to justify the price he paid.


Building: One Canada Square

Location: Canary Wharf, London, UK

Built: 1988-91

Owner: Canary Wharf Group

Construction cost: £624m

Last sold: n/a

Offices for HSBC and Barclays banks stand next to the One Canada Square skyscraper, at left, in the Canary Wharf business district of London, Monday, April 11, 2011. A British commission recommended Monday that banks should be reorganized so that firewalls protect retail operations from investment banking, an attempt to shield taxpayers from the sector's risk-taking without forcing the banks to split up. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
© AP

Investors’ appetite for property assets, fuelled by their large piles of cash seeking a home with some yield, means they are eyeing ever-larger deals.

The most audacious attempt so far in this property cycle is a joint bid by the Qatar Investment Authority and Canadian fund Brookfield to buy Songbird, the parent company of east London business district, Canary Wharf.

Songbird shareholders are still considering the pair’s final £2.6bn bid, which would give them control of One Canada Square and a clutch of other skyscrapers on the estate.


Building: Commerzbank Tower

Location: Frankfurt, Germany

Built: 1994-97

Owner: Commerzbank

Construction cost: DM600m

Last sold: never

File photo of the logo of Germany's Commerzbank pictured next to the headquarters of the bank in Frankfurt May 25, 2011. Germany's second biggest lender, Commerzbank, will post writedowns of more than 700 million euros ($997.6 million) on its Greek sovereign bond holdings in the second quarter, three sources told Reuters August 4, 2011. That would make Commerzbank, which has around three billion euros of Greek government debt exposure, the most affected major European bank. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/Files (GERMANY - Tags: BUSINESS)
© Reuters

The world’s first “green” skyscraper was an early leader in highlighting the contribution that buildings make to carbon emissions. Buildings are one of the largest classes of carbon emitters, after transport and energy production.

As governments around the world continue to tighten emissions standards, buildings that are cheaper to operate and can continue to be occupied are likely to see their values rise.


Building: Petronas Towers

Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Built: 1993-96

Owner: KLCC Property Holdings, a publicly listed real estate investment trust

Construction cost: $1.6bn

Last sold: never

The Petronas Twin Towers stand illuminated among other buildings at dusk in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Sunday, July 20, 2014. It should have been a time for celebration in the predominately Muslim country of Malaysia, as families prepare for festivities to mark the end of the Ramadan fasting period. Instead the country is in shock from a second air tragedy in four months. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg
© Bloomberg

Property is gradually evolving from being an alternative asset class into the mainstream. This is pushing many owners and operators to go public, in order to attract as wide a range of investors as possible.

The Petronas Towers make up one of the world’s most famous publicly listed property assets but this has not helped their stock’s performance recently. Over the past year the shares have underperformed the main Malaysian stock market index, the KLCI, which has itself fallen in the past six months.


Building: Burj Al Arab

Location: Dubai, UAE

Built: 1994-99

Owner: the Jumeirah hotel chain (a subsidiary of Dubai Holding)

Construction cost: $650m

Last sold: never

Dubai's three most prominent architectural icons, Burj an-Arab Hotel (L), Jumirah Hotel (R) and Burj Dubai (C), are seen along the coast of Dubai, on December 21, 2009. Dubai's heavily-indebted group, Dubai World, began talks with its lenders over its request to restructure 22 billion dollars in debt but has made no specific proposals, a company spokesman said. AFP PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI (Photo credit should read MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Countries with spare cash and nowhere to put it have to build their assets. The construction of the Burj Al Arab by Dubai Holding, owned by the ruler of Dubai, kicked off a string of other ritzy and ambitious construction projects.

The proliferation of mega-projects pushed Dubai into a property boom that ended with a catastrophic bust when the financial crisis hit.


Building: Phiroze Jeejeebhoy Towers, aka BSE Towers

Location: Mumbai, India

Built: 1980

Owner: the Bombay Stock Exchange

Construction cost: unknown

Last sold: never

The Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) building looms over a no-entry sign on a street in Mumbai, India, on Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. IndiaÕs biggest stock market slide in almost two years, surging bond yields and an unprecedented plunge in the rupee are pressuring officials for fresh steps to stem capital outflows and revive a struggling economy. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg
© Bloomberg

Built to house the Bombay Stock Exchange, BSE Towers has become a symbol of India’s financial sector.

The exchange to which it is home has rallied strongly in the past year, as investors anticipate that Narendra Modi, prime minister, will carry out economic reforms.


Building: HSBC Building

Location: Hong Kong

Built: 1983-85

Owner: HSBC

Construction cost: $780m

Last sold: never

Renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster stepped on to the international scene with Hong Kong’s HSBC Building, his first foreign commission.

The financial boom of the 1980s saw the rise of the “starchitect” — architects whose big-name stature wins commissions from around the world, for buildings that become symbols of the cities in which they are constructed.


Building: Oriental Pearl Tower

Location: Shanghai, China

Built: 1991-94

Owner: Shanghai Oriental Pearl Group

Construction cost: unknown

Last sold: never

SHANGHAI, CHINA - NOVEMBER 16: The Oriental Pearl Tower and the financial district of Pudong is seen on November 16, 2010 in Shanghai, China. China's power consumption in October rose 8.5 percent year on year to 340 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), the China Electricity Council announced today. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
© Getty

The transformation of Shanghai’s waterfront over the past three decades is just the most visible example of China’s evolution into one of the world’s biggest property markets.

From 1990 onwards, the Lujiazui district, opposite the historic Bund, grew from a low-rise area of warehouses and factories into mainland China’s best-known concentration of skyscrapers.

The Pearl was the first landmark to be built and is still the most widely recognised.


Building: Sydney Opera House

Location: Sydney, Australia

Built: 1959-73

Owner: New South Wales Government

Construction cost: A$102m

Last sold: never

Nothing good is ever easy — that certainly would be the motto of the team that built the Sydney Opera House.

A series of delays, engineering problems and political clashes meant that the building was completed 14 years after construction first began.

As one of the most recognised symbols of Australia, the opera house also stands as a warning to today’s property investors — turning dreams into reality can be a costly business.


Building: Sydney Harbour Bridge

Location: Sydney, Australia

Built: 1923-32

Owner: New South Wales Government

Construction cost: A£10.1m

Last sold: never

Rotary members and friends climb Sydney Harbour Bridge in an attempt to break the World Record for the most people on the bridge at one time and also the most flags on the bridge at one time in Sydney on May 30, 2014. Rotary broke the Guinness World Record for the number of people on the bridge with 340 beating the previous record of 316 organised by Oprah Winfrey in 2008. Also the record was broken for the number of different international flags flown with 219 flown beating the previous record of 143 to raise funds for Rotary's End Polio Now Campaign. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKSPETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

The Depression-era bridge was funded with government debt and relied on tolls to repay its construction costs. After the debt was paid off in the 1980s, the charge was kept in place and the funds raised were used to pay for the cost of a new 2.3km harbour tunnel to take some congestion pressure away from the bridge.

Unlike the bridge, the tunnel was built and is operated as a public-private partnership. Kumagai Gumi, Transfield and Tenix are the private companies involved in the A$670m contract.

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