Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Build it Tall

by Conroy

The iconic spire of the Chrysler Building
When I was a little kid I was awed by tall buildings. I thought skyscrapers were the coolest thing (along with bridges, tunnels, dams, etc.). Little surprise that I became a civil engineer. Perhaps a little surprise, or irony, that my career has been focused on transportation, close to the ground. Anyway, back in my youth I never asked myself why we built these tall, expensive, monumental structures. An economist will explain that in dense urban environments, where land is in great demand and therefore expensive, building high makes economic sense. Certainly this is true. But I doubt the pharaohs were thinking of economics when they built the great pyramids in Egypt, or that cost was on the mind of the designers of the Chrysler Building, or that economic investment was the real impulse behind the building of Burj Khalifa (Burj Dubai). No, the real reason these iconic structures were built, along with the tens of thousands of other "great" buildings erected by man, was not for economics or any other practical reason, the reason was, is, and will always be: wonder.

Ask yourself how you react when you see a tall building, or long bridge, or high dam. Do you find yourself staring at these creations of man? At our achievements in engineering? We build higher and higher, span greater distances, dam massive rivers, tunnel under water and through mountains. Man has built countless churches, cathedrals, and mosques to the glory of God. But maybe, also, for the glory of himself. Is it a masculine impulse? Perhaps. Are our great buildings absolutely necessary? Perhaps not. But like anything else, great achievements arise from great ambition. And who wants to live in a world where our imaginations don't reach toward the sky?


The super-tall Burj Khalifa
In 2009, the Burj Khalifa was "topped out" in Dubai at over 2,700 feet in height. It is the tallest structure of any kind built by man. Twenty years ago, when I stared at the modest high rises of Baltimore, I would have been blown away by this building. Now, with super-tall buildings rising all over the world, I'm deeply impressed but ponder how long it will be before another structure is built even higher. In 1990, the tallest building in the world was the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) in Chicago at 1,451 feet. There were only 10 buildings in the world over 1,000 feet tall, which included the two destroyed World Trade Center towers. All but one in the United States. Now there are 58 such buildings with another 42 under construction, most of them in Asia. A sign of a changing world? Spreading prosperity? Or a really successful American export?

As readers of past posts are aware, I like lists, and I thought it would be interesting to go back in time recounting the world's tallest structures (free-standing) from today back through antiquity:

CN Tower dominating the Toronto skyline
  • Burj Khalifa (2007-Present) - 2,717 ft, Dubai, building
  • CN Tower (1975-2007) - 1,815 ft, Toronto, communications tower
  • Ostankino Tower (1967-1975), 1,762 ft, Moscow, communications tower

The always majestic Empire State Building
The "temporary" Eiffel Tower

Prior to the Washington Monument, the highest structure ever built was the Lincoln Cathedral in Lincoln, England. Its central tower rose to an astonishing 525 ft (approximately) way back in 1311! I salute the brave forgotten men who labored to put the heavy top piece on that spire. Unfortunately, the central tower of the cathedral was blown down in 1549. For nearly 4,000 years before the Lincoln Cathedral the Great Pyramid of Giza was the highest structure at 480 ft. A longevity record that will not be surpassed.

The tallest structure for the longest time

GRES-2 Chimney in Kazakhstan, the tallest in the world

There are other types of tall free-standing structures that sometimes go unnoticed. For instance, there are fifty chimneys across the world taller than 1,000 feet. The tallest bridge pillar in Millau, France is over 1,100 feet, and there are several dams that are nearly 1,000 feet high!

Millau viaduct spanning high across the valley below

Even less noticed are non-free-standing structures like radio towers. There are hundreds of guyed radio masts over 1,500 feet tall in the United States alone. And you may not realize it, but offshore oil drilling platforms can be extremely tall (as measured from the sea floor). The world's tallest, located in the Gulf of Mexico, is over 2,000 feet from base to top.


How long will it be before a man made structure passes 3,000 feet tall? When will we gaze at a tower a mile high? If human history is any guide, higher still is what we can predict for the future.


  1. Conroy,

    Tall buildings inspire wonder. I agree with you on that. But is wonder itself — whether of curiosity, admiration, or doubt — the reason we strive to construct our buildings ever higher up into the heavens? I doubt it. I think the primary reason is more basic than that. It's the same reason that men keep striving to run faster, lift heavier weights, and amass greater stores of wealth. Perhaps Orson Welles put it best when he said, "we made civilization to impress our girlfriends."

  2. The Man,

    Yes, you're absolutely right. In all activities of men (and I mean the gender), there is an ever present male attitude. Call it sublimated sexual energy, or what I like to term, much more basically, the "Look how big my c**k is!" competition.

    This, certainly, is one thing that separates men from women.

  3. Does wind affect the structural integrity of tall buildings?