Hanging steel from the sky

The race to build the tallest says much about the values of society. Should building tall be a source of pride?

The Burj Dubai is expected to reach 818m. (Getty Images)
The Burj Dubai is expected to reach 818m. (Getty Images)

The race to build the tallest says much about the values of modern society. If height equals power, and power equals domination, should building tall really be a source of pride? Jamie Stewart asks how it all began, and where it will all end.

In 1910 Frank Woolworth commissioned the Woolworth Building, the new headquarters of the Woolworth Company, and the soon-to-be tallest building in the world.

The tower was raised on Broadway, New York City, where it dominated the skyline for decades. Opened in 1913, it stood at a height of 241m, and remained the tallest building in the world for 27 years.

Spectacular architectural projects certainly contribute to global exposure. They put cities on the map. - Monica Degen, lecturer, Brunel University, London

The title was finally handed over in 1930, following the culmination of a fascinating race for the skies between the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building, sponsored by developer George Ohrstrom, and the Chrysler Building, sponsored by motoring boss Walter Chrysler, both within Manhattan, New York City.

Construction began on both buildings in the late 1920s, each man vying with the other to fulfill his wish of building the tallest structure on Earth. As the decade drew to a close and both buildings neared completion, it was assumed that Ohstrom was to take the title, as the Bank building overtook the Chrysler and topped out at 283m.

The triumph, however, was short-lived. Chrysler surprised Ohstrom, and the world, by pulling a gigantic rabbit from his hat. Engineers had deviously constructed the 56m spire of the tower, in four sections, within the frame of the building. In October 1929, the sections of the spire were hoisted up through the trunk and secured in place within 90 minutes, capping the 319m structure.

The world had a new tallest building, Ohstrom had the dubious honour of going down in history as the man who was successfully snuck-up on by a 56m long piece of stainless steel, and Chrysler had his wish.

Power and prestige

To be able to claim ownership of the world's tallest building has long been a position of great prestige, not just for powerful and wealthy individuals, but for cities and societies the world over.

So if our aim as a race is to scrape the sky, just how high can the sky be pushed? Has recent history and the fractious nature of competition dented the idea that bigger is better? And most importantly, why do we harbour this will to build tall?

The race in New York in the 1920s offered a window into human nature and the competitive spirit that manifests itself in the pursuit of prosperity, and is most symbolic in the construction industry.

The race to build tall is no less a contest today as it was 100 years ago, only today, the scale has evolved with considerable momentum. The Burj Dubai nears the 700m mark, and is expected to stand around 818m when it opens in December 2009.

The height of the Burj Dubai is testament to the fact that previously, height limits on mega-tall towers were imposed through technological or economic limitations. Not because it could not be done, but because we had not yet found a way to make it viable.

The 391m Empire State Building was completed in 1931, while the Taipei 101, at 509m, was completed in 2003. Both have held the tallest building title. The rise in height was just 118m in 72 years. The Burj Dubai will claim the title by over 300 metres - half the height again of the second-place Taipei 101.

Beyond this, the planned Burj Mubarak Al-Kabir in Kuwait's City of Silk is set to reach 1001m. Dubai developer Nakheel, have long been linked with the Al Burj, a monster 1.4km tower. Though drawings have been released, no official announcement has been made - yet.

But to top them all, Saudi Arabian multi-billionaire Prince Al Walid bin Talal recently unveiled plans at the Savoy Hotel in London for a 1.6km tower, to be built in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah. Within 10 years, the construction industry's super exclusive mile-high club may finally be open for membership.

Tall targets

Over the past decade, the race to build tall has shifted emphatically from West to East. The completion of the Petronas Towers in 1996 marked the first time the tallest tower title had been held outside the US for over a century.

The situation that we see before us today, particularly from an eastern perspective, is far removed from the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when developers checked their step as societies were forced to reflect upon the symbolism of building tall.

The fact that mega-tall buildings were selected as targets, as opposed to other populated structures such as shopping malls or transport hubs, is telling.

Monica Degen, lecturer in Cultural Sociology at Brunel University, London, has conducted extensive research on the relationship between the material environment and human experience.

In the feminist literature skyscrapers equal phallic power. - Monica Degen

"Skyscrapers are a visible expression of global capital," Degen explains. "Contemporary cities are involved in an international competition to attract tourism, financial investment and so on. Spectacular architectural projects certainly contribute to global exposure. They put cities on the map."

Along with security concerns, there have been voices of dissent from an environmental and aesthetic angle. In some parts of the world, such as Europe, the majority do not believe there is a need for high buildings.

"Europe has always had a more negative attitude to skyscrapers," says Degen. "There are far more planning restrictions than in the US or the Middle East and people are certainly less happy to live in skyscrapers."

Feminist writers have even expressed the opinion that the race to build higher is nothing more than a good old fashioned, ego-centric, testosterone fuelled quest.

"In the feminist literature skyscrapers equal phallic power," Degen explains. "The competition to build the tallest is certainly something about expressing power, and it is certainly interesting that the construction and architecture industry is male-dominated. So maybe the feminists have a point."

The 9/11 effect

It would appear that despite the reservations of many, the will to express power is beginning to overshadow the post 9/11 effect. Societies appear to have moved on. Emphatically in the east, and tentatively in the west.

In Chicago, Donald Trump scaled back plans for a huge tower in the immediate 9/11 aftermath. When plans were announced thereafter for the Chicago Spire, a 609-metre residential tower in the vicinity of Trump's scaled-back building, Trump said:

"In this climate, I would not want to build that building. Nor would I want to live in that building. Any bank that would put up money to build a building like that would be insane."

In June 2007, however, work begun on the Chicago Spire, which is set for completion in 2012. When complete, it will be the tallest building in North America, higher even than New York's Freedom Tower, currently under construction on the ground zero site.

Burt Hill architect Amy Lewis is a newcomer to the Dubai scene, having arrived at the start of July. Lewis has professional bachelors in architectural theory from Cornell University, New York, and has worked on projects in the US, Slovakia, Italy, Germany and the UAE.

Lewis, originally from New York City, sees construction of the Freedom Tower as a message to the world. "It's really important to New Yorkers to get the height back in their city, and get the skyline back in the public consciousness."

In June 2006, construction workers protested against the lack of progress on the tower, as several insurance companies withheld payments that were to fund building of the tower. A clear indication of the will of the people to reconstruct.

"To an extent, The Freedom Tower is a message to the world that the people have recovered and are ready to renew their city and their country," says Lewis. "This goes hand in hand with our ideologies about tall buildings."

Leap of faith

Building the biggest and the tallest is linked inherently to an expression of power. The 1920s race between Ohstrom and Chrysler was indicative of each man's will to be held, quite literally, in the highest regard among his peers.

Around the time of the Ohstrom and Chrysler race, existentialist theory was gaining momentum in Europe, having grown out of the ashes of World War 1. Man refused to accept that any god could have orchestrated the horrors of trench warfare that were witnessed on an unprecedented scale. Existentialism instead put credence in the ability of individuals to create meaning within their lives, and riled against the most vital of religious doctrines - the existence of a higher being.

It can be argued that Ohstrom and Chrysler's aggressive race for the skies in pursuit of power and prestige places them among the first practitioners of an existentialist ideology outside of Europe.

Each man fought to reach for the heavens free from the prerequisite of faith, and to construct his own reputation from within the dust and grime of 1920's New York City.

If humankind is therefore singularly responsible for the expression of power that is building tall, and cultures continually vie to build the tallest, this says much about the cultural relationship between societies.

The race for height and power indicates a fractious nature, far from the idea of cultural integration expressed through trade, travel and globalisation.

This race can hold up a mirror to other, less attractive manifestations of competition between nations and cultures. The nuclear arms race for example, or xenophobic national pride. Competition between cultures can be healthy in many respects, but the outcomes, as seen throughout history, can occasionally be devastating.

Any bank that would put up money to build a building like that would be insane. - Donald Trump

"The irony - that it was people from the Middle East who destroyed America's tall symbol, yet it is in the Middle East that even taller buildings are being constructed - is not lost on many Americans," Amy Lewis says. "I think that is something that many Americans have picked up on."

Despite the reservations of many, we continue to build taller than before. The fact that it takes millions of dollars, and years of planning, design, and construction, is no barrier. As Abraham Lincoln said, "you have to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was."

But still we will continue, no matter what hurdles history places within our path, because it is our very nature. We release ourselves from the debilitating constraints of times gone by, of world wars and acts of extreme terrorism. We raise steel and concrete to paper over a fractured past, and construct bright new futures for ourselves.

No limits?

If we accept that we will keep going higher, then just how high can we go? Adrian Smith is the architect who designed the Burj Dubai while design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. He has been a practicing architect for more than 40 years. Currently based in Chicago heading Adrian Smith & Gordon Gill Architecture, he has made his name designing buildings that reflect the culture and society they are in.

According to Smith, there are few barriers that cannot be overcome. "Building materials over time have advanced sufficiently that building structure could go to great heights," he says.

"However, factors such as wind velocity at high levels affect how much you can build and slow down construction times," Smith adds. "Time of construction at high levels is a critical factor in the cost of a structure and therefore its economic viability."

There are further limitations to consider, as Smith points out. "Elevatoring is a current constraint. The tallest we can go in one run is about 575 meters in a shuttle system. Transferring once gives a practical limit of double that. Two transfers could allow the building to go higher but most people will not like to transfer twice."

So if we were to put aside our dislike of transferring twice in one upwards journey, would this open the elevator doors to the mile-high club and beyond? Possibly not. Other factors must be considered.

"The other practical constraint is not the height of the structure but the size of the building in floor area," Smith says. "The taller a building goes, the wider its base must be and the more area it will contain. There are practical limits to how much floor space can be put on the market in one building."

Because a super-tall structure creates a substantial amount of additional space, the developer runs the risk of over-estimating demand. If the owner fails to fill all the available space, then rental prices will be pushed down, and the return will be considerably less in relation to the cost of construction.

Economically, the developer must strike a fine line between building tall, and building too tall, accounting for market conditions and the existing built environment in relation to the planned location, and other projects in the vicinity either planned or underway.

But on the reverse side, there are also striking financial reasons in favour of building tall in relation to footprint size. Developers will pay for a particular plot of land to accommodate their building.

The more stories a building has, the more rentable space is created from the footprint. Therefore, should all the available space be occupied, the higher return the owner can expect.

Over the next few decades and beyond, we will surely see the title of the world's tallest building change hands on numerous occasions. As height becomes economically viable, and costs can be balanced against the prestige that building the tallest brings, the skies above our cities will be pushed further and further from the ground.

Oil revenues will continue to line the pockets of some Middle Eastern countries for some time to come, allowing further investment in infrastructure, in preparation for a future without oil.

Whether eastern or western in origin, there are many things we have in common. In terms of investing in the future and expressing power, man has come to the conclusion that the strongest message he can send to the rest of the world, is construction of a steel and concrete sky.

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