When it comes to the design and construction of buildings, there is no such thing as architectural modesty: bigger is undoubtedly better. Ever taller, ever grander structures have long been the ultimate symbol of prestige, power and national/imperial virility for the groups capable of creating them. Today, the drive to build big has become almost synonymous with the rising powers of the oil-rich Persian Gulf and China, but this phenomenon in fact has roots extending back millennia.
Since ancient times, as the stories of the Tower of Babel and the doomed flight of Icarus show us, man has ever been infatuated with the dream of reaching up into the skies, and naturally we have gone to great efforts over the course of history to realise it. The results of these efforts have led to some of man’s greatest accomplishments, such as The Great Pyramid of Giza, , which was so impressive a tour de force that even today, experts and engineers remain puzzled as to how it was actually built. Then there is the Lighthouse of Alexandria, another of the original Wonders of the World, which was badly damaged by earthquakes in 956, 1303, and finally destroyed in 1328. At somewhere between 120-137m in height, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was for four centuries one of the tallest buildings in the ancient world.
But of course, as magnificent as the great efforts of our forebears might be, it is only in the last century and a half that our technological and engineering prowess has evolved to the stage where the construction of truly towering skyscrapers has become possible. The starting gun for the modern-age race to the sky was arguably fired in 1884 with the construction of the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, which thanks to its pioneering structural steel frame reached the then-heady heights of 138 ft over 10 stories – sufficient enough height to first to earn the label ‘skyscraper’. And as the succession of ever taller iconic structures that followed has shown, be it the Empire State Building in New York or Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, the sky has been the limit ever since.
However, the past decade has witnessed the emergence of two new categories of skyscraper that are taller still, known as ‘super-talls’ – structures which according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Habitats rise higher than 300m, and more recently, ‘mega-talls,’ which refers to those exceeding 600m in height. Make no mistake about it, they quite literally leave even the greatest and tallest of their 20th century predecessors in the shade.
Take Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, for example, which at 828m from base to roof is currently the world’s tallest building, and twice the height of the iconic Empire State Building – a 471m high super-tall which was built half a century before the category was first coined. To make up the top-three at the time of writing, there are then the Shanghai Tower in China and New York’s One World Trade Center at 632m and 541m respectively, and an array of around 50 other super-talls which have sprung up on the skylines of the world’s leading cities.
It is telling that over the 70 years prior to the turn of the millennium, the record for the world’s tallest building changed by only 230ft, and since this time it has risen by over 1,200ft. What’s more, over the decade to come, even taller towers will soon grace the skies. Less than a decade after it was built, the Burj Khalifa is set to lose its crown to Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower, which at 1,008m tall will surpass both Dubai’s crown jewel and the one kilometre barrier in height. By 2020, Jeddah Tower will be the tallest of seven mega-tall skyscrapers, and hundreds of super-talls that are currently in the process of being built or in in their final planning stages.
It is difficult to imagine the race to the skies slowing anytime soon – only money and ambition stands as an obstacle to the first 1,500m tall building, and then the magical mile-high barrier after that.