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The New Race for the Skies - and World Status
On March 6, 1973, at 2:35 p.m., the World Trade Center towers were surpassed when a steel column reached just beyond 1,368 feet above the sidewalks of the Windy City. By 1974, when it was completed, Chicago's Willis (Sears) Tower climbed 86 feet above the taller of the two twin towers. Although still in America, this westward movement of the honor was to continue, and take the honor much farther west twenty-two years later, all the way to an unlikely claimant in Asia most Americans had never heard of: Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia.

In 1996, each of two new towers rose 29 feet higher than the Willis Tower, with the help of 213-foot high spires added as an after-thought by American architects eager to make a name for themselves. In truth, the Willis and the World Trade Center towers remained seemingly taller as they were more massive, and actually had thousands of square feet of floor space at heights where the Petronas have only a needle-thin spire. (By official standards set by the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, spires -though not antennas- count towards a building's official height.) Then, in 2004, a new record was set in Taipei by the very odd-looking Taipei 101, at 1,667 feet (including a 197-foot spire), making it the world's tallest building. Strangely, for all the expense and effort, the design of this new building does not emphasize it's height, giving instead more the appearance of an over-sized pagoda.

Meanwhile, in the years since 1970, New York City's share of the world's fifty tallest buildings has fallen to a mere four buildings as of 2014, or 8% (as compared to 70% three decades earlier), and (not counting the 1 WTC's antenna) it has none in the top ten. Of course, the catastrophic events of September 2001, in addition to the terrible human toll, left their painful mark on the New York skyline. But even if the World Trade Center towers had not been destroyed, the fact is New York City ceased building to new heights until 2014. With the exception of the World Trade Center itself and its replacement, New York City has not yet built above its 1930's skyline. However, New York has in more recent years re-engaged in new supertall skyscraper construction, unlike most American cities that have had their skylines mostly frozen since the 1980's building boom. In 2015, New York will see its its skyline push higher than before for the first time since 1972, when the 432 Park Avenue building completes floor space above 1,368 feet.

As of 2008, New York City still was, in terms of overall structural size, the largest city ever built by man. Its one-thousand-plus square miles of concrete metropolis boasted 189 buildings that are at or above 500 feet in height. Chicago was a distant second with a still impressive eighty-seven. Hong Kong was third with seventy-eight. Houston, America's third tallest city, had thirty. But, when looking at the trends which have only been accelerating over the last two decades, we can see that New York City's days as the world's preeminent city are numbered. Of those 189 New York buildings, thirty-seven were built since 1990, twenty-two of those since 2000. That certainly is an impressive number, equal to building a whole new Dallas skyline every ten years. But, looking at the building pace of its rivals, we can easily see who are the contestants seeking to reign as the greatest city of the mid-twenty-first century: Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Dubai. In 2011, of Hong Kong's seventy-eight buildings above 500 feet, all but nine were built since 1990, and thirty-six just since 2000! Arab and Chinese cities, like Dubai, Shanghai, and Guanzhou have already zoomed past New York. Yet, one of these places had any skyscrapers as recently as 1990.

Even the completion in New York of the much celebrated 104-story One World Trade Center (WTC 1), while restoring some of the visual grandeur and status of the city, will not restore any titles to it. It's completion time was repeatedly pushed back for years, so that by the time it was completed in 2014 it broke no records under any measure. As it is, even the official height of the WTC1 has been put into question.

The original Freedom Tower design concepts were beautiful, but contained no floors above 1,000 feet out of fear of what might happen, which was a sad testament to that fear - however justified. One cannot help but notice that the Chinese and the Arabs did not appear similarly afraid. However, financial pressures and lack of ground space pushed the planned floor space back up above 1,000 feet, to about the height of the original World Trade Center towers (1,368 feet). As the years, and the fear, passed, the previously dubbed Freedom Tower was planned to reach a patriotic height of 1,776 feet in honor of America's official year of independence. However, the 408-foot radome spire that was to enclose its antenna and reach to 1,776 feet was not erected due to cost considerations, leaving the WTC 1 at 1,368 feet tall by the usual standards that do not include antennas as part of the official height of a building. The issue caused a controversy to the extent the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), which is widely seen as setting the standards on official building heights, was asked to specifically rule on the issue. The CTBUH eventually ruled in favor of the WTC 1 owners after they presented their case in an usual session with the CTBUH. A ruling by the CTBUH that did not certify the building to be 1,776 feet tall would have been a highly symbolic embarrasment to the owners, New York, and the United States. The CTBUH stated, "We were very satisfied with the detailed information presented by the team, in particular, that which affirmed that the structure on top of the building is meant as a permanent architectural feature, not a piece of functional-technical equipment." (Note that the Ultrapolis Project, which ranks cities with the tallest skylines in the world, sees the decision as either political or sentimental, but in either case not in keeping with the reality that the exposed antenna was clearly never an intended architectural feature. In addition, the Ultrapolis Project's position is that if the intent to keep the antenna permanently makes it an architectural feature, then many antennas could easily qualify overnight. Therefore, in its rankings, the Project does not count the antenna height of the WTC 1.)

In any case, even if the antenna was counted, by the time it was completed, there were already two taller buildings rising out of the sands of Arabia. In Dubai, of the United Arab Emirates, a 160-story, 2,717-foot high mega-skyscraper called the Khalifa Tower (Burj) was completed in 2010, by far the world's tallest building yet. In Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the Abraj Al-Bait Clock Tower rose 2,073 feet by 2012.
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The Inescapable Future
One can easily imagine most typical adult Londoners at the turn of the last century, living in the great heart of the British Empire, going about their daily business, unaware of the great changes that would engulf their children in their adult lives;changes that would wrest from their shoulders the mantle of world power and leadership, and place it in the hands of others far west across the ocean. Fortunately for them, those hands were friendly and kindred. It is difficult to imagine, let alone comprehend, a world other than the one we know. But, whether we comprehend or not, the forces of human history will not stop.

Everything we do, every choice we make, says something about who and what we are; it says something about what we value. Just as the new records being set regularly in New York City in the early decades of the twentieth century signaled not only the rise of the world's greatest city, but also the world's greatest power, the United States of America, so too, it is telling where the new records are being set today. We can ignore these developments, or be impressed by them. But, we cannot escape the consequence of their meaning.
From 1931 to 1973, just about any person could, for a few moments, stand high atop the concrete pinnnacle of human architectural achievement, look out over history's greatest city, and be at the indisputable center of the world. No one place will again loom as dominant in our lifetimes.
This article was originally published in an earlier form in September of 1996, updated and republished online in its present form in 2004, updated in 2008, in 2012, and 2015.
Building the Excelsior City: The Rise and Fall of the American Skyscraper -
The Ultrapolis Project, 2004- 2015 - All Rights Reserved.