Man has tried for centuries to conquer one of natures most daunting challenges. Gravity. The Egyptians built the pyramids as a slave labored reminder of their pharaoh’s power. The Roman’s built their coliseums as a place for people to be entertained. Churches have been built for centuries with tall steeples and high roofs as a means to point to God. But only recently have we been able to exponentially increase the height of the structures that we build.
Starting with the industrial revolution, egos have toyed with the idea of building the tallest building in the world. Arguments will be made as to which tower actually began to scrape the sky first, but around the turn of the twentieth century plans began to be made to build higher and higher. Finally topping out at the beginning of the Great Depression was the Empire State Building that is a marvel of human ingenuity and stubbornness. But this office building and landmark was only a precursor to what it would mean to try and build the tallest on the planet.
Fast forward to the Burj Khalifa. This monstrous tower represents the riches of oil kings in a land plagued with scorching heat and mighty dreams. It is only the latest building to be dubbed the tallest, but can speak for its predecessors when it asks “at what cost?”
I will admit to falling into the blind trap of ooing and ahing at New York City’s impressive skyline. But there is a story behind each and everyone of those buildings. Sometimes office towers are built on grand hopes that they will bring corporate executives more money, and sometimes huge apartment buildings are built in place of quaint townhouses which displaces families and friends.
There is always a cost of building a structure, and that cost is amplified even more when you’re trying to build the “world’s tallest” structure. The set backs and failures of many towers have been devastating to not only real estate tycoons, but also cities and countries. So how do we reconcile these two counter intuitive extremes? Our humanly desires to keep building to the stars, and the reality of construction and the pain of financing it.
There have been some new proposals and even new constructions of buildings that emphasize their sustainability. Architects and construction firms are starting to understand the importance of building for longevity instead of thinking about short term possible tourism. New York City has seen a building boom in recent years and some have taken the “appeal to the rich” approach, and some have taken the “build to sustain” approach.
As new economies and new cities vie for attention by building bigger and better buildings, we have to take a step back and ask if it is worth it. Is it worth the financial burden of constructing such a huge steel structure? Will all of the floors remain occupied and will it bring enough revenue to make up the building costs? And does it enhance the earth or does it shove a metal rod in the sand hoping to be seen by all?
Man will continue to climb towards the clouds as architects and builders dream even bigger than the Burj Khalifa. But, when we look at the pyramids that are still here to stare at in awe, and understand that they were constructed with great human cost, we have to, then, be aware of how the structures we build today will be looked at in hundreds of years. Or will they even be around for someone to crane their neck to see the building’s edges reaching up to scrape the sky.