Sometimes, size does matter


A few weeks ago One World Trade Center (OWTC) officially surpassed the Empire State Building in height. It was a landmark moment that represented the first time since 9/11/2001 that downtown Manhattan has featured a building taller than the venerable icon. But somehow it seems less impressive this time around. Sure, the building has another hundred feet or so to go until it reaches its full roof height of 1,368’ (a height chosen to equal the tower that preceded it). Then workers will install a glorified 408-foot antenna (originally intended as an ornamental spire) that will take its official height to a symbolic 1,776 feet.

Actually, that’s misleading. According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the official height of the building is being reconsidered in light of this design change. If the antenna isn’t counted in its overall height, OWTC will not even be the tallest building in America. That honor will stay with Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) that at 1,450’ is nearly 100’ taller than the final roof height of OWTC.

This means that America, is now playing catch-up. No, strike that. “Catch-up” implies that we’re still trying. When it comes to constructing the world’s tallest buildings that’s no longer true. In fact, we haven’t really tried since the bold 1974 erection of the Sears Tower; a building that held the world’s tallest title until 1998 when it was surpassed by the 1,483’ Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

A perusal of global skyscrapers tells the story. The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (formerly the Burj Dubai) in Dubai, UAE stands a mesmerizing 2,716.5’ feet above street level. To equal the colossal Burj Khalifa, you’d still need to add another 940’!

Some argue that super tall buildings aren’t really practical, that it’s hard to fill the rental space and so forth. They also talk about the myriad red tape that comes along with tackling outsized projects that literally reach for the heavens. But that argument is ridiculous on its face. Building tall has always been about symbolism, inspiration, and daring. It puts a nation at the forefront as a land to be emulated and revered.

The benefits of constructing the tallest building cannot be measured in mere dollars and cents. It’s always been about national pride; a willingness to take chances; the daring to say, “the status-quo has never been good enough for our country – and it never will be!” Since it was America who invented the skyscraper in the first place, playing the part of “also ran” is rather unsettling. But a lot of things are unsettling in America these days.

When OWTC is completed in 2013 it will take its place beside other tall buildings in the world. But it is there that it will blend in mid-pack, not stand out like it did in 1971.

What does this really mean in the grand scheme of things? I can only offer my personal view.

When I was ten-years-old, the Empire State Building was still the world’s tallest. I would ask my dad, “How tall is it? Does your nose really bleed up there? What’s the view like from the top? How much taller is it than the next tallest? Do any other countries even come close?” “America has the biggest and the best,” he’d say with a prideful smile befitting a World War II veteran and member of our nation’s “greatest generation.” If dad were still alive, I wonder what he’d say today?

-Jeff Bahr

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