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The race to the sky

30 October 2012 No Comment

The fascination with creating new contenders for the ‘tallest building on earth’ accolade is showing no signs of diminishing. The world over architects, developers and politicians with lofty aspirations are continuing to create skyscrapers that are a little bit taller than the one before. But does bigger always mean better? And why does size still matter?

Perhaps the high ambitions of architects can be explained in more primal terms. Men have always been obsessed with size.

Whether you look at their creations with awe and amazement, or can’t help but question if they’re somewhat crude and imposing, it’s no wonder that they continue to be high on the agenda in the world of architecture. Here are three buildings that are certainly not lacking in the height department.

London’s Shard


Image source via bdphotography113BDonoghuePhotography

Opened to the public on 5th July 2012, The Shard is the tallest building in Western Europe. Its crystalline façade entirely transforms the capital’s skyline and is guaranteed to bring the world’s attention to London Bridge Quarter.

The multi-purpose tower houses office space, leading restaurants, an exclusive 5-star hotel, residential apartments and London’s highest public viewing gallery, offering 360 degree views.


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Italian architect Renzo Piano designed The Shard back in 2000. That year, the London based businessman Irvine Sellar decided to redevelop a 1970s office block next to London Bridge Station. He arranged to meet Piano for lunch to discuss his ideas and claims that the architect spoke of his contempt for tall buildings during the meal, but then turned over the restaurant’s menu and drew an iceberg-like sculpture emerging from the Thames.


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The Shard’s development plans came under scrutiny in 2002 by local authorities and heritage bodies. The then-Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott ordered an inquiry but on the 19th November 2003, the government issued a statement saying,

‘Mr Prescott would only approve skyscrapers of exceptional design. For a building of this size to be acceptable, the quality of its design is critical. He is satisfied that the proposed tower is of the highest architectural quality.’


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Image source via SELondoner

The View from The Shard has become one of the capital’s most sought-after tourist attractions, and as it offers views that extend for an amazing 40 miles, it’s easy to understand why.

Tokyo’s Sky Tree


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The Tokyo Sky Tree is the tallest tower in the world and the second largest structure, beaten only by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. The design was published on 24th November 2006 and was based on a fusion of futuristic design and the traditional beauty of Japan, as well as being a contribution to disaster prevention.


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It is used as a radio and television broadcast centre. Its unprecedented height allows for crystal clear broadcasting signals.


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Officially opened on 22nd May 2012, Tokyo Sky Tower hit headlines when 8000 people who had reserved first-day passes climbed to the two observation decks. It wasn’t all plain sailing though, as the cloudy weather meant visibility was limited and at one point, strong winds forced elevators to be shut down, leaving some visitors briefly stranded out on the decks.


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Due to the risk of earthquakes in Tokyo, the Sky Tower has seismic proofing which can absorb 50% of the energy from a disaster. It’s an impressive structure which can reach such dizzy heights whilst also taking into account the potential volatility of its landscape.

New York City’s Freedom Tower

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As you might imagine, New York City is not a place which will be willingly outdone when it comes to erecting skyscrapers. Officially named One World Trade Center but dubbed widely as Freedom Tower, it symbolises the rebuild of Ground Zero.


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Understandably, the construction has been fraught with emotion and one construction worker commented on the height of the building,

“It’s a beautiful thing that we’re up there, but it’s a horrible reason to have to put it up”.

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Freedom Tower stands slightly taller than its predecessor and steals the title of tallest building in the US from Willis Tower in Chicago. The building, which is still under construction, will have 69 floors of office space, restaurants, television broadcasting facilities and an observation deck.


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Did you know…? It officially became the tallest US building a day before the one year anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s death.

So does bigger always mean better?

Interestingly, the race for creating a building taller than the previous one cannot be attributed to greed on the behalf of developers. Skyscrapers simply aren’t a convincing business proposition once they reach over 50 storeys, as so much potential office space is taken up by elevator shafts and steel reinforcements.

Even since the days of the builders of Babel, the masterhood of the Egyptians, the rival merchant families of San Gimignano; the Manhattan of the Middle Ages where 72 competing skyscrapers sprung up before the Florentines swooped in and put a stop to the frenzy. The preoccupation with building size continues to this day, with builders in cities around the world in ongoing competition to erect the world’s tallest building.

Author: Caroline Gough   Date written: 30 October 2012

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