A daily bulletin of news & opinion

11 January 2012

You know what they say about men who drive big cars. Well the same can be said for cities that build tall buildings. Whether it’s the size of your member or the size of your economy, status anxiety is relieved with large things that force the rest of the street or world to look your way. And we’re all trying to outdo each other.

Tall building wars aren’t an effective method of soft power – unless you count postcard sales of urban skylines as a good way of selling your city. No, it’s more of a playground two-fingered gesture to the rest of the world that says, “look at us, we can go higher than you”.

They are built by countries and cities that feel self-conscious, often funded by people or companies that want to show off. It’s always been this way. Before the industrial revolution, tall buildings were churches, taller than any other structure in a city, not just so everyone could see them for miles around but because, so the story goes, that the taller the church tower, the closer you were to Heaven

Churches in the Middle Ages hovered around the 150m mark. In 1889 the Eiffel Tower, at 300m, raised the bar somewhat. Then came the Chrysler Building in 1930 (319m) and the Empire State Building in 1931 – 381m, which ruled the skies until 1967 when the Ostankino Tower in Moscow shot up – all 537m of it. It’s not hard to spot the politics at play there.

Today the playground has grown. The tallest buildings are being thrown up in China and the United Arab Emirates. And there’s one other important difference too. Compared to the Eiffel Tower or the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building – they are all ugly.

There’s nothing graceful or poetic about the Burj Khalifa – currently the world’s tallest building, which stands at 828m in Dubai. There’s certainly nothing pretty about Jeddah’s Kingdom Tower, which will be over 1000 metres high when it completes in 2018. Even London’s Shard, which opens this year – though a baby at 310 metres – is really rather gross.

These superscrapers are shimmering steel and concrete edifices that should really be in the shape of the local currency symbol. Yes, they bring jobs, high density homes and hotel rooms. Yes, they are feats of engineering and spectacular symbols of human achievement. They might make a lot of people say wow.

But, models of good urban planning or dwelling they are not. They are giant. They make people feel small, dwarfed and perhaps a little uncomfortable. It’s what they represent rather than what they are that counts.

That the world needs another giant erection is nothing but a fallacy.


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