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whatsthatsound On April - 4 - 2011



“That particular sense of sacred rapture men say they experience in contemplating nature- I’ve never received it from nature, only from. Buildings, Skyscrapers. I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline.”
– Ayn Rand

For all the disruption the largest earthquake to hit Japan in 300 years caused, the one thing it didn’t bring to a halt was the erection, to full height, of “Sky Tree“, Tokyo’s replacement for the now-too-short Tokyo Tower broadcasting tower (in the Roppongi district, which has recently been built up with skyscrapers that nearly reach its height, blocking its transmission capabilities). Yes, construction workers were way, WAAAY up there in the sky when the quake hit. I bet they felt it. But that didn’t stop them from going back up, day after aftershock smitten day (some of which felt nearly as frightening as the first – and that’s at ground level!) during the following week, to bring the sleek behemoth up to 634 meters (that’s 2080 feet for those of you who don’t want to bother with the metric system), and bragging rights as the Second Tallest Thing Ever Built by Man. That particular number is significant, as 6,3,4 can be read as Mu-sa-shi, which was the name of the largest castle town in the region before Edo transformed into Tokyo, the nation’s capital, and eventually incorporated its neighboring towns.

Sky Tree probably won’t hold that #2 distinction for very long, however. It only beat out Canton Tower by 34 meters, and taking into account China’s nonstop building boom, it likely won’t be very long before they slap up a tower, or even a building, even taller. #2’s kinda boring anyway, right? What it never even had a chance of becoming was the Tallest Thing Ever Built by Man (or TTEBBM), which, as many know, is The Mother of All Skyscrapers, the “Building of the Century”, the one and only Burj Khalifa (during its planning and building it was known as Burj Dubai), which rises a staggering half-mile into the sky (828m,2717 ft). Now, height is a relative thing. After all, if it were a natural feature of the geography, people would debate whether it should be called “Mt. Khalifa” or just “Burj Hill”. Nevertheless, what makes B.K. so impressive is not just how tall it is, but how much taller it is than the previous holder of the record for world’s tallest building, the supertall (a term used for skyscrapers above 300m) Taipei 101, which rises to a comparatively pip-squeaky 449m (roof height; with its antenna it clears 500m). In other words, the Big B.K. nearly doubled the height of its rival.

When was the last time that happened? That would be 1889, March 31st, to be exact. That is the inaugural date of The Eiffel Tower, the main attraction of the Paris World’s Fair of the same year. Amazingly, the 324m (1063 ft) architectural/engineering triumph was slated to stand for only twenty years. Yes, what is still today one of the best known (and often imitated; the original Tokyo Tower was designed to be a near match) structures in the world was intended to be only a temporary feature of the Paris cityscape.

The structure that the Eiffel Tower nearly doubled in height to claim the title of TTEBBM from was The Washington Monument (169m, 555 ft). Construction delays (caused by, among others, The Civil War) supplied yet another humbling experience for the Monument. Not only did it barely come up to the kneecaps of its Parisian rival, it finally reached its completion on October 9th, 1888, meaning that it only held TTEBBM bragging rights for just shy of half a year! Sacrebleu! Freedom Fries, anyone?

Interestingly, there are two other cases in modern history of a TTEBBM quickly being bested by a rival before the paint barely had time to dry. The Chrysler Building (319m, 1047 ft) took over the title from the Eiffel Tower (which was less tall at the time; it has since been topped by an antenna), and then handed it to Midtown neighbor, The Empire State Building (443m with antenna, 1454 ft ), a mere year and seven days later. The Chrysler Building can, however, cling to another distinction. This was the first time in recorded history when the height of the structure was due to function, not display. Unlike a monolith or a cathedral spire, there were actual offices going nearly to the top, where people could work, stare out windows, get nosebleeds, etc. This trend has repeated up until the present day, where the TTEBBM has been either an office building or a broadcasting tower.

The Eiffel Tower had stood proudly as TTEBBM for just over forty years. The Empire State Building would do so for almost exactly the same amount of time. But such would not be the fate of the building(s) that surpassed it. The ill-fated World Trade Center ( 526m, 1727 ft with antenna on WTC 1) snagged the title in ’71, and was summarily bested by The Sears Tower (now known as Willis Tower ) in Chicago, less than two years later. The 527 meter (1730 ft, antenna height) new champion retained bragging rights from ’73 until ’98 (until which time all five of the world’s tallest buildings were located in New York and Chicago), when the Asian Building Boom started getting into full swing. Up rose the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur (which never really passed the Willis Tower, but got by by on a weird structural technicality – its antennas were actually included in its spires), and then the Taipei 101, which brings us up to date. Nowadays, nearly all of the tallest buildings are in China, many in just two cities, Shanghai and Hong Kong. And then there is the Burj Khalifa, in a class all by itself.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the Burj ends up holding its title as long as The Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building did. Oh, I imagine that broadcasting towers may surpass it, but not an actual, inhabitable building, I’m guessing. Certainly not in today’s economic climate. The Burj is, in some respects, a white elephant (even the name change was caused by Dubai needing to borrow money from its neighbors in The UAE) to begin with. Imagine the burden, and folly, of building something even taller!

Inevitably, however, someone will. in 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a building for Chicago, dubbed The Illinois, which would rise to a full mile in the sky, nearly twice the height of The Burj (which bares a striking resemblance to Wright’s drawings of The Illinois). Just as some people have to climb mountains, others, it seems, have to build them.

It is doubtful that any building will ever again hold the title of TTEBBM for more than 4000 years, as did The Great Pyramid of Giza (146m, 480 ft). The Pyramid finally lost the title to the Rouen Cathedral (151m, 495 ft), which was completed in 1880, six hundred and seventy eight years after its cornerstone was laid. The Great Cathedrals of Europe were the architectural wonders that stoked the imaginations of builders everywhere, ultimately leading to the Eiffel Tower, The Chrysler Building, The Burj Khalifa, etc. The Giza Pyramid, however, is certain not to care about the showy upstarts that have one-upped each other, year after year, century after century. It holds its position majestically in the Egyptian desert, timeless, ever mysterious, ever directing our eyes, and spirits, upward.

 

Written by whatsthatsound

Writer, Illustrator, Curmudgeon. Ferret Owner. Tokyoite, formerly Ohioan. Much nicer in person.

41 Responses so far.

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  1. PatsyT says:

    Loved reading this WTS,
    I lived in Chicago a while back and remember those black slabs very well.
    Yes, not much personality but they sure did say, BIG.
    Some folks in the upper floors would complain of feeling seasick on windy days.
    Now when is it NOT windy in Chicago?
    When visiting last year, I noticed they have added a viewing deck to the Sears Tower.
    -sorry some of us will never use that Willis name-
    Beware these photos may make you queasy.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1196967/Dont-look-Terrifying-view-glass-box-balcony-jutting-skyscrapers-103rd-floor.html

  2. Abbyrose86 says:

    Fascinating article. On the whole I like architecture. I love looking at buildings, especially old ones. But I’m concerned about this constant desire to build taller and taller buildings. It bothers me for some reason. Perhaps it’s the false sense of safety about the engineering that accompanies such man made marvels. In so ways it reminds me of the ill fated ‘Titanic’. This concept that bigger, taller, more stately is better and safe…seems to me rather arrogant.

    We have yet to really understand the power of nature. WE are limited in our understanding of nature, as well as the consequences of man made constructs. WE as a species are very arrogant and assume we can overcome whatever nature throws at us…but really that isn’t true.

    These tall buildings bring with them many potential unintended consequences and also power issues. A tall building can block out sunlight to areas surrounding it…a Tall building can be difficult to take down and can cause much damage in it’s wake. A tall building can block air circulation or can trap heat when surrounded by other tall buildings in the area down below.

    There are so many things that bother me about these very tall structures. The events of 9/11 showcased alot of them. Like the inability to get to those trapped on the top floors if something happens below.

    I just don’t like skyscrapers.

    • whatsthatsound says:

      I’m kind of a skyscraper geek. I love walking around Tokyo and gawking at the giant buildings. But I totally understand what you are saying, and largely agree. Like so many things, I have conflicting and unresolved views of them. My theme song, by the way, is “Both Sides Now”. :)

      • Abbyrose86 says:

        WTS, I would love to go to Tokyo…I hear it is quite a city. My brother loved it when he was there.

        I understand exactly what you mean, about conflicting views…it happens to me a lot these days! :)

  3. Haruko Haruhara says:

    I always enjoy your articles, WTS.

    Then there’s the Sky Tower in Auckland

    auckland_by_night.jpg

  4. Chernynkaya says:

    Great read, whts. And as it turned out, my rant against Rand wasn’t that far off-topic. I get it--the need to build and all. But it is just a way for us weenies to feel significant in the wrong way, IMO. One of the things about good architecture is, it plays with the scale of people to the building. A great building will make US feel our place in it, but most are disappointing when we are in and around it.

    • whatsthatsound says:

      For me, the worst period of architecture was the late 60s/early 70s, when buildings such as The Sears Tower and WTC were built. Graceless slabs (sorry if anyone is offended by my words about the WTC, but architecturally I think it was a bore). Especially The Sears Tower. Just a big black slab in the sky. All it says is “big”. At least now, buildings are more interesting, though still not beautiful like The Chyrsler Building and the older skyscrapers. Detroit has some beautiful old buildings, for example, as does Chicago.
      My personal feeling is that only Italians should be allowed to design cities! :) The Italian Renaissance was THE great age of architecture as far as I’m concerned. Not just the buildings, but the plazas and statues, very human, and yet pointing to greater possibilities for humanity.

  5. Chernynkaya says:

    Before I even read your post, whts, I have to respond to the Ayn Rand quote. It is actually stunning—in a bad way. I know people who don’t like camping or are not the outdoorsy types—that’s different-- but I have never heard anything like that quote from a non-android. It speaks to a complete separation from her humanity and from her own body. She is a husk of a person, interested only in the artifice, the man-made. She imagines that this elevates Man, but it is a false idol. Not only egomaniacal but actually puny at the same time. She is so overwhelmed by the majesty of the natural world that is scares the shit out of her and therefore she must remove it and worship the sad little achievements of buildings. Buildings! It’s funny! She is not even worshipping ideas—merely concrete—HAHAHAH! Why not worship Legos? They’re cool! The more REAL world would make her feel as insignificant (and truthfully, as integral) as she really is, and Rand cannot bear that. She is too scared and too narcissistic. All the things she claims to dismiss—the belief in something larger, for one—she is in reality totally in awe of. She hides it with her tiny mechanistic view --pure“Metropolis.”

    Ok, rant over--now I can read!

    • audadvnc says:

      Ayn Rand reminds me of Eva Gabor’s verse in the theme song for “Green Acres”:

      “New York is where I’d rather stay --
      I get allergic smelling hay!
      I just adore a penthouse view,
      Dahling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue!”

    • whatsthatsound says:

      Hi Cher,
      Complete agreement. Rand was full of it. Elsewhere in The Fountainhead, either the introduction or in the book itself (can’t remember), she gushes more about the NYC skyline and says that it outdoes in beauty and magnificence -- wait for it -- the cathedrals of Europe! What? So what she is REALLY praising, even more than human achievement, is capitalism.
      She must be rolling in her grave to see that the tallest and snazziest buildings these days are in -- Gasp! -- COMMUNIST China! Que Horror!

      But what you write about nature, and Kes adds about not having to choose -- I completely agree. It shows a real shallowness to her soul, as if it’s completely empty. Sad, really.

    • kesmarn says:

      Well said, Cher.

      And, as is typical for Rand, she presents a false choice. Only she would say it has to be sunset or skyline!

      Der! Isn’t it okay to deeply admire both?

      • whatsthatsound says:

        Hey Kes, maybe “The Big Country” lousy singer David Byrne and “Fountainhead” lousy writer Ayn Rand should have just huddled up in a Soho loft and kept their opinions about life outside NYC to themselves! :)

    • Abbyrose86 says:

      Cher….I too felt something cold and inhumane about that quote.

      I liked your rant, it expressed what I was feeling, but didn’t have the proper words to formulate.

  6. Khirad says:

    I still have a soft spot for Barad-dûr in Mordor.

    707424866_9f88f2e3af.jpg

    [AKA Burj al-Mamlakah of Riyadh]

  7. bito says:

    I was the tallest in my third grade class, does that count? ;-)
    Some where along the line the Prudential Building and the Hancock Tower in Chicago were the tallest somewhere (in the US?) for a minute and a half until the next thing was built and I have been to the top of both of them. One of the attractions of going to the top was how fa away one could “see”. Funny thing, I think I could “see” just as far from atop one of the dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan.
    The Hancock has an interesting story about the first Chicago winter it developed a habit of shedding sheets of ice onto the sidewalks below. Snow and rain off the lake would rise, not fall when it hit the building.
    Oops, it didn’t work that way on paper. :lol:

    • whatsthatsound says:

      I hear ya. Someone’s bright idea was to put all those enormous wind tunnels -- er, buildings -- facing smack dab in front of Lake Michigan. Now, Miami, I could see, but Chicago?
      Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

  8. whatsthatsound says:

    Here is the Frank Lloyd Wright sketch of “The Illinois”. Notice the similarity to the Burj Khalifa.The_Illinois.jpg

  9. Questinia says:

    “aftershock smitten “… love that!

    burj-khalifa-world_s-tallest-building7.jpg

    But, the proposed Nakheel Tower in Dubai is expected to be 4,600 feet tall. We’re closing in on Wright.

    nakheel-tower.jpg

    Kissing the sky, indeed!

  10. kesmarn says:

    What a morale booster it must have been, WTS, to see a structure going up in Japan, when so many things were coming down. And to see something being successfully built when so many other things had been destroyed.

    Even with Mr. Freud aside, I think the tower building mania must be more of a “guy thing.” (Although, apparently not the case with Ms. Rand!) Women are probably more into — again with the Freud — interiors.

    You mentioned what may just be the greatest combination — ever — of great height and a gorgeous interior.

    The_Nave.jpg

    Thanks so much for introducing a really interesting topic and a real “upper.” Pardon that terrible pun. :oops:

    • choicelady says:

      OK -- I give. What and where IS this? Is this St. John the Divine? Anyway, I have been in a number of cathedrals and rarely feel from floor level anything like what I’m “supposed” to feel. They rarely move me but kind of overwhelm all sensory experiences. Overload. I suppose that’s the point, but uplift certainly isn’t one of the sensations. Went to Notre Dame that had floodlights INSIDE for some reason, and the dark recesses freaking creeped me out -- could sense Quasimodo hanging around, sad, heartbroken, lonely. Yuck.

      As a girl type person, allow me to say that with the exception of Ayn Rand who had a lot wrong with her anyway, I think most of us of the girl persuasion remain sort of unimpressed by “bigger”.

      • whatsthatsound says:

        The great cathedrals totally do it for me. Not just the spires, but the overall effect. The stained glass windows, the wood carvings and paintings and sculptures. They don’t necessarily instill in me a sense of the Divine (which I get from forests, particularly waterfalls), but they astound me with what they reveal about human genius and ingenuity. For example, the Sistine Chapel. Not only are the paintings extraordinary, but the whole thing had to be planned out beforehand. The exact dimensions of the layout had to be taken into account to make all those paintings fit. It just blows me away. And in Italian cities, you find things like that all over the place. The Uffizi, The Old University in Bologna. Like I wrote elsewhere, I wish those Italian Renaissance geniuses had designed EVERY city in the world!

      • kesmarn says:

        That’s the Rouen Cathedral in France, c’lady.

        On the opposite end of the spectrum, I got a giggle out of this one:

        http://images.travelpod.com/users/danandloulou/1.1274402303.the-world-s-smallest-church.jpg

    • whatsthatsound says:

      “upper”? Oh, Gawd! You’ll find the confessionals back behind the main columns of the cathedral, either side, dear.


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