Why we’re obsessed with building tall

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(CNN)From the legendary Tower of Babel to the iconic Burj Khalifa, humans have always aspired to build to ever greater heights. Over the centuries, we have constructed towering edifices to celebrate our culture, promote our cities — or simply to show off.

Historically, tall structures were the preserve of great rulers, religions and empires. For instance, the Great Pyramids of Giza — built to house the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu — once towered over 145 meters high. It was the tallest man-made structure for nearly 4,000 years, before being overtaken by the 160-meter-tall Lincoln Cathedral in the 14th century. Other edifices, such as Tibet’s Potala Palace (the traditional home of the Dalai Lama), or the monasteries of Athos were constructed atop mountains or rocky outcrops, to bring them even closer to the heavens.
    Yet these grand historical efforts are dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the 20th and 21st centuries. London’s Shard looms at 310 meters tall at its fractured tip — but it’s made to look small by the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, which stands at more than 828 meters. And both these behemoths will be left in the shadows by the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudia Arabia. Originally planned by architect Adrian Smith to reach 1,600 meters, the tower is now likely to reach one kilometer high, once it’s completed in 2020.
    So how did we make this great leap upwards?

    Ingredients for success

    In 1915, following the completion of the 40-story Equitable building on Broadway, there was such alarm at the darkening streets that New York introduced “zoning laws” that forced new buildings to step ziggurat-like as they rose, in order to bring daylight down to street level.
    This meant that while the base still filled the city block, the rest of the tower would rise centrally, stepping back every few stories, and it forced the service core to the building’s center, leading to the loss of the light well and making mechanical ventilation and artificial lighting essential for human habitation. This was a radical change in the shape of tall buildings, and the second generation of skyscrapers.
    As architectural historian Carol Willis would have it, “form follows finance”: the developers of early 20th century high rise office blocks would work out how to maximize the amount of usable floor-space in a city site, before asking an architect to put a wall around it. Such vast wall surfaces with conventional windows invited patterns of geometric decoration, and the ziggurat style came to be the most recognizable architectural symbol of the Art Deco movement.
    The mania for profit-driven tall development got out of hand in the late 1920s, however, and culminated in 1931 with the Chrysler and the Empire State buildings. The oversupply of office buildings, the depression of the 1930s and World War II brought an end to the Art Deco boom. There were no more skyscrapers until the 1950s, when the post-war era summoned forth a third generation: the International Style, the buildings of darkened glass and steel-framed boxes, with air conditioning and plaza fronts that we see in so many of the world’s cities today.

    Read more: http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/19/design/the-conversation-a-short-history-of-tall-buildings/index.html