The Tallest: Iconic Design Writ Large

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By Katie la Kapro / Published by Katie la Kapro
There’s just something deeply compelling about building ... up.


Ever since the Sumerians built the Ziggurat of Ur around 4,000 years ago, humans have been feeding their insatiable desire to build structures that mingle with the clouds. Today, neck-wrenchingly tall buildings abound in cities all over the world. It’s hard to explain; there’s just something deeply compelling about building up

Very few architectural trends stand the test of time without an element of practicality, and the tallest of tall buildings are no exception. Artistic beauty and practical necessity must exist hand in hand. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the world’s tallest and most iconic buildings are in crowded cities like Shanghai and New York. After all, the best impetus to build up is having nowhere else to build. 

With the numerous engineering challenges posed by tall, slender buildings, it’s only natural that part of their splendor rests in the mere fact that they exist, upright, at all. Their very construction serves as a poignant example of how humans can find and create beauty in almost anything they set their sites on, especially if said human has an eye for architecture. 

What Makes a Building Iconic? 

There are plenty of tall buildings out there that aren’t iconic. They’re the bland, rectangular matchboxes that loom over cities casting shadows of utilitarian malaise. Perhaps that was someone’s vision, they evoke emotion at least, but they’re hardly the structures that get remembered.

It’s rare that a building’s height alone is enough to make it memorable. The most iconic buildings around the world have an element of creativity that sticks in the collective memory of everyone who visits. 

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The Petronas Towers in Malaysia, for example, are famous for reflecting the culture and heritage of the land. The design of both towers is based upon Islamic geometry, starting with a floor plan in the shape of the eight-pointed star of Islam. 

The Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is most notable for the 120 degree twist in its spine. Who wouldn’t smile when they see a building that looks like something from a Dr. Seuss book? To bring us back to the necessary balance between aesthetics and practicality, it’s worth noting that even the whimsical twist of the Shanghai Tower serves a purpose. It acts as an additional support structure for the building, enabling it to withstand violent typhoons. This clever feat of engineering saved the builders hundreds of thousands of dollars in building materials. 

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Structurally-innovative engineering is paramount for the timelessness of these tall, iconic buildings. Before the Industrial Revolution, builders often used cast iron for the tallest structures, but since then steel beams set in concrete have proven both to be more fire resistant and more structurally sound than iron. 

To this day, some of the most famous buildings in the world are made of steel. The Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 World’s Fair, was preserved in 1909 because someone realized its steel structure would make a great radio tower. New York’s Empire State Building, arguably one of the most iconic buildings in the world, is made out of 57,000 tons of steel in its frame alone. Even Chicago’s Sears Tower is made of, you guessed it, steel. Apparently it was the only material deemed strong enough to withstand the Windy City. 

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Another aspect that separates an iconic tall building from the rest is the way in which it interacts with the environment around it. Maybe it blends in, maybe it stands out. The particular way it interacts with the rest of the city doesn’t matter as much as the intention behind it. One of the most popular and environmentally-friendly ways to bridge the gap between a skyscraper and its surroundings is to invite-in mother nature. Imagine balconies covered in greenery, outdoor steppes full of trees, and open-air corridors bursting with shrubbery. Pretty good, right? 

The Chinese are taking it one step further. Proposed plans for a whole forest city in China’s Liuzhou municipality will absorb an estimated 10,000 tons of CO2 and 57 tons of pollutants annually. According to Business Insider, that’s the equivalent of taking over 2,100 cars off the road.

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Cleaning up the air is just one way the tallest buildings in the world can serve its human population. For eons, the tallest buildings in an area have been de facto meeting places for cultural events and exchange. In those terms, not much has changed since the days of the Sumerians. The high ceilings of a skyscraper’s upper floors make a wonderful venue for displaying multi-dimensional art — all it takes is enough space, art, and some tension cabling, really. Even the decor inside a skyscraper can make it a tourist destination. There’s nothing like a hanging art gallery to encourage tourists and locals alike to linger and enjoy the view. 

The human desire to construct tall buildings is somewhat mysterious. It reminds us that in fact we are not so different from the cavern-digging insects and nest-building animals with which we share the planet. We might as well celebrate the impulse and build as high as we can, until we can’t build any higher.  

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