Reaching For the Sky

As the spire was permanently fused to the top of One World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan last week, the glistening new replacement for the dear departed Twin Towers became, at 1,776 feet, the tallest building the West.

This distinction falls on the 40-year anniversary of the last time such a feat was achieved, for it was in May 1973 that construction was completed on the Sears Tower in Chicago (now known as the Willis Tower), which stood as the tallest skyscraper in a world for a quarter-century, until the rise of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1998.

The “world’s tallest” title has remained in the Eastern Hemisphere ever since.

Now that the United States is finally back in the news on the tall buildings front, we should take the opportunity to assess the meaning of the skyscraper sweepstakes in the 21st century world.

As today’s younger generations can be forgiven for not knowing, the practice of erecting towering beacons of economic supremacy used not to be merely a hobby for the United States; it was a veritable American birthright.

Of the ten buildings (or pairs of buildings) that claimed the mantel of being the world’s tallest during the 20th century, the first nine were situated in the United States.  Of those nine, seven were on the island of Manhattan.

This was hardly a coincidence.  New York in the first third of the 20th century served as the canvas for a concerted competition of architectural invention and engineering prowess that has never quite been recreated in so small an area in so short a time span.

The Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan, conceived in 1910 and completed in 1913, was commissioned by business tycoon Frank Woolworth with the express purpose of being the world’s tallest.  The structure held the title until 1930, when its height was eclipsed by 40 Wall Street, just a few blocks south, which was itself locked in a heated rivalry with the Chrysler Building, sprouting simultaneously uptown—a competition ultimately won by the Chrysler, thanks to the secret, last-minute addition of its shimmering 125-foot spire.

Following all that excitement, the very next spring saw the completion, eight blocks south and three avenues west, of the Empire State Building, and that, for the more than four decades until the entrance of Chicago into the skyscraping game, was that.

(The Twin Towers provided a two-year bridge between the Empire State Building and the Sears Tower, but somehow they never inspired as much fanfare in life as they did in death.)

Today, this all feels like ancient history.  The rise of One World Trade Center, rather than the latest benchmark in a continuing tale of tallness, exists more as a singular act of rectitude—the fulfillment of a national obligation rather than a mad act of architectural daring and one-upmanship.

Instead, for the last several decades, America has ceded the skyscraper industry, like so many other industries, to plucky up-and-comers out east, who are building ever-higher and more unique structures at a clip every bit as swift and inventive as that of the old titans nearly a century ago.

The symbolism of this is clear enough.  Indeed, it is perhaps the most visually obvious reminder there is of America’s waning creative hegemony on the world stage, coupled with the remarkable success, in relatively little time, of fledgling economic powers such as China and the United Arab Emirates.  (Of the 50 tallest buildings today, China alone boasts 14.)

One question we might ask, in light of this reality, is whether (and how much) we ought to care.

With the Cold War a distant memory—for Millennials, not a memory at all—great international contests in the mold of the Space Race or the Arms Race do not inspire the sort of excitement they once did, back when the world could more properly be viewed in terms of nations rather than conglomerations and tribes.

Is our national need to build higher and go farther something we have outgrown?  Has it lost its purpose, as we now look inward to computers and the wonders of microorganisms to solve our problems and conduct global commerce?  Or have practical limitations in this age of economic austerity simply forced our hand?

It took 40 years for the United States to outdo itself in erecting the nation’s tallest skyscraper.  How many more decades will pass before we do it again?

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