This blog post contains no Freudian metaphors. Not an easy task.

Thomas Leslie has a very useful primer in the New York Times op-ed page that explains the arcane and slightly absurd metrics through which the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat determines a building’s official height. This paragraph caught my eye, however: Do such distinctions matter? Who cares which building is tallest? There is ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

Thomas Leslie has a very useful primer in the New York Times op-ed page that explains the arcane and slightly absurd metrics through which the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat determines a building's official height. This paragraph caught my eye, however:

Thomas Leslie has a very useful primer in the New York Times op-ed page that explains the arcane and slightly absurd metrics through which the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat determines a building’s official height. This paragraph caught my eye, however:

Do such distinctions matter? Who cares which building is tallest? There is obviously some economic benefit to claiming that potential tenants will reside in the country’s “tallest building,” and the symbolic nature of building tall on this particular site is self-evident.

Globally, the symbolic nature of having the world’s tallest building really is self-evident — but not necessarily in the way that Leslie thinks. The recent history of tall buildings suggests that they are the pride that goeth before the economic fall.

New York dominated the world’s tallest skyscrapers for decades until 1974 — and there are many good reasons why Wikipedia notes that “The 1970s are regarded by some as New York’s nadir.” The Sears Tower became the world’s largest building in the early 70s and held that title for decades — decades during which Continental Illinois declared bankruptcy and the city of Chicago suffered from some serious problems.

In 1998 the world’s tallest building left American shores, as Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers displaced the Sears Tower — and soon after, the Asian financial crisis suggested that maybe there had been just a wee bit of overbuilding in that part of the world. In 2010 the Burj Khalifa took the mantle — but that wasn’t its original name. It was named after the emir of Abu Dhabi, who bailed out Dubai “to the tune of $10 billion” because of the latter emirate’s real estate bubble. Also, the building reminds me way too much of a Stanley Kubrick film.

Can you sense a trend here? [What about Taipei 101? –ed. Look, this correlation isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough for blog work.]

And now I see that the next world’s tallest building is planned for … an empty field in China:

A Chinese firm best known for building air conditioning units is constructing a vertical city. Broad Sustainable Construction (BSB) said this week that next month it will finally break ground on [a] tower that will not only be the world’s tallest but could, according to BSB, become a model for how China deals with mass urbanization.

Now, you should read Henry Grabar for why this building might not be the same harbinger that previous tall buildings have been. Still, as even he acknowledges:

After all, Broad Group is best known as a company that makes air conditioning units, not skyscrapers. Its entry into the building industry is quite recent, with the 2009 creation of BSB. And you don’t need to be a structural engineer to contemplate the technical jumps from building air conditioners to building 20-story towers to building a 200-story megalopolis. At that height, for example, buildings must be designed to withstand more horizontal pressure than vertical pressure. And since China’s construction industry has been plagued by deadly scandals of cheap and faulty work, from the rail boom to the Sichuan schools to the recent possibility that poor-quality concrete would lead to collapsing skyscrapers, it’s easy to see why the Chinese government might have been hesitant about a structurally ambitious building dozens of times the size of anything that has been tried elsewhere.

Developing…

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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