High Drama: The Quest to Build the World’s Tallest Building

Skyscrapers are status symbols for cities. Sure, they’re used for things like offices or condos, but when a building vies for a superlative like the tallest in the world, it isn’t out of utility. It’s meant to attract attention and investments, and in no small part to secure bragging rights.

In 2010, Dubai put the finishing tiles on the Burj Khalifa, the highest structure ever built by humans. It’s 830 meters tall, or 2,723 feet—about a tenth as high as an airplane flies. Going to the observation deck makes your ears pop. On an overcast day, it also lifts you above the clouds.

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But the Burj also holds another title. According to a study from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the world’s tallest building is a conquest of height padding. Twenty-nine percent of the building is “vanity height,” the term for space in the building non-occupiable by humans. It’s a little like putting on a top hat and claiming to be a foot taller; it’s an engineering gimmick. Lots of big buildings do it with a spire or a tower, but none more than in the UAE. Five of the world’s 10 vainest buildings are in Dubai. The winner, however, is the Ukraina Hotel in Moscow, which is a stunning 41 percent vanity height.

Occupiable space or not, a tower that you can see from the moon is impressive in any language. When engineers are standing in the clouds building taller and taller, it doesn’t matter whether humans will one day occupy a floor or not. Although when it comes to furnishing, not having to bring up things like marble counters, toilets, or refrigerators is probably a relief.

How long will Dubai hold the title of world’s highest building? China plans a tower next year in Changsa that’ll be eight meters—26 feet—taller than Dubai’s Burj (the Emirati government has signaled that, if bested, they may start building a new, even taller tower). Although once you reach a certain height, the base needs to become wider to support it, which requires an increasing amount of land.

But some cities are eying other flashy ways to make their buildings stand out. Earlier this fall, in Seoul, South Korea, construction started on the world’s first invisible building. It’ll only have the world’s third-highest observation deck. But cameras on the back of that building that will relay real-time images to project on the front will make it appear like there’s no building there at all.