From Pyramids To Skyscrapers: History Of The Tallest Buildings

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The tallest structures in the world have evolved over time from pyramids to skyscrapers. The Pyramids were built over a period of 20 years and were the tallest structures in the world for around 3000 years. The Cathedrals were built in the 19th Century and were the tallest structures in the world for over 100 years. The Skyscrapers were built in the 20th Century and are the tallest structures in the world today. The Jeddah Tower is under construction and is projected to be the tallest structure in the world when it is completed in 2020.

Men have been trying to touch the sky since the dawn of time. Living in tall buildings has actually become synonymous with being at the top of the social order. Even when looking at the Egyptian pharaohs, it’s quite obvious that they believed “the taller, the better”. The truth of this statement is not lost on the current generation, where skyscrapers were initially meant for commercial vanity, rather than cultural significance.


Regardless, these incredibly tall and impressive buildings are proof of how far human construction techniques have come. Before we start defining the history of tall buildings, we should first identify what the topmost point of a building actually is.

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Rules For Determining The Height Of A Building

‘The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’ based in Chicago has a very specific purpose, so it uses three different criteria for determining the height of a tall building, each of which may give a different result. The most reliable criterion is simply measuring the height up to the architectural top of the building. This means that any antennae, masts or flag poles are ignored during

Now let’s review how men evolved, and how their construction methods developed right along with them!

The Pyramids:

The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids of Giza. Built over a period of 20 years, somewhere around 250 BC, it is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World. Originally, the Great Pyramid was covered by casing stones, which formed a smooth outer surface. However, what can be seen today is the underlying core structure. The method used to construct them is believed to be very simplistic and involves lifting rocks and putting them into place like a three-dimensional jig-saw puzzle.

The Great Pyramid of Giza
The Great Pyramid of Giza

Although it was the tallest structure in the world for around 3000 years, it was never considered a building, as buildings need to be habitable. The pyramids were just glorified tombs for the pharaohs, after all!

Also Read: What Are The Ancient Seven Wonders Of The World?

The Cathedrals:

The English and the Germans developed their own methods for the construction of Christian churches through huge donations from religious groups and believers. The sentimentality attached to cathedrals and churches enabled innovations in design and a significant rise in height. Because of this, for more than 600 years, until 1901, the world’s tallest building was always a church or a cathedral.

St. Mary's Church in Hamburg
St. Mary’s Church in Hamburg

St. Mary’s church in Hamburg, stood 147 meters tall for 22 years as the tallest cathedral, but right now, the tallest church is the Ulm Minster in Germany, which stands 161 meters tall. These buildings were also known for spires and steeples, which increased the building’s height. Most of the habitable space was close to the ground, with little more than a church bell or small living quarters housed at the top. The top of the Antonelli Edifice in Turin had the tallest spire, but it was destroyed by a 1953 tornado.

The Ulm Minster in Germany
The Ulm Minster in Germany

Also Read: Why Does The Leaning Tower Of Pisa Lean?

The Skyscrapers:

In the 19th Century, a new kind of structure was developed in Chicago using an internal structure of iron or steel (rather than just wood or stone on the outer walls) to bear the building’s weight. Chicago’s Home Insurance Building, built in 1884, with its innovation in using a steel-frame construction, is considered the world’s first skyscraper, although it was only 48 meters in height. Chicago’s skyscrapers were a combination of aesthetic beauty and elevation as they housed large open bases with more usable space.  In contrast, New York’s skyscrapers were frequently narrower towers, and while they were more eclectic in style, were often criticized for their lack of elegance. As such, powered elevators in these buildings were a necessity, as everything taller than six floors is impractical without them. Powered elevators were first installed in England during the 1830s and spread to US factories and hotels by the 1840s.

Home Insurance Building in Chicago
Home Insurance Building in Chicago

From that point on, the world’s tallest building was always in the United States, with New York City holding the title for 87 years, and Chicago boasting the top spot for another 30 years. This distinction was held exclusively within the United States for over 100 years. However, Malaysia broke this record with the tallest building, the Petronas Twin Towers, which were built in 1998 and stood 452 meters tall.

Petronas Towers
The Petronas Twin Towers

The Petronas Towers were totally unique in their construction, owing to the two almost identical towers, each having 88 floors and attached by a skybridge. The skybridge connects the two towers on the 41st and 42nd floors and is the highest 2-story bridge in the world. It also acts as a safety measure, as it restricts movement of the towers, which can sway during high winds. After being constructed on the ground, the skybridge was lifted into place on the towers over a period of three days.

Skybridge of The Petronas Towers
Skybridge of The Petronas Towers

In 2004, Taipei 101 in Taiwan brought the height of skyscrapers to a whole new level by achieving a height of 510 meters. The fact that the building was architecturally designed as a symbol of the evolution of technology and Asian tradition is very apparent. Its deep underground structures help it withstand the typhoon winds and earthquake tremors that are common in that area.

The Taipei 101 in Taiwan

Since 2010, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai has been the tallest building, no matter what criteria you base the ranking on. It has the highest architectural element, the highest tip, and the highest occupied floor, and is indeed the tallest structure of any kind that has ever been built. At a height of 828 meters, no other skyscraper even comes close. 57 elevators line the inside of this incredible skyscraper to reach the topmost 154th floor.  French base jumpers Vince Reffet and Fred Fugen broke the Guinness World Record for the highest base jump from a building after they leapt from a specially designed platform built at the very top of the pinnacle.

Burj Khalifa in Dubai
If you look closely, you can see Tom Cruise hanging onto dear life…

The Jeddah Tower is under construction in Saudi Arabia and if completed as planned, the Jeddah Tower will reach unprecedented heights, becoming the tallest building in the world, as well as the first structure to reach the one-kilometer mark for height. It is projected to be completed by 2020 and reach a height of 1.6 kilometers.

Concept Design of The Jeddah Tower
Concept Design of The Jeddah Tower

Tallest Buildings in Asia

Cross section of Tall Skyscrapers
Cross-section of Tall Skyscrapers

The architecture of behemoths is a true art form, and although it represents the place and time of its conception, it remains timeless. Architects have opted to make buildings that are tall, but still true to the culture of the place in which they stand. However, these are mere buildings that can be made taller still, and maybe the sky isn’t even the limit. What if the tallest structures could extend well beyond Earth’s atmosphere? Check out this article about Space Elevators for more information.

Also Read: Why Was The Eiffel Tower Built?

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References (click to expand)
  1. History of construction - Wikipedia. Wikipedia
  2. History of architecture - Wikipedia. Wikipedia
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About the Author

Harsh Gupta graduated from IIT Bombay, India with a Bachelors degree in Chemical Engineering. His pedantic and ‘know-it-all’ nature made it impossible for him not to spread knowledge about (hopefully) interesting topics. He likes movies, music and does not shy away from talking and writing about that too.