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Howard Steven Friedman Headshot

World's Tallest Building Back Home in the Middle East...Forever?

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My view of the Eiffel Tower this morning reminded me of the changing title of world's tallest building. While there are too many categories of towers, structures, free-standing buildings to count it's easier to simply ask ourselves basic questions like why are these enormous constructions made and, of course, who has the tallest?

Why build the tallest? In case of a communication tower it might be due to functionality but, I think we all know that the title is really about bragging rights. The tallest building title displays economic power just as kids in a schoolyard stand back-to-back measuring each other. The key point in my last sentence is the phrase "display economic power" since you need both sufficient money as well as a passionate desire to display in order to build the world's tallest skyscraper.

The long-time champion, the Pyramid of Gaza, stands almost 500 ft tall and held the title of tallest free standing land structure for nearly 4,000 years. Since then, all other title holders have come and gone in relatively short periods of time with some recent title holders clutching their distinction for less time than it took to build!

European churches took the title in the Middle Ages then spent hundreds of years topping each other just slightly until the Eiffel Tower made the leap to 300 meters. The title stayed in Europe only a little while longer until it moved to America as industrialists challenged each other in the 20th century with the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and then the Willis (Sears) Tower. At the end of the 20th century, Asia got in the race with titles moving to Malaysia, Taiwan and China as each country flexed there economic muscles for the world to admire. This year the title moved to Dubai, allowing the Middle East to reclaim the title after vacating it about 700 years ago. This latest monstrosity is more than twice the height of the Empire State Building and, following a long standing tradition with skyscrapers, coincided with financial turmoil.

Now that the title has returned to the Middle East, I expect it will stay in either that region or Asia for at least my lifetime. Americans are still building skyscrapers, but they no longer aspire to build the tallest. Perhaps, like Europe decided a hundred years ago, America feels it doesn't need to display its economic power by entering this contest. While I can celebrate my countries "growing self-awareness", part of me longs for these childish bragging rights as I recognize that the passion to be superior drove much of America's excellence in the 20th century.

As America exits the contest for world's tallest building, let's aspire to being the world's leader in less ostentatious but more critical areas of society like health care, education, safety, equality, environment and democracy.