One World Trade Center: Supposedly the tallest now
  • Andrew Burton/Getty Images
  • One World Trade Center: Supposedly the tallest now

Whenever the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat is in the news, it means the title of World’s Tallest Building—or perhaps just the Western world’s tallest building—is on the line. And that is important because . . . ? Well, news stories on tallest buildings—and recent days have given us plenty (here and here and here)—seldom fail to hint that it isn’t important, that in fact it is arbitrary and close to meaningless. But being unimportant makes some things matter that much more. The height of buildings is one of those things.

One gathers from the council’s website that it lives for days like Tuesday, when reporters and camera crews crowd into its offices to find out which city is about to wind up with what bragging rights. Otherwise, it’s as neglected as Punxsutawney Phil 364 days a year.

I just visited the website because I wondered who these people are. What I now know is that the council sprang from meetings of the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1968 and 1969. There was a request for a topic that the structural and civil engineers of the world could “gather around,” and as tall buildings happened to be in increasing demand just then—well, why not focus on how we’re building them?

A Joint Committee on Tall Buildings was formed, headquartered at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Over time its name was changed to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, and so was its headquarters, now the Illinois Institute of Technology, on Chicago’s south side.

The discussion of tall buildings ran in two directions: the metaphysical and the quantifiable. As council founder Lynn Beedle reminisces on the website, the question “What is a tall building?” was not easily answered. Beedle tells us, “The final decision: A tall building is not defined by its height or number of stories. Rather, the important criterion is whether or not the design is influenced by some aspect of ‘tallness’.” In other words, a tall building is hard to define but you know one when you see one.

On the other hand, if tallness can’t be measured, then what can? So the council made some rules for measuring tallness. So here we are.

To the consternation of the easily consternated, the council has just snatched the title of tallest building in the U.S. from Chicago’s Willis Tower and handed it to New York City’s One World Trade Center, on the strength of the latter’s spire that looks an awful lot like the former’s antennae. The council seems to have reasoned that since the whole point of One World Trade Center was to be a building that stands at a symbolic 1,776 feet tall, which it wouldn’t come close to being if the “spire” weren’t counted, then the spire had better be.

On my tour of the website, I found Beedle recalling that it’s all happened before. He writes, “It was the successful challenge by Petronas Towers (Malaysia) for ‘the world’s tallest building’ title that opened a floodgate of media approaches to the Council in 1996.” The council transferred the title of world’s tallest building from the then Sears Tower to Malaysia’s twin towers on similar grounds that the Sears antennae didn’t count and the Petronas gingerbread did. Beedle recalls the wrenching letter from a third-grader pleading: “Please count the Sears Tower antennae and give the title back to Sears Tower . . . not just for me, my class, Mrs. Elko, but for the rest of the country, including Chicago and the Sears Tower.” And he personally visited a third-grade class at another school in order to reason with his accusers. These students had studied both buildings and voted 16 to 2 in favor of the local skyscraper.

The website notes that the Sears Tower “still held the titles of highest floor (436m/1,431ft) and highest roof (442m/1,451ft).” What does it tell us that third-graders seemed least mollified by these compensations?