Photograph by Stephen Sisler/Getty Images
Photograph by Stephen Sisler/Getty Images

Not long after Sept. 11, when we started talking about what to rebuild at the site of the World Trade Center, many people suggested that we should rebuild the Twin Towers, only taller. Now that we've actually rebuilt, Brian Palmer laments that we've settled for the world's fourth tallest building:

But such fatalism is for a vanquished champion, not an also-ran. To me, the 1,776-foot height of One World Trade Center is the most problematic part of its design. Ostensibly a reference to America’s spirit of independence, the height really represents a turn inward. When Americans built ever-taller buildings in the 1920s, eventually surpassing the Eiffel Tower, Europeans were too enamored of their medieval skylines to join the fray, allowing American architects to dominate the new form. When there’s a race going on, you have to try to win it. Shooting for fourth place makes no sense.

I’m with the fatalists, however -- and not because I lack that good old American can-do spirit. “World’s tallest building” is a stupid contest, the architectural equivalent of seeing how many hot dogs you can cram into your gullet before your stomach bursts. Even if you win, it’s your loss.

There’s a fundamental, impossible problem that plagues very tall buildings: the need to move the people upward to the offices. Elevators can only move so fast before you have to start worrying about vomiting and blackouts and broken bones and so forth. Which means that as the building rises, you need more elevators to raise the extra people to the extra floors. The elevators quickly start crowding out the offices or apartments that are the very reason you built the building in the first place.

I spent a fair amount of time in the 1990s working in the Twin Towers, which had solved this problem by having a dedicated elevator that shuttled folks working at the top of the building to the “Sky lobby” on the 78th floor, where they could then transfer to an elevator that served their office. It was just as annoying and ponderous as it sounds. That's why modern buildings in the U.S. tend to cap out at around 50 stories -- not because we can’t build them taller, but because no one really wants to. The view isn’t worth the hassle. The height creates other problems too, from evacuating people during emergencies, to withstanding wind.

I’m all for plowing money into building the tallest thing in the world, even an impractical one, such as a space elevator. But it should be something that people would actually enjoy using if we managed to get it built. A 2,000-foot office building does not fill the bill. If we really need to show other nations our can-do-spirit, we should do it in some more mature and sensible way, like challenging China to a boat race.