Why We Do What We Do #1: Why We Build Up

“Why We Do What We Do” is an ongoing series exploring common practices that architects and builders have employed for hundreds of years, and how those same practices are being reinvented, but not necessarily replaced, in the modern age. Other entries include: “Why We Draw” and “Why We Model”

Wuhan Phoenix Towers

Concept for the Phoenix Towers in Wuhan, China (

Architecture and Design journal eVolo recently reported on preliminary plans for a new “World’s Tallest Skyscraper”. Actually a pair of buildings, the Phoenix Towers will supposedly stand 3,280 feet over Central China. But the proposition may not be as outlandish as it seems. A recent slew of high-profile, high-rise buildings has re-affirmed that the quest to build upward is not dead. All of this begs the question: what is the fascination with building tall?

Why did we build up?

Colossus of Rhodes

Artist depiction of Colossus of Rhodes, 1880. (

Building “up” is among architecture’s oldest endeavors. It is as old as the Tower of Babel—man’s quest to climb to heaven. The connection between height and asserting superiority continued through the Egyptian Obelisk, the Colossus of Rhodes, and even the clean verticality of a Greek column. But a stark shift occurred with the birth of new religious architecture. People still continued to build upwards, but now as a means to draw peoples’ gaze to heaven, not to themselves. The church spire or minaret became the tallest point in a city, and remained so for centuries.

Why do we build up?

Cayan Tower

Cayan Tower by SOM, Dubai City, Dubai. (“Cayan Tower”. Architect Magazine, November 2013.)

But just before the 20th century, the rise of commercial towers changed the focus again. If ancient towers were an assertion of superiority, and religious towers were an assertion of worship, then commercial towers were an assertion of pragmatism. Common materials combined in predictable ways to service many people in one place became the new aspiration of the high-rise. The rights to the title “tallest building” has been claimed and reclaimed over a dozen times in the last hundred years. SOM’s Burj Khalifa has garnered the most recent fame, and at 2,700 feet, still holds the world below it. But in the four years since its completion, a number of competitors have emerged, and they often claim efficiency, not just a philosophical statement, as the reason for their height. The Cayan Tower, (also by SOM and also in Dubai) is a 1,000 foot twisting structure built on the principals of repetition and efficiency. It achieves its unique form by replicating the same windows and floor plan at slight variations on each level.

Sky City

Sky City by Zhang Yue (“Prefab Grows Up”. Architect Magazine, February 2014.)

In 2013, ground was broken for the Sky City in China. Designed to be 27 feet taller than the Burj Khalifa, the Sky Tower is expected to be complete in 10 months, over four-times quicker than its Dubai competitor. At least in some areas, tall buildings are actually becoming more prevalent due the efficiency of their design, construction, and use.

Does CRSA build up?

Walker Center Exterior

The Walker Center, Salt Lake City, UT

CRSA doesn’t often have the opportunity to build up, but it still happens, particularly in our Preservation and Religious work. Our renovation of Salt Lake’s Walker tower blends both the pragmatism of a 16-story, downtown building, and the less-than-subtle flourish of the 64-foot weather tower at its top. Building up doesn’t appear to be vanishing anytime soon. And while pragmatism reigns, there is surely some part of the primal human still present. If all buildings make statements, then tall buildings still speak loudly.


2 thoughts on “Why We Do What We Do #1: Why We Build Up

  1. Pingback: Why We Do What We Do #2: Why We Draw | The CRSA Blog

  2. Pingback: Why We Do What We Do #3: Why We Model | The CRSA Blog

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