History of the world's tallest buildings

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The tallest building in the world as of 2018 is Burj Khalifa. Before Burj Khalifa, the title of "world's tallest building" has been borne by various buildings, such as Rouen Cathedral and the Empire State Building.

The skyscraper was invented in Chicago in 1884. For the next hundred years, the world's tallest building was always in the United States with New York City accumulating 86 years, and Chicago accumulating 30 years. After just over a century (1885–1998) the distinction moved to the Eastern Hemisphere. Malaysia was the first country to break United States' record of building tallest buildings in the world by building Petronas Twin Towers in 1998, which held the record for 6 years before losing it to Taipei 101 in 2004. Before the current era of commercial skyscrapers, there was an era where the tallest buildings were Christian churches/cathedrals (c. 1250–1901), dominated by England and Germanic territories.

Before this time, it is not possible to conclusively state what was the tallest building in the world. For instance, the Lighthouse of Alexandria (completed about 280 BC) was very tall, but its true height is not known. For thousands of years, the Great Pyramid in Egypt was the tallest structure in the world, but the Great Pyramid is not considered a building since it was not habitable.

Definition of terms[edit]

Meaning of "building"[edit]

The earliest structures now known to be the tallest in the world were the Egyptian pyramids, with the Great Pyramid of Giza, at an original height of 146.5 metres (481 ft), being the tallest man–made structure in the world for over 3,800 years, until the construction of Lincoln Cathedral in 1300. From then until the completion of the Washington Monument (capped in 1884) the world's tallest buildings were churches or cathedrals. Later, the Eiffel Tower and, still later, some radio masts and television towers were the world's tallest structures.

However, though all of these are structures, some are not buildings in the sense of being regularly inhabited or occupied. It is in this sense of being regularly inhabited or occupied that the term "building" is generally understood to mean when determining what is the world's tallest building. The non-profit international organization Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), which maintains a set of criteria for determining the height of tall buildings, defines a "building" as "(A) structure that is designed for residential, business or manufacturing purposes" and "has floors".[1]

Tall churches and cathedrals occupy a middle ground: their lower areas are regularly occupied, but much of their height is in bell towers and spires which are not. Whether a church or cathedral is a "building" or merely a "structure" for the purposes of determining the title of "world's tallest building" is a subjective matter of definition (this article treats churches and cathedrals as buildings).

Determination of height[edit]

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat based in Chicago uses three different criteria for determining the height of a tall building, each of which may give a different result. "Height of the highest floor" is one criterion, and "height to the top of any part of the building" is another, but the default criterion used by the CTBUH is "height of the architectural top of the building", which includes spires but not antennae, masts or flag poles.[1]

Tallest buildings (13th century–1901)[edit]

Churches and cathedrals[edit]

Tallest buildings diagram from 1850

From the 13th century until 1901, the world's tallest building was always a church or cathedral. In the 13th century Old St Paul's Cathedral with its spire was completed. Completed in the early 14th century, the central spire of Lincoln Cathedral surpassed it. In 1549 this spire collapsed, beginning a long sequence where the status of world's tallest building was borne by shorter and shorter buildings. On the collapse of Lincoln Cathedral's spire, then St. Mary's Church in Stralsund became the world's tallest building. In 1647, the bell tower of St. Mary's burned down, thus making the shorter Strasbourg Cathedral the world's tallest building.

It was not until the completion of the Ulm Minster in 1890 that the world's tallest building was again also the tallest building ever, surpassing the original configuration of Lincoln Cathedral.

Years tallest Name Location Height Increase
13th century–1300 Old St Paul's Cathedral* Royal Banner of England.svg London 149 metres (489 ft) 0
1300–1549 Lincoln Cathedral* England Lincoln 159.7 metres (524 ft) 7.2%
1549–1569 St. Mary's Church Wappen Stralsund.svg Stralsund 151 metres (495 ft) -5.4%
1569–1573 St. Pierre's Cathedral Beauvais 153 metres (502 ft) -5.4%
1573–1647 St. Mary's Church Wappen Stralsund.svg Stralsund 151 metres (495 ft) -5.4%
1647–1874 Strasbourg Cathedral Pavillon royal de France.svg Strasbourg 142 metres (466 ft) -6%
1874–1876 Church of St. Nicholas German Empire Hamburg 147 metres (482 ft) 3.5%
1876–1880 Rouen Cathedral France Rouen 151 metres (495 ft) 2.7%
1880–1890 Cologne Cathedral Germany Cologne 157.38 metres (516.3 ft) 4.2%
1890–1901 Ulm Minster* Germany Ulm 161.53 metres (530.0 ft) 2.6%

* – Also set record at time of completion as tallest building ever built.

The 524 feet (160 m) height of Lincoln Cathedral is disputed by some,[2] but accepted by most sources.[3][4][5][6][7][8] The completion date for the spire is given as 1311 rather than 1300 by some sources.[9] Also the 489 feet (149 m) height of the spire of Old St Paul's Cathedral, destroyed by lightning in 1561, is disputed, for example Christopher Wren (1632–1723) judged that an overestimate and gave a height of 460 feet (140 m).[10]

The spire of Mole Antonelliana in Turin, completed in 1889, is claimed to have been 167.5 metres (550 ft) tall;[11] however, the upper part of the structure was destroyed by a 1953 tornado and rebuilt. If the original spire was 167.5 metres tall, then the Mole Antonelliana was the world's tallest building from 1889 to 1908, surpassing Philadelphia City Hall by just 0.5 metres (2 ft).


The buildings that were the tallest secular skyscrapers, which excludes religious buildings, were:

Years tallest Name Location Height Increase
1797–1885 Ditherington Flax Mill United Kingdom Shrewsbury 16 metres (52 ft) 0
1885–1890 Home Insurance Building United States Chicago 42 metres (138 ft) 162.5%
1890–1894 New York World Building United States New York 94 metres (308 ft) 123.8%
1894–1908 Philadelphia City Hall United States Philadelphia 167 metres (548 ft) 77.7%

Tallest buildings (from 1908)[edit]

Years tallest Name Location Height Increase
1908–1909 Singer Building United States New York City 186.57 metres (612.1 ft) 11.7%
1909–1913 Metropolitan Life Tower United States New York City 213.36 metres (700.0 ft) 14.4%
1913–1930 Woolworth Building United States New York City 241.4 metres (792 ft) 13.1%
1930 Bank of Manhattan Trust Building United States New York City 283 metres (928 ft) 17.2%
1930–1931 Chrysler Building United States New York City 318.8 metres (1,046 ft) 12.65%
1931–1972 Empire State Building United States New York City 381 metres (1,250 ft) 19.5%
1972–1974 World Trade Center United States New York City 417 metres (1,368 ft) 9.45%
1974–1998 Sears Tower United States Chicago 442 metres (1,450 ft) 6%
1998–2004 Petronas Towers Malaysia Kuala Lumpur 451.9 metres (1,483 ft) 2.24%
2004–2010 Taipei 101 Taiwan Taiwan 509.2 metres (1,671 ft) 12.68%
2010–present Burj Khalifa United Arab Emirates United Arab Emirates 828 metres (2,717 ft) 62.61%

The list of tallest buildings is based on the default metric of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), that of measuring to the highest architectural element. Other criteria would generate a different list. Shanghai World Financial Center is not on the above list, but it surpassed Taipei 101 in 2008 to become the building with the highest occupied floor. Using the criteria of highest tip (including antennae), the World Trade Center in New York City was the world's tallest building from 1972 to 2000, until the Sears Tower in Chicago (which already had a higher occupied floor than the World Trade Center) had its antenna extended to give that building the world's tallest tip; a title it held until the 2010 completion of Burj Khalifa. Petronas Towers and Taipei 101 were never the world's tallest buildings by the highest–tip criteria.

Since 2010, Burj Khalifa has been the tallest building by any criteria. It has the highest architectural element, tip and occupied floor, and is indeed the tallest structure of any kind ever built, surpassing the (now destroyed) 646.38 metres (2,120.7 ft) Warsaw Radio Mast.

Since the completion of the Washington Monument in 1884, the world's tallest building has not usually also been the world's tallest structure. The exceptions are 1930–1954, when the Chrysler Building and then the Empire State building surpassed the Eiffel Tower (to be surpassed in turn by a succession of broadcast masts, starting with the Griffin Television Tower in Oklahoma), and from 2010 with the completion of Burj Khalifa.



History of tallest buildings chart.jpg


In this chart, time progresses from right to left. Note the early buildings that lost the title as their spires collapsed.

Burj KhalifaTaipei 101Petronas TowersSears TowerWorld Trade CenterEmpire State BuildingChrysler BuildingBank of Manhattan Trust BuildingWoolworth BuildingMetropolitan Life TowerSinger BuildingPhiladelphia City HallUlm MinsterCologne CathedralRouen CathedralSt. Nicholas' Church, HamburgStrasbourg CathedralSt. Mary's Church, StralsundSt. Olaf's Church, TallinnLincoln CathedralGreat PyramidUnited Arab EmiratesRepublic of ChinaMalaysiaChicagoNew YorkPhiladelphiaFranceGermanyFranceStralsundDenmarkEnglandEgypt

History of increment in height of skyscrapers[edit]

After the construction of the Home Insurance Building in Chicago in the 19th century, the incrementation in the height of skyscrapers began with the construction of the Chrysler Building, followed by the Empire State Building, in New York City. The Chrysler Building was the first building in the world to break the 300 metres (984 ft) barrier, and the Empire State Building was the first building to have more than 100 floors. It stands at 381 metres (1,250 ft) and has 102 floors. The next tallest skyscraper was the World Trade Center, which was completed in 1971. The north tower was 417 m (1,368 ft) and the south 415 m (1,362 ft) tall. It surpassed the height of the Empire State Building by 36 m (118 ft). Two years later the Sears Tower was built in Chicago, standing at 442 m (1,450 ft) with 110 floors, surpassing the height of the World Trade Center by 25 metres (82 ft). The Petronas Towers rose 10 meters above the Sears Tower, standing at a height of 452 m (1,483 ft) and each having 88 floors.

In 2004, the construction of Taipei 101 brought the height of skyscrapers to a new level, standing at 509 m (1,670 ft) with 101 floors. It is 59 metres (194 ft) taller than the previous record holders, the Petronas Towers. Burj Khalifa surpassed the height of Taipei 101 by 319 metres (1,047 ft) in 2009, making it 60% taller.[12] It has broken several skyscraper records, and it is almost twice as tall as the Empire State Building. Burj Khalifa has also broken the record of the world's tallest structure.

  • NOTE: The CTBUH defines a building as a supertall if it is 300 metres (984 ft) or taller.[13]

History of supertall skyscrapers by location[edit]

Since the early skyscraper boom that took place in North America, the significant number of skyscrapers in North America have dominated the 100 tallest buildings in the world. In 1930, 99 of the 100 tallest buildings in the world were located in North America. In the future, this percentage is expected to decline to only 22 percent.[12] The predominance of skyscrapers in North America is decreasing due to the building of skyscraper construction in other parts of the world, especially in Asia, that are finally catching up to progress that began in North America in the 19th century.[citation needed]

In Asia, there has been an increase in the number of supertall skyscrapers beginning with the construction of Petronas Twin Towers. There are currently sixty buildings in the world's 100 tallest that are located in Asia (including the Middle East). However, skyscraper construction is still prevalent in the United States.[citation needed]

Increment in usage of skyscrapers[edit]

Since the skyscraper boom, the great majority of skyscrapers in the world were used predominantly as office space. From 1930 to 2000 the percentage of office towers never fell below 86 percent, but in the future it is expected to be as low as 46 percent.[12] In 2010 less than half of the 100 tallest buildings in the world were office towers with the majority utilized as residential and mixed use.[12] Today, only four out of the ten tallest buildings in the world, and twenty eight out of the fifty tallest in the world, are used primarily as offices.[14]

A mixed-use tall building contains two or more functions (uses), where each of the functions occupies a significant proportion of the tower's total space[A]. Support areas such as car parks and mechanical plant space do not contribute towards mixed-use status.[13]

Skyscrapers used as hotels and as residential space are generally smaller. There are only a few super tall skyscrapers of that type among the 100 tallest skyscrapers in the world. The tallest residential building in the world is 432 Park Avenue.[citation needed] There are few supertall hotel skyscrapers in the world.[citation needed] The Emirates Park Towers Hotel & Spa, Rose Tower and Burj Al Arab are the only three supertall hotels standing, while the topped-out Emirates Park Towers Hotel & Spa is currently the tallest hotel in the world at 377 m (1,237 ft).[citation needed]

See also[edit]


A. ^ This significant proportion can be judged as 15% or greater of either the total floor area, or the total building height in terms of number of floors occupied for the function. However, care should be taken in the case of supertall buildings. For example, a 20-story hotel function as part of a 150-story tower does not comply with the 15% rule, though this would clearly constitute mixed use.


  1. ^ a b Marshall Gerometta. "Height: The History of Measuring Tall Buildings". Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Retrieved March 29, 2011. 
  2. ^ A.F.K. "The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Cathedral Church of LINCOLN, by A.F. KENDRICK, B.A". Gwydir.demon.co.uk. Retrieved 2009-11-28. 
  3. ^ Haughton, Brian(2007),Hidden History: Lost Civilizations, Secret Knowledge, and Ancient Mysteries,p.167
  4. ^ Michael Woods, Mary B. Woods(2009), Seven Wonders of the Ancient World,p.41
  5. ^ "Lincoln Cathedral". 
  6. ^ Darwin Porter, Danforth Prince(2010), Frommer's England 2010,p.588
  7. ^ Mary Jane Taber(1905), The cathedrals of England: an account of some of their distinguishing characteristics,p.100
  8. ^ A Brief History of the World's Tallest Buildings Time magazine
  9. ^ "Cathedrals and the birth of freedom - Institute of Public Affairs Australia". 
  10. ^ Benham, William (1902). Old St. Paul's Cathedral. London: Seeley & Co at Project Gutenberg
  11. ^ "Mole Antonelliana". Museo Nazionale del Cinema (Italian National Film Museum) website. Maria Adriana Prolo Foundation. Retrieved March 18, 2014. Construction was completed in 1889... At the time of its completion, at 167.5 meters in height, it was the tallest masonry building in all of Europe. 
  12. ^ a b c d "The History of Measuring Tall Buildings". Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. 2008. Retrieved 16 February 2010. 
  13. ^ a b Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, CTBUH Criteria for Defining and Measuring Tall Buildings. 2009
  14. ^ Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, Tallest Single-Function Office Buildings in the World

External links[edit]