Rhein on Energy and Climate

Since the early days of civilisation human beings have been keen to erect impressive buildings,which have become ever taller over the centuries.

With the the construction of the “New Kingdom Tower” in Jeddah that is expected to be completed 2018 and rise to 1007 metre architects and city planners are likely to have reached a limit. Going up higher will not make much sense in terms of costs, comfort and risks.

Until the 20th century tall buildings had essentially sacred purposes:

  • To remember rulers. That was the case for the Egyptian Pharaohs who were buried and well protected, in a pyramid. Over time, these became more and more impressive and widely visible, the one in Gizeh reaching a height of 146 metre, comparable to a Gothic cathedral, 4000 years later.
  • To be closer to God. That was the rationale of the Gothic cathedrals which dominated European sacred architecture for almost four centuries, leaving Europe a widely admired heritage.

The sacred nature of Gothic churches did not hinder architects, bishops or city councils from rivalling for the most beautiful and tallest cathedrals. When the Strasbourg City Council got the news that the cathedral of Ulm was to be higher than their still incomplete church they had nothing more urgent to do than to put an extra tower on top of their church which enabled Strasbourg to boast of the highest cathedral until the end of the 19th century when the cathedrals in Ulm and Cologne were completed.

In the 20th century Europe ceded the place for the highest buildings to North America; it did not find pleasure in building skyscrapers as in Manhattan or Chicago.

The new office buildings rose to 300 metre, before China, Malaysia, Taiwan and India went up to 800 metre towards the end of the century.

The final phase in the race for the tallest building on earth began in the early 21st century, with the stage being displaced from the Far East to the wealthy Gulf countries,with Dubai breaking the 800 meter record with its Burj Khalifat that was opened January 4th 2010.

Saudi Arabia could, of course, not tolerate the tallest building on earth to stand on the ground of its small neighbour. We must wait a few more years to witness its completion. But we should already now put a bit question mark on the usefulness of going 1 km into the sky to house offices and apartments in a country that is not short of desert land.

The Saudis and everybody else should beware of hubris!

Brussels 31st 03. 2015 Eberhard Rhein

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