The History of the World’s Tallest Buildings | Innovation| Smithsonian Magazine

The History of the World's Tallest Buildings | Innovation| Smithsonian Magazine

Ever since humans began building, they’ve been building up. Throughout the millennia, our constructions have reached higher and higher into the sky, spurred by various motivations: religion, democracy, nationalism, commerce and design, to name a few.

Ancient Egyptians built enormous pyramids to protect the mummified bodies of their pharaohs. Christians used Gothic engineering innovations like flying buttresses and vaulted arches to build cathedrals that stretched toward their heaven. Industrious Americans built the World Trade Center to bring international business to New York; when that center was struck down, they built an even taller replacement—a symbol of resilience.

Around the globe, many human-made structures have enjoyed, for a time, the distinction of the tallest building in the world. From over 4,500 years ago to the present, here is a timeline detailing the record holders, from Giza to Dubai.

The Great Pyramid 

Giza, Egypt

Circa 2550 B.C. to A.D. 1311; 1548-1569; 1573-1625

Height: 455 feet (481.4 feet pre-erosion)

The Great Pyramid—also known as Khufu, after the Egyptian pharaoh it was built to entomb—is the largest of Giza’s pyramids. We know it as a sand-colored behemoth, but in its heyday, the pyramid was a shimmering white, due to an original limestone casing that eroded over time. Khufu enjoyed three reigns as the world’s tallest building, as rivals rose and collapsed during the medieval period and the Renaissance. During its unmatched first stint at the top, totaling almost four millennia, the only competitor that came close in height was the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which stood about 350 feet tall before it fell.

Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln, England

Height: 525 feet*

This early Gothic spectacle took three centuries to build. After its central spire was raised, the cathedral ruled the skies from its hilltop perch in Lincolnshire. Watching over the church’s famous choir, complete with carvings of angels, is the locally-beloved “Lincoln Imp,” a horned grotesque carved into the top of a nearby pillar. The story goes that the imp, sent by the devil to cause mischief, was turned to stone by an avenging angel, never to leave the church.

With the construction of the Lincoln Cathedral, the title of “world’s tallest building” entered an era of competing Christian churches. In 1548, after Lincoln’s spire fell in a nasty storm, St. Mary’s Church in Stralsund, Germany, took the title, at 495 feet tall. Then, St. Mary’s spire collapsed, allowing a French church a turn in the top spot.

Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg

Height: 465.9 feet

Of the cathedrals that took the height record after Lincoln, Strasbourg held the title the longest. Victor Hugo called it a “delicate marvel,” while Goethe likened it to a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God.” Through its long history, the cathedral has been damaged in multiple wars. Projectiles set its nave ablaze during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870; during World War I, two of its bells were removed for their metal; and during the Nazi occupation of World War II, Hitler’s army stole its stained-glass windows. In 1945, those windows were rediscovered in a German salt mine by the U.S. Army’s Monuments Men, a group of deployed art preservationists.

Washington Monument

Washington, D.C.


Height: 555.4 feet

Putting an end to the long string of tallest buildings dedicated to God, the Washington Monument was erected to honor the United States’ first president. Because of funding difficulties that halted construction, the obelisk was built in two phases—and with three different marbles. The stones weathered differently, and visitors can still see the gentle contrast in their colors. Miraculously, no mortar was used in the construction of the monument. It stands supported only by the weight of its stones and the friction between them.

Looking up at the Washington Monument, you can see a color change. Begun in 1848 with Maryland marble, construction paused in 1854 at the 152 foot level. When building resumed in 1880, a slightly different shade of Maryland marble was used to complete the impressive obelisk.

— National Mall NPS (@NationalMallNPS)

Eiffel Tower

Height: 1,024 feet*

Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel debuted his latticed design at the 1889 World’s Fair, originally calling it simply the “300-Meter Tower.” But its height is not exactly fixed: As its iron expands or contracts with changes in temperature, the tower grows a few inches each summer and shrinks in the winter. It has been painted 19 times, mostly by hand, to protect and preserve the metal’s integrity. The Eiffel wore coats of reddish brown, yellow and chestnut before donning its now-signature “Eiffel Tower brown” in 1968.

Chrysler Building

Height: 1,046 feet

Automotive machinist and magnate Walter P. Chrysler had this Art Deco marvel’s destiny in mind from the beginning. He commissioned architect William Van Alen to design the world’s tallest building, and the Chrysler Building indeed occupied the top spot for more than a year. Decorated with gargoyles and chrome-nickel steel, the tower also hosted a Chrysler automobile showroom in the 1930s.

Empire State Building

Height: 1,250 feet*

The Chrysler Building didn’t enjoy the top spot for long. By the time it debuted, ground had already been broken on the Empire State Building, which would surpass its Midtown neighbor after just 13 months of construction. The tower’s Art Deco lobby is a designated historic landmark, but most visitors come for the view from the top. Designated the nation’s top tourism attraction, the tower attracts four million visitors—and around 25 lightning strikes—every year.

World Trade Center

Height: 1,368 feet (the North Tower)

The World Trade Center’s two towers had a few names: One and Two; North and South; and, informally, David and Nelson, for the Rockefeller brothers who championed the behemoth development. Following in the industrious footsteps of their grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, David lobbied the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to build a World Trade Center, which would encourage international business in lower Manhattan and symbolize the United States’ leadership of global commerce. The Port Authority took up the project, while Nelson, as governor of New York, signed the law that enabled its construction. By completion, the Twin Towers had dwarfed the Empire State Building by 100 feet.

Willis Tower

Height: 1,450 feet

With the completion of the Willis Tower, the Windy City ended New York’s long reign as the world’s height capital. Built for department store giant Sears, Roebuck and Company, the building was originally known as the Sears Tower. On a fair-weather day, one can see four states from its famous skydeck: Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and, of course, Illinois.

Petronas Towers

Height: 1,483 feet

Built to headquarter the Malaysian oil company Petronas, these twin towers are connected by a two-story-tall bridge at their 41st and 42nd floors. Stabilizing the buildings is a foundation stretching 400 feet below ground. The shape of each tower’s footprint is inspired by an eight-pointed star, a traditional Malaysian Islamic shape.

Taipei 101

Height: 1,667 feet

The Taipei Financial Center debuted with a bang on New Year’s Eve in 2004, conducting the first of its now-famous annual fireworks shows. To some, the tower’s design recalls a pagoda—a traditional East Asian tiered tower—but its architect actually based the building’s appearance on a bamboo stalk. Now known as Taipei 101, the tower boasts an indoor and outdoor observatory, a mall, and high-end restaurants.

Burj Khalifa

Dubai, United Arab Emirates


Height: 2,717 feet

This “megatall” skyscraper—a classification for buildings over 1,968 feet tall—was raised in just six years, with construction costing $1.5 billion. As the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa also holds records for the ​​highest observation deck, longest elevator shaft and more. The gleaming tower is 200 stories tall, but only 160 are habitable. The top 29 percent of its stature is “vanity height,” Interesting Engineering writes: floors filled with structural support, built to increase the height of the building. The giant’s accessible floors host a five-star hotel, offices, restaurants and residences designed by Giorgio Armani.

*Refers to the height at the time of construction.

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Sonja Anderson is a writer and reporter based in New York City.