Friday 27 January 2012

A Short History of Tall Buildings

The time-line of the tallest building before 1900 is quite intriguing. Three buildings became the tallest as a result of other spires collapsing. Here's a scale illustration I knocked together to show this.

  1. In antiquity, the tallest structure was the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, completed circa 2540 BC. It was originally 146.5 metres tall, but erosion and stripping reduced that to its current height of 138.8m.
  2. In 1240, the spire of Old St Paul's in London topped out at 149.0m, becoming the new tallest building. The spire survived until 1561.
  3. In 1311, the spire of Lincoln Cathedral, England, allegedly reached 159.7m. It was destroyed in a storm in 1549.
  4. The 1549 collapse in Lincoln caused St Olaf's Church in Tallinn, Estonia, to become the tallest building at 159.0m. It was built around 1500 and survived until 1625 when a lightning strike caused the spire to burn down.
  5. So in 1625, an even older church spire, that of St Mary's in Stralsund, Germany, became the tallest. Dating back to 1478, at a height of 151.0m, it too succumbed to fire caused by lightning in 1647.
  6. In 1647, the spire of Strasbourg Cathedral, France, erected way back in 1439, became the tallest at 142.0m. It still stands.
  7. The record wasn't broken for over two hundred years, when St Nicholas' Church in Hamburg reached 147.8m in 1874.
  8. Next came a new 151.0m lantern tower at Rouen Cathedral, France, in 1876.
  9. In 1880, the thirteenth-century Cologne Cathedral in Germany, was finally completed. The twin spires are 157.4m tall, but this was still not as tall as the reputed height of Lincoln Cathedral's lost spire.
  10. In 1890, Ulm Minister was also finished in Germany, after five centuries of intermittent work. At 161.5m, the steeple is higher than originally intended, so as to out-do Cologne. It remains the tallest church in the world, but was surpassed for the record of "Tallest Building" by Philadelphia City Hall at 167.0m, which ushered in the age of the skyscraper in 1901.
  11. The Eiffel Tower, debatably not a building, was completed in 1889. It is 300m tall and is shown for comparison.
Surprisingly, the tallest structure (let alone building) in the world struggled to get much beyond the ancient pyramids until very late in the nineteen century, when the Eiffel Tower almost doubled the record.


  1. interesting post. an obvious explanation of the persistence of the pyramids both in time and height is that they have a comparatively very broad base and a pyramidal shape, making them more resistant against gravity

    1. Yes, plus you've prompted me to think about it a bit more: the problem with a "solid" structure like a pyramid is that to create something twice the height, it needs to be eight times as massive. Stone cathedral structures, although much more airy, still scale poorly, which probably explains the ~150m limit. Metal frameworks revolutionised all that.