Irreconcilable

I have, fairly often, fallen into the trap of saying that some building – Park Row, for example – was the tallest in the world. It’s a trap because there is no generally-accepted definition of “building,” let alone “skyscraper,” when it comes to making such comparisons. Park Row is referred to as 391 feet tall in Wikipedia, which is good enough for the moment, and it was completed 460 years after the 466-foot-tall Strasbourg Cathedral and some 4500 years after the 454-foot-high Great Pyramid at Giza. That doesn’t bother me for a second, because of my interests: when I’m talking about the “tallest building,” I mean buildings constructed with some form of modern technology, not simply a pile of masonry (the pyramid) or masonry vaulting (the cathedral). I’ve got nothing against masonry structures but they’re not what I study.

There is a long-running (and, in my opinion, intensely annoying) debate about what skyscraper is the tallest now, and at various points in the past. The answer is always “it depends.” It depends on how you define “skyscraper” and it depends on how you measure height. Since people will never agree entirely on those definitions, there will always be multiple answers and no one will ever convince anyone else that their pet definitions are wrong.

On to today’s snippet of the past: in the September 1903 edition of Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine, there was an article about the new, in-construction building for the New York Times, seen above a few years later. A while ago, I discussed the intimate relationship between the foundations of the new building and the under-construction IRT subway. The press room, where the paper was meant to be printed, is 55 feet below the adjacent grade, which leads to the bizarre end of the article: “It might be remarked that the Times Building is the second-highest in New York, and very possible the tallest steel structure of any, if measured from the bottom of the excavation, 55 feet below the street, where the steel structure begins.” That’s the form of measurement used to show that Mauna Kea in Hawaii is taller than Mount Everest, if you start from the below-water base of the island. It’s not wrong because, again, there is no objective standard as to how mountains are to be measured, but it’s not the way most people think. It’s particularly strange in terms of buildings: other than geotechnical and foundation engineers – fine people but not necessarily representative of the public as a whole – no one cares about the sub-cellars of a skyscraper.

There is no way to make all the different ways of measuring how tall a tall building is – height above grade, height above foundations, height above sea level, height to the main roof, height to the highest occupied floor, height to the pinnacle, etc. – work together. People will choose the one they like, often working backward from which building they want to say is the tallest.

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