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Adjusting the Vertical

The big news in New York on Monday was that the World Trade Center was once again the tallest building in the city.  As it nears completion, the new tower has surpassed the Empire State Building.

The people building it have much to be proud of, I am sure – it cannot be easy to build something that tall.  Yet it is much easier to do so today than it was when the twin towers were built and far easier than when the Empire State was built.  I read a few years ago that it would be as easy for us to build a 300-story structure today as it was to build a 100-story structure back in the seventies.

Thing is, there just is not any reason to.  City high-rises exist at all because of the communications and transportation difficulties of the past.  The cities started as ports, then it made sense to put the factories near the ports, and then it made sense to put the offices by the factories.  When your best communications device is a compressed air tube, you had to keep things pretty centralized.  Since there was only a finite amount of land near the ports, the cities had to build up, rather than out.  Housing for port, factory, and office workers only compounded the problem.

Today, there is not much call for this.  Factories have mostly moved out of the cities, long ago, connected to the ports by rail and universal shipping containers have made shipping very cheap.  Many corporate headquarters have also moved out of the cities, though some have stayed.  Most of those businesses that remain in the cities are there for convenience, not necessity, such as stock traders, advertising companies, and jewelers, who feed off each other and steal each other’s employees.  Most of our commerce, these days, is out on the beltways.

I expect that somebody will build a 200-story building very soon.  Then, maybe, a 300-story tower.  It will not be easy and it will be something to be proud of.  But it will be show-boating – a status symbol – not a bell-weather of the future.

Oh, and I am not going up in any of them.  They’re lucky to get me on a plane!


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