Driving along Dubai’s E11 motorway, it’s easy to get distracted by the sky-high construction. But the glassy Burj Khalifa is so tall that you need to pull over and actually get out of your car to view the entire record-breaking building.
Budgets may be smaller and downsizing inevitable, but when it comes to architecture, big is in. Seems whenever there’s an economic downturn, buildings go to new heights. The Empire State Building went up in 1931 during the Depression. Similarly, Burj Khalifa topped out at 2,723 feet in 2010, deep into the Great Recession. When times are tough, nothing says stability like a big, solid structure. These mega-buildings are universally comforting and inspiring.
Today’s superlatives of architecture trend toward high-tech achievements, and emerging regional powerhouses like Asia dominate the list. The biggest LCD screen in Beijing and the largest tented structure in Kazakhstan reveal a new competitive race that was once measured in height, but is now marked by impressive advances in engineering.
“For the first time, new design tools have flooded the market, so a lot of the extremes we are seeing are tests of how far we can go,” says Forrest Jessee, architectural designer for Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the firm behind New York’s Highline and Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. “Possibilities with software, fabrication, forms, and workflows are very much a frontier right now.”
Even the concept of sustainable architecture is entering the record-setting race. The world’s largest solar building, designed to resemble a sundial, recently opened in Dezhou, China. The structure has more than 800,000 square feet of space, and much like the region it’s in, has become China’s lab for clean energy—not a bad way to counter critics of China’s environmental policies or to pique the interest of tourists.
Such cutting-edge buildings put new tourism icons on the map, even as age-old examples of grand architecture continue to capture our imaginations. They remind us that the impulse to think and build big isn’t a new one. Consider the Great Pyramids—the world’s tallest structures for nearly four millennia—or Beijing’s Forbidden City, which still holds the record for the world’s largest palace complex and lures 12.8 million annual visitors.
As architects strive to outdo each other and new cities and structures command recognition, the new motto remains evident: more is more. —Adam H. Graham