World's Biggest Buildings
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
Biggest Clock Tower:Abraj Al-Bait Clock Tower, Mecca, Saudi Arabia
This mega–clock tower broke several world records when it opened in 2011. For now, at least, it’s the tallest clock tower in the world, the tallest hotel in the world (the Fairmont Makkah Clock Royal Tower), and the world’s largest clock face—visible from 16 miles away and topped by a golden crescent minaret whose massive loudspeakers emit prayer calls to a distance of four miles. If that weren’t enough, it’s also the world’s second tallest building, exceeded only by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. The mega-structure is adjacent to the world’s largest mosque, the Masjid al-Haram. fairmont.com/makkah —Adam H. Graham
Biggest ArchaeologicalMuseum: The Grand Egyptian Museum, Giza, Egypt
Like many new extreme forms of architecture, Giza’s planned Grand Egyptian Museum was the outcome of a competition. The $550 million museum is slated to open in 2013 despite Egypt’s political turmoil. It’s a 210-acre project just a mile from the Giza Pyramids that will include a main structure made with translucent alabaster and a large atrium for ancient Egyptian artifacts and statues like the 3,200-year-old Ramesses II, relocated from Cairo’s Ramses Square. gem.gov.eg —Adam H. Graham
Biggest Church: The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, Yamoussoukro, IvoryCoast
Africa gets a nod in the extreme architecture genre with the world’s largest Christian church, trumping even St. Peter’s in Vatican City. Built between 1985 and 1989 at a cost of $300 million, the nave has enough space to seat 7,000 people while offering standing room for an extra 11,000. Imported Italian marble and contemporary French stained glass adorn the basilica, which was commissioned by late Ivory Coast president Félix Houphouët-Boigny. His image can be seen as one of the Three Magi bearing gifts to Jesus in a stained-glass depiction of the Nativity. —Adam H. Graham
Biggest Building: BurjKhalifa, Dubai, UAE
The hymenocallis flower may have inspired the design team at Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, but the Burj Khalifa has an aggressive look, seeming to pierce the sky like a crystal weapon. The tower’s flashiest occupants are the 160-room Armani Hotel and an extra 144 Armani Residences (sold for more than $3,500 per square foot). It may not cling to its status as world’s tallest building for long; Mecca’s Kingdom Tower is scheduled to complete construction in 2016. If so, it would continue a recent trend of a skyscraper reaching a new height every six years. burjkhalifa.ae —Adam H. Graham
Biggest Indoor SkiResort: Skipark 360°, Stockholm
A lack of high mountain peaks won’t stop Swedes from skiing close to home. C. F. Møller has begun designs for an architectural ski resort powered by geothermal, solar, wind, and hydropower, which when it opens in 2015 will make it the world’s biggest indoor ski resort—and the greenest. A 700-meter-long downhill slope and a drop of 525 feet meet the requirements for hosting the World Cup. The resort also includes a downhill run, a 3.5-kilometer cross-country skiing tunnel, a hockey and figure-skating rink, a snow park for snowboarding, and a spa. cfmoller.com —Adam H. Graham
Biggest Solar Building:Solar City, Dezhou, China
Designed to resemble a sundial, the world’s largest solar building opened in 2009. Its 800,000 square feet of space is festooned with thousands of solar panels and features exhibit halls, scientific research facilities, and the 180-room International Solar Micro-Emission Hotel, which utilizes solar power and “will leave you impressive memory forever,” according to the website. The building is rumored to have used less than 1 percent of the steel used in Beijing’s Olympic Bird’s Nest. —Adam H. Graham
Biggest Tent: KhanShatyr Tent, Astana, Kazakhstan
The Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center (a.k.a. Royal Marquee), a giant transparent tent with a glass roof, was unveiled in 2006. The 500-foot-tall structure designed by Norman Foster’s firm remains the highest “tensile structure” in the world, while under its canopy is 10 football stadiums’ worth of landscaped park and shops, replete with squares, cobbled streets, a boating river, mini-golf courses, and a palm-lined beach filled with white sand from the Maldives. khanshatyr.com —Adam H. Graham
Biggest Inverted Building: Earthscraper, Mexico City
A 65-story subterranean “Earthscraper” that would extend 900 feet under Mexico City’s El Zócalo and be covered in tempered glass sounds like an earthquake disaster waiting to happen. But the project’s designer, Esteban Suárez from architecture firm BNKR Arquitectura, promises a safe, ecofriendly structure that adheres to the city’s height restrictions, preserves historic Cuauhtémoc’s skyline, and prevents urban sprawl. bunkerarquitectura.com —Adam H. Graham
Biggest Factory: Boeing Everett Factory, Everett, WA
Europe and the United States have become mostly bystanders in the race for record-breaking architecture, but America’s Boeing Everett Factory, 25 miles north of Seattle, remains the world’s largest building by volume and world’s largest factory. Workers assemble Boeing aircraft—including the new 787 Dreamliner—within this 472,000,000-cubic-foot factory. Ninety-minute public tours depart daily. boeing.com —Adam H. Graham
Biggest Single-Story Structure: Vehicle Assembly Building, Cape Canaveral, FL
Adorned with a massive American Flag and NASA Logo, the Kennedy Space Center’s behemoth eight-acre main building encompasses 129,428,000 cubic feet indoors. It is the world’s biggest single-story structure and the fourth largest by volume. Though the VAB retired in 2011, it helped launch 135 missions. It reopened for public tours in November 2011 after more than three decades off-limits; visitors on these new “Up-Close” tours get to view the launch pads where massive vehicles were assembled and walk along the Transfer Aisle, used to move elements of rockets among the building’s four High Bays. kennedyspacecenter.com —Adam H. Graham
Biggest Stadium: Rungrado May Day, North Korea
The Olympics aren’t coming to North Korea anytime soon, but if they were, this 150,000-person stadium in Pyongyang would be ideal for opening and closing ceremonies. It has the largest capacity of any stadium worldwide and was built to host an international youth festival in 1989; today, while it’s said to be used for sporting events, it seems best suited for big celebrations of whichever Dear Leader is in charge. —Rich Beattie
Biggest Mausoleum: Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Emperor Shah Jahan’s tomb for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is so universally recognized it’s practically a cliché. But that doesn’t stop the millions of travelers who make the pilgrimage to Agra and swoon at the emperor’s romantic vision. —Rich Beattie
Biggest Parliament: Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, Romania
With more than 1,100 rooms, 12 stories above ground, and many more underground, Romania’s Parliament has a floor area of more than 3,875,000 square feet—setting the record for the world’s largest civilian* administration building. This behemoth is also the world’s heaviest building, made from 1.5 billion pounds of steel and bronze, 7.7 million pounds of crystal glass, and a whole lot of decorative marble and wood. —Lyndsey Matthews
*The largest building for military use is the Pentagon, at 6.5 million square feet.
Biggest Sphere: Ericsson Globe, Stockholm
As many as 16,000 fans show up for rock concerts within the world’s largest hemispherical building, which has also hosted ice-hockey face-offs, luminaries like the Dalai Lama, and the 2000 Eurovision Song Contest. Its biggest thrill comes from a ride in the SkyView gondola, which travels up the outer edge of the globe to deliver spectacular city views. globearenas.se. —Kate Appleton
Biggest Skyscraper (EU): Shard London Bridge, London
Renzo Piano’s design for this skyscraper in the Southwark neighborhood has drawn mixed reviews, with some fretting a possible domino effect of tall glass buildings in the historic city. Others love the modern look and plans that include a hotel and a viewing gallery on the 72nd floor. While not shattering any worldwide records, the Shard of Glass, as it’s been nicknamed, will be the tallest building in the European Union when completed in May 2012—just in time for the summer Olympics spotlight on London. the-shard.com. —Kate Appleton
Biggest Museum: National Museum of China, Beijing
After tripling its previous exhibition space, this museum on Tiananmen Square reopened in April 2011. It now measures 2.07 million square feet surpassing the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 2 million square feet. While the Louvre is still the most-visited museum in the world, it looks like the National Museum of China will soon take that title, with between 8 and 10 million guests expected per year. —Lyndsey Matthews
BiggestMovie Theater: Kinepolis, Madrid
There may be cooler movie theaters in the world, with 4-D technology or gourmet bacon-fat popcorn, but none can compete with the sheer size of Kinepolis: at showtime, as many as 9,200 moviegoers can fill the 25 screening rooms. The Madrid record-holder opened in 1998 and is part of the Kinepolis Group, one of the biggest theater companies in Europe. kinepolis.com —Kate Appleton
BiggestCasino: Venetian Macao, Macao, China
Macao, a tiny former Portuguese colony now administered by China, staked its fortunes on gambling—opening the first of many Western-style casinos in 2004—and has been winning big. The Venetian Macao outdoes its Vegas counterpart with 550,000 square feet, 3,000 gaming machines, and 870 poker and table games. The total size of the casino and hotel complex is equivalent to 56 football fields. —Kate Appleton
Biggest Airport Terminal: Terminal 3 (T3), DubaiInternational Airport, United Arab Emirates
At 16 million square feet, T3 is the world’s largest single-terminal building. It opened in October 2008 and displaced the former winner, Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3 by nearly 6 million square feet. Yet Dubai won’t be able to hold this title for long. Beijing’s Daxing airport, now under construction, will be the world’s largest and busiest overall when completed. At nearly 21 square miles, it’ll be the size of Bermuda. dubaiairport.com —Lyndsey Matthews
Biggest Wooden Building: Great Buddha Hall at Todai-jiTemple, Nara, Japan
Part of a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage temple complex, the Great Buddha Hall is 187 feet long and 164 feet wide, making it the world’s largest wooden building and big enough to fit a 50-foot-tall sitting Buddha statue. Some say it’s the largest bronze statue of the Vairocana Buddha in the world. todaiji.or.jp —Lyndsey Matthews
Update: A T+L reader wrote to us to point out the wooden blimp hangars on the former Tustin Marine base in California, which are indeed bigger (1,000 feet long and 300 feet wide) than the Great Buddha Hall. But we didn't include the hangars here since they aren't currently accessible to the public. It looks like this will soon change as the Orange County Parks Commission just approved a plan to restore the northern hangar and to transform the land around it into a park.