Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Tom Cruise dangles from the Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building, in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.
Photo: Paramount
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: List of visionary tall buildings and structures 

What it’s about: Since the skyscraper era began, architects have been drawing ambitious plans for structures that would tower over even the largest, well, tower. While some of the buildings on the list are still intended to be built, many more were canceled after they were deemed too expensive, and still more never got past the blueprint stage. Even so, the world of architecture uses these ambitious dream projects to push the form forward, and even the least-practical design can influence a more realistic building down the line.


Biggest controversy: This is less controversial than it is stupid, but architecture firm Oiio proposed the Big Bend, a slender, 2,000-foot-tall building in the shape of an inverted U on Central Park South—essentially two towers joined at the top by a difficult-to-navigate curve. There are many, many obstacles to construction. The local community board (which would have to approve construction) called the proposal “silly,” the plan would involve tearing down a 77-story building to make room, and the poor Calvary Baptist Church would have this building on either side and looming over it. And, of course, the elevator needed to travel up, around a curve, horizontally, and back down again doesn’t exist, apart from the one belonging to a Mr. Wonka.

Strangest fact: For the 50th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower’s construction, Paris planned a tower twice as tall, built for cars. The Phare du Monde (Lighthouse Of The World) was a concrete observation tower, designed by Eugéne Freyssinet, a pioneer in pre-stressed concrete (a very strong type of concrete). The tower was planned to be 2,300 feet tall, with a spiral road that ran up the outside, ending in a parking garage for 500 cars, 1,640 feet in the air. (By comparison, Chicago’s Sears Tower, a.k.a. the Willis Tower, is 1,450 feet tall.) The top was to have a light beacon and a restaurant. The idea was scrapped, possibly because of the $2.5 million price tag. (Forty-three million dollars today, or 2.25 percent of Infinity War’s box office as of press time. Pretty reasonable, all things considered.)

Thing we were happiest to learn: While no one’s yet topped the 2,722-foot world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa), everyone wants to. The 3,440-foot Azerbaijan Tower would be the centerpiece of a planned (and stalled) $100 billion city of artificial islands in the Caspian Sea. The 5,577-foot Sky Mile Tower would serve as a dam in the Tokyo Bay, supplying its own water for residential use. The Millennium Challenge Tower was designed to be 6,076 feet tall while “not using concrete, orthogonal grids, traditional systems, mortars, [or] cranes.” Wikipedia doesn’t elaborate as to how the building actually would be built, but we’re rooting for giant sandcastle.

The Burj would be in the literal shadow of the Dubai City Tower, a proposed 400-floor tower nearly three times the height of the current tallest building. But even that looks unimpressive compared to Eugene Tsui’s 1991 proposal for the Ultima Tower, a 10,558-foot tower in San Francisco that could house a million people. (Not sure where in the city you could find space for a building 6,000 feet in diameter; Tsui left the minor details for others to figure out.)

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Sixty years after Frank Lloyd Wright dreamed up the first arcology, we have yet to see one built. An arcology, for those of you who didn’t play SimCity 2000, is a self-contained city within a city. Wright’s unrealized 1956 design was The Illinois, a mile-high, 528-story tower where people would live, work, and play, although the “atomic-powered” elevators Wright envisioned were no more realistic in 1956 as they are today.


Through the decades, other people have seized on Wright’s idea of a self-contained city, but while modern proposals have gotten even bigger, and usually include sustainable features like hydroponic farms and in-house energy generation, none of them are any closer to being built. Aeropolis 2001, also intended for Tokyo Bay, would have been 6,565 feet tall, while rival project Sky City 1000 was a more manageable 3,281 and would have included balconies with green space every few floors, but neither concept survived the Japanese housing bubble bursting in the early ’90s. Undaunted, the Japanese simply dreamed bigger once the economy recovered. At 6,575 feet, Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid would be the largest structure ever built and house 750,000 people. But even it would be dwarfed by X-Seed 4000, intended to house a million inhabitants, and at 13,123 feet, to be the tallest building ever designed.

The Bionic Tower, at 4,030 feet and 100,000 inhabitants, is small by comparison, but it might be the closest arcology to actually existing—both Hong Kong’s and Shanghai’s city governments have expressed interest.

All this talk of tall towers is giving us vertigo.
Photo: John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Also noteworthy: The biggest project on the list is also the oldest. In 1895, only 10 years removed from an era when the tallest (non-cathedral) building in the world was a five-story flax mill, Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky thought bigger than anyone ever had. He dreamed up a structure 22,236 miles high, tall enough to reach geostationary orbit. The Space Elevator he had dreamed up became a staple of science and science fiction alike, as in theory, we could send materials and even people into orbit without an expensive rocket launch. There are still hurdles—a material has yet to be invented strong enough to take the strain of being suspended from orbit—but science is still dreaming of making Tsiolkovsky’s idea a reality.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: While these ambitious, unrealized plans are fun to contemplate, if you’re interested in skyscrapers that actually exist, head to this list of cities with the most skyscrapers. Enjoy bragging rights, assuming you live in Hong Kong, New York, or Dubai, the top three. Fun fact: after New York City (257) and Chicago (121), the American city with the most skyscrapers is Miami, with 42. Less fun fact: The list is so exhaustive that it includes seemingly every city in the world that has any skyscrapers at all. Be proud of both of yours, Edmonton!

Further down the Wormhole: We saved two of the biggest (and wildest) concepts for last. In 1981, an engineer named Keith Lofstrom proposed the Launch Loop, a 1,200-mile maglev conveyor belt that would go 50 miles high. (Picture a roller coaster with a 50-mile-high climb, a 1,000-mile straightaway to keep you in suspense, and then a 50-mile drop.) It’s not clear how something so large could be built, much less supported at that height, but the concept is interesting.


By 2001, maglev inventor James R. Powell scaled Loftstrom’s idea down to a manageable 20 miles high with StarTram, a maglev track that would start on level ground (at the highest altitude possible), but then continue on straight as the Earth’s curvature fell away. The track would then shoot objects into orbit. StarTram claims that with enough funding, the system could be built in a little over a decade. (And with enough funding, we could round out this entire 5,656,989-part series by 2020. Honest.) Both of these ambitious concepts (and the space elevator) fall under the category of non-rocket spacelaunch, a means of getting into orbit that could revolutionize space travel, if we could only figure out how to actually make one of these ideas work. We’ll take a look next week.

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.

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