Lord of the Bling: The 10 Tallest Towers

Skyscrapers serve a useful purpose as hotels, office space, and lookout observatories. But, let’s be honest, these buildings were constructed to serve a higher purpose- to show off. Traveling to big cities throughout the world, I have had the opportunity to see many of these architectural marvels from below, from above, and from the side. Apart from being awestruck as to how they were constructed, I have taken note of the tall tales that cement their legendary status.

Here is the list for the ten tallest buildings in the world and the deep, dark secret each of them possesses.

Number 10 & 9: The Petronas Towers

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The Petronas Towers, located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is an excellent place to start my survey of the world’s tallest buildings because they are the tallest twin towers in the world. The towers gained their notoriety, at least for me, after that silly movie Entrapment starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones.

The Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir (not the one from Zoolander) authorized construction of the towers on a former horse race track. The building was meant to symbolize the modernization of Malaysia and its emergence on the world stage as a significant economic player. Indeed, its chief occupants, Petronas, a Malaysian oil and gas company, is one of the largest corporations in the world.

The shadow cast by these imposing towers on the city of KL hides the fact that 60 percent of the country still lives on less than $1,600 a month. While there is a stronger emerging middle class in Malaysia in comparison to other countries in SE Asia, the disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor is significant.

Add in all the rats and cockroaches running around the city and it seems like the tactic of constructing these edifices is for visitors and onlookers alike to gaze up at the towers in lieu of the reality of what is happening at their feet.

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Number 8: The International Commerce Centre

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View of Hong Kong Island

I arrived by bus from Shenzhen, China to Kowloon, Hong Kong to take the TurboJet to Macau. Exiting the taxi I looked up, strained my neck, and saw a fixture of the Hong Kong skyline, the International Commerce Centre.

Hong Kong has a distinct and unmistakable aura. Maybe it comes from the cinema, maybe it’s because of Bruce Lee, or perhaps it’s because of the criminal underworld, but there’s something sexy about saying the words Hong Kong.

This appeal is personified by the Ritz Carlton, especially in the Ozone bar, located on the 118th floor of the world’s eighth tallest building. While I have yet to frequent the establishment, I can safely guess that if the view from above is in any way striking as the view from below, it may be worth shelling out the exorbitant cost/applying for the Chase Ritz card for a night on top of the town.

Again, as was the case in Kuala Lumpur, the architecture of the city entrances visitors to focus on what man can do and ignore the limitations of what man has not done-provide affordable housing. While luxury high rise apartments provide the glitz and glamour lifestyle as portrayed on the silver screen, many Hong Kong inhabitants, both legal and illegal, live in squalor.

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2 International Finance Centre (The 20th Tallest Building)

Number 7: Shanghai World Financial Center

My favorite building on this list is the Shanghai World Financial Center for many reasons:

  1. It is located in my favorite city in the world.
  2. It is beautifully designed and spectacularly lit up at night.
  3. It is home to the one of a kind Park Hyatt perched on the 90th floor (a resort I stayed at in June 2014).
  4. It has a great story.

Fortunately, the story I will tell of this man-made wonder is not depressing and relates to the change of its original design from a circular top to its final look, a rectangular display.

Legend has it that the one of the principal investors was Japanese and had cleverly advocated for the circular design so when the sun shined through the opening it would resemble the Japanese flag rising over the city of Shanghai.

The clear connotation that Japan could cast its dominance over China by way of the tallest building in the country at the time was more than off putting, leading to a design change and the likeness of a bottle opener seen today.

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Number 6: Taipei 101

Taipei 101 is my least favorite skyscraper. It is architecturally as appealing as the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai and the story behind its name is as nerd as it gets. Perhaps that was their intent as the name 101 was accordingly chosen to celebrate technology via binary coding 1-0-1. How academic.

Furthermore, the building name is supposed to symbolize perfection and hope. What’s better than 100? 101. How uninspiring and forced.

Finally, on a positive note, the name symbolizes a century gone by and new century on the horizon. That’s hopeful but it doesn’t excuse naming what was once the world’s tallest building after a freshman course in college.

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World’s scariest job?

Number 5: CTF Financial Centre

All I know about this building is that it is located Guangzhou and is under construction. The only anecdote I can share about Guangzhou is that the first airport I went to while moving to China was Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. What a mess!

Number 4: One World Trade Center

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At this point I have to say that the original World Trade Center is my favorite group of buildings of all time. The beauty was in their simplicity and timelessness of their design.

Following the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, architects put in proposals from all over the world to reconstruct the site. The winner was Daniel Libeskind whose original design was both creative and captivating. Unfortunately, his original proposal was altered and we are left with the bland building we see today.

Instead of letting Libeskind’s work speak for itself, his design was changed, the building was named the Freedom Tower by Governor Pataki, and the only remnant of his genius was the height of the building- 1776 feet. Alas, even the twisting design of this spire to attain this symbolic height was altered.

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Number 3: Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel

This list continues to have a cynical tone as we arrive at the Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel in Saudi Arabia. Scratch that, the overwhelming majority of us will not see the meek imitation of Big Ben because it is extremely difficult to visit Saudi Arabia. Unless you are there for work, managed to obtain a transit visa, Americans (not sure about the visa rules for other countries) are not allowed to go to Saudi Arabia without an invitation.

Number 2: The Shanghai Tower

Conspiracy is back again at number 2 with the Shanghai Tower. Is it a coincidence given the Japanese folklore of the World Financial Center that the Shanghai Tower built next door not only dwarfs its rival but also obstructs the view of the Huangpu River?

I think not. But I do think it is a sight to behold on what is the most beautiful skyline in the world.

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From my room at the Park Hyatt

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Number 1: Burj Khalifa

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Under construction when I visited in 2009

And now for my favorite story, the story of a man named Khalifa and a tower originally named Dubai. Sheikh Khalifa is the President of the United Arab Emirates and the Ruler of Abu Dhabi. Dubai is an emirate within the UAE and a rival with Abu Dhabi.

Dubai has Emirate Airlines one of the best in the world so Abu Dhabi built up Etihad Airways. Dubai has incongruent, futurama architecture, so Abu Dhabi responded with the same. Abu Dhabi has the Grand Prix, Dubai has pros playing tennis on a helipad. Dubai has manmade islands, Abu Dhabi has some too.

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This is all in keeping with the theme of the Middle East: Anything you can build, I can build bigger.

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Palm Jumeirah

Then came the financial crisis and the consequences of irrational exuberance- bankruptcy. Dubai was going broke and the only way out was to ask Abu Dhabi for some help. Abu Dhabi proposed that Dubai sell its signature Emirates Airlines, an offer that was rebuffed by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Knowing Dubai was too big to fail (pun intended), Abu Dhabi finally agreed to provide a bailout.

The cost?

The name of the tallest building in the world, a building that has a spire of unknown length that can be extended if a rival dares to build higher, a building that was the crowning achievement for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, would have to be changed from bearing the namesake of Dubai to forever being called Khalifa.

With that it was game, set, match on this rivalry.

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