Reaching for the Sky: From Towers to Skyscrapers

Lucia R

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Through the ages, humans have been trying to reach the very heavens through architecture. But why do we aim to touch the sky? There have been, and are, many reasons human beings erect high buildings; those reasons go from the utilitarian to the esoteric, and understanding them can give us a better perspective of the architectural structures that have the power to drastically change a skyline.

Religious reasons

Some of the earliest examples of towers in the history of architecture were erected in the name of divinity. Most cultures look at the sky whenever they think of the divine, and it's only natural they try to approach it in any way possible. Some interesting examples can be found through history:

The towers of silence: These cylindrical towers, found in India, had the sole purpose of helping to dispose of the bodies of the departed by the means of a sky burial- the towers served both religious and practical purposes: dead bodies were considered impure by the Zoroastrians, and the best way to dispose of dead bodies was to let the birds to the job, and putting the bodies in a high place made it easier for the birds to reach them.

Egyptian pyramids: They served religious purposes too, and much like the towers of silence, they helped the departed go back to the beyond, this time serving as a temporary home for the body. The higher the pyramid, the closer to the sky, the closer to the sun- considered god as well; their height made it easier for the spirit to reach the land of the gods.

Mesopotamic Ziggurats: These pyramid like structures held a temple on top; one of the most famous ones is the Ziggurat of Ur, dedicated to the Moon goddess Nanna. They sought the skies in order to be closer to her.

Aztec pyramids: Also, made for religious reasons, to be closer to their gods and the sky. They held temples and ritualistic structures on top for various religious affairs, some of them entailed human sacrifice and the offering of their hearts to the god of Sun, atop of the building.

Cathedrals and Basilicas: Cathedrals were built for religious and vanity reasons; a city with a cathedral was highly regarded, so much that cities built big basilicas in the hopes of the church appointing a bishop, thus turning them into cathedrals. The first cathedrals were modest in height, but as time went by and their constructive methods became more sophisticated, Cathedrals got higher and lighter. While not towers themselves, these structures paved the way for the skyscrapers we know nowadays, thanks to their engineering developments.


Practical Purposes

The height towers provide was explored in different ways through the ages, turning them into utilitarian structures.

Defensive towers: Height gives a defensive advantage, and this didn't go unnoticed. There's a reason why whenever we think of a tower, the first thing that comes to mind is a castle's defensive tower; defensive towers have been around for thousands of years, in many shapes, heights and materials. There have even been movable towers, used as siege equipment.

In a contemporary setting, towers are used for their scenic views.

Light houses: Without light houses, port cities around the world wouldn't have been as successful as they were. Lighthouses were devised to prevent ships from crashing with rocks or getting lost in misty mornings or dark nights, and guiding them safely to port. The most famous early example is the Lighthouse of Alexandria; its importance was also strategical, as it helped Julius Caesar subdue Ptolemy XVI, after he got control of the tower. Nowadays lighthouses are still found at every port.

A contemporary variation of this typology would be the air traffic control tower, used in airports.

Residential Towers: Human settlements started changing, and growing cities had to accommodate a larger amount of people in a short period of time; the first residential towers, or apartment towers, date from the 17th century in France. These towers were then adopted by the British during the industrial revolution, to house the hundreds of people migrating from the countryside to the cities.

These days this typology of tower is still current, as cities struggle with density and population problems, and residential towers offer an immediate answer. The tallest residential tower in the world, the 432 Park Avenue located in New York, is 1,396 ft tall.


Vanity purposes

As engineering gets more sophisticated, towers are used to express the power of a city or nation, making them into vanity pieces- these buildings compete for height and design complexity. For better or worse, these towers have a huge impact on their surroundings.

Skyscrapers: The most patent example of a tower as a vanity piece is the Empire State building, an iconic component of New York's skyline; its purpose was to be the tallest building in the world, a title the tower finally obtained thanks to its antenna- added at the last minute just to reach the necessary height.

These towers are usually built to harbour business centers and hotels.

Nowadays, vanity towers can be found all around the world; in order to be built and sustain their own weight they require a great deal of engineering efforts. Due to these towers, new constructive methods are found- the same thing that happened years ago due to Cathedrals.

Buildings like the Taipei 101 or the Petronas Towers are so tall and impossible to miss that they end up being iconic staples of the cities or countries they're in, which makes them more than just a vanity piece in the end.


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