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World's Tallest Status Symbols

Billionaires and newly affluent countries across Asia compete to build record-setting skyscrapers, from a miniskirted mogul's Nina Tower to N. Korea's 105-story white elephant.


HONG KONG — Call it Asia's Edifice Complex.

Fueled by fast-growing economies, leaders with high hopes and billionaires with big egos, the continent is displacing the United States as the home of the world's tallest towers. Once the base for the 10 highest buildings in the world, the United States can now claim only three: the Sears Tower, the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building.

The rest are in Asia, where, from China to Malaysia, builders are erecting super-tall towers to symbolize the region's rising place in the world economy. Among them: a vanity tower sponsored by a miniskirted Hong Kong billionaire and a 105-story pyramid whose elevators don't work.

Building the record-breaking skyscrapers is not easy or efficient. And the higher they go, the more expensive they are.

"As a good architect, I tell my clients it's suicide," says Yuheng Shang, whose firm, HLW International, designed a 1,693-foot tower to put the central Chinese city of Chongqing on the map. "It's much more efficient to build two 44-story towers than one 88-floor one."

So why do it? A survey of top designers and developers around the world showed that the most common reasons to reach for the sky are "self-advertising," "ego" and "expression of identity."

Psychoanalysts and architects alike cannot ignore the phallic symbolism of the towers of power.

"It's like locker-room envy," says Malaysian architect Kenneth Yeang. "It's a matter of 'Mine is bigger than yours.' "

American architect Cesar Pelli, who designed the current record-holder, the 1,483-foot Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, has a loftier explanation: "Very tall buildings touch us intimately, in deep chords of our psyche. It's a very old human urge to point toward heaven."

Over the ages, the tallest structures have traditionally been places of worship and triumphal monuments, and it is no accident that Pelli incorporated elements of both into the Petronas Towers. The twin towers' bases are shaped like eight-sided Islamic stars; the spires suggest a mosque's minarets. A dramatic "sky bridge" on the 41st and 42nd floors connects a conference room, a dining area and a chamber for prayer.

The building, which will be the headquarters of the state-run petroleum company, also houses Malaysia's national ambitions. The towers have become the symbol of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's "20-20 Vision" campaign: a drive to make the nation fully developed technologically by 2020. A Malaysian architect reports that the prime minister has taken a special interest in the building and that he emphatically rejects rumors that it is beginning to lean.

The architect backs up Mahathir's assessment: "It's not tilting; it's settling, and within an allowable limit."

Leapfrog Into Future

While the towers represent Malaysia's ambition to leapfrog into the future, from Third World to First World country, they also show a shift in dynamism from the West to the East.

When the Petronas Towers won the "world's tallest" record from Chicago's Sears Tower in March, the Windy City took the development hard. Although the Sears Tower's 110 stories overshadow the Petronas' 88-floor towers, judges from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat included the Malaysian building's 242-foot spires in their calculations, which gave it a 29-foot height advantage.

"Spires count; antennas don't," says Lynn Beedle, director of the Council on Tall Buildings, which is based at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and created the height criteria. The guidelines state that measurements will be taken "from the sidewalk level of the main entrance to the structural top of the building, including penthouse and tower. Towers include spires and pinnacles. Television and radio antennas, masts and flagpoles are not included."

Sears Tower officials conceded that its 64-foot radio antennas should not count but protested that the antennas' steel bases should--which would give them 35 feet over the Petronas Towers.

"Chicago couldn't get over it," Beedle says. "But they still have the highest observation deck."

The skyscraper is an American invention. The first tall buildings rose in Chicago before the turn of the century, and the height competition is as old as American cities' soaring ambitions.

These towering symbols tap "a certain subconscious feeling of 'How far can I reach?' " says Hong Kong psychotherapist Cathy Tsang-Feign, who has researched life in tall buildings and related topics.

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