A New Tallest Building, Another Sign of Economic Doom

The economy may be faltering, but plans for Kingdom Tower, a building in Jeddah that will rise 1,000 meters into the sky, are underway

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Amid the terrible economic news last week was a little item that seemed to come from a different era: Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is forging ahead with plans for a 1,000-meter-tall Kingdom Tower in Jeddah. Once completed, it will be the world's tallest building, surpassing Dubai's Burj Khalifa by more than 100 meters.

The timing is actually quite typical. Researchers have suggested that there may be a correlation between a new tallest-building and a looming economic slowdown. The Empire State Building, constructed during the Great Depression, experienced vacancy rates over 70 percent in its early years and was often derided as "The Empty State Building." The Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) was completed just before the economy took a dive in 1973.

For the owners of such buildings, the timing couldn't be worse. But for the rest of us, the completion of a new record-setting skyscraper can be a tiny patch of blue sky amid all the bad economic news, touching off a frenzy of pomp and circumstance to mark the achievement.

When the Empire State Building was opened in 1931, that was certainly the case. The New York Times reported:

The new Empire State Building, the world's tallest structure, which has been erected at a cost of about $52,000,000 on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, was opened formally yesterday. The chief executives of the nation, State and city took part in the ceremonies and added their tributes to the greetings that came from all over the world.

President Hoover in Washington pressed a button at 11:30 A.M. that switched on the lights within the building that rears its head 1,250 feet above the sidewalks. He sent a message of congratulation that was read by former Governor Alfred E. Smith, president of Empire State, Inc., at a luncheon and ceremonial on the eighty-sixth floor.

The Governor's speech at that luncheon sums up the spirit of pride that accompanied that day. He said:

Too much praise cannot be given to the faithful workmen that put this monument in the air. I came over here during the course of its constructions, and it was the cleanest, finest piece of building constructing that probably this country has ever known. We propose to put a tablet down in the main hall and inscribe upon it the names of the master craftsmen who received the awards for being the best in their particular line, so that their children, and their children's children, when they come in this Empire State, can be able to point to the tablet with the pride that they will feel in the achievement of their forefathers. You remember the little picture that was in the evening Post depicting Tony and his mother on the roof of an east-side tenement, and the mother put her hand on Tony's head , pointed up to the Empire Building and said: "Tony, your old man is building that!" And Tony's old man had a large part in the building of it, and the mother had a justified pride, and we share it with her. I am for the mother, and I am for Tony and for Tony's old man.

The first ceremonial today was the cutting of the ribbon across the main entrance on Fifth Avenue. That little ceremony was performed by two of my grandchildren, and we had a reason for it. This building is being built for generations to come down through the ages, and the two small children with scarcely the proper understanding of just what was going on were there to symbolize for all time to come that his building is to be a monument for generations to come.

As Alexis Madrigal pointed out in The Atlantic's March issue, the limitations on future mega-skyscrapers are more financial than technological. Given this, the news of the Kingdom Tower is a reminder not just of the achievements of human craftsmanship and technology, but of the possibilities and power of capital, even in these bleak economic times.

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Images: 1. PR Newswire/Newscom/Kingdom Holding Company; 2. Wikimedia Commons.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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