Remember Icarus and Daedalus? Sure, they’re not American-sounding names, but their myth endures. And the story goes that Daedalus, a highly-skilled artisan of Ancient Greece, gave his son Icarus a pair of wings to escape the elaborate Labyrinth where the dreaded monster Minotaur was imprisoned. The instructions were not to fly too high of the sun would melt the wax in the wings. But Daedalus was so captivated by all the height and the thrill of flying, flew as high as he wanted. And was doomed in the process.
The myth of Icarus can be compared to man’s quest to raise his buildings to as high as he wants them to be. It’s inevitable. The higher a building rises, the greater the challenges. It’s a question of viability. And man’s edifices that collapsed to the demands of nature are a testament to this. Good thing, man, in his quest, learned to harness ways that make it all happen. This is how skyscrapers become a by-word in today’s world.
The Higher, the Better: Taunting the Sky
It seems Ancient Greeks knew the sky would mean trouble. At least, that was what Daedalus warned his son about: not to set his sights too high. Truth be told, we can’t argue the engineering prowess of the Greeks; Alexander the Great (20/21 July 356 BC – 10/11 June 323 BC) showed in his conquests how adept Athenian craftsmanship is.
But not the modern man. Ever since the late 19th century and early 20th century, the race to make buildings that taunt the sky was on. Credit Chicago’s Home Insurance Building standing in 1885 as the first skyscraper. However, it would come out short; it was just a 10-story building.
The race was on. And America built taller and taller buildings. Then New York, America’s financial capital, caught the bug. Builders went ahead in a mad dash to conquer the sky, building skyscraper after skyscraper in the late-1920s—the proudest of them all: the Empire State building at 1,250 feet. Or in meters, it’s just about 381 and 441 meters to tip.
Today, of course, the Empire State is just a comparison chart. In Dubai, at 828 meters, 830 meters to tip, BurjKhalifa hogs the sky as the tallest man-made structure on the planet.
The Challenges and How Man Overcame Them
The greatest obstacle a skyscraper would have to contend with is gravity. It’s simple math, actually. Any mountaineering enthusiast will tell you the higher you go, the heavier your load becomes. Reason enough why lightweight shoes and backpack is best in an ascent.
So you need to have a stronger foundation if you want your building to taunt the sky. This is how the pyramids of Egypt are built. Stronger base, lesser load at the top. But that would mean you won’t have enough space to use as you go up. And the taller your building, the wider your base has to be. It was one engineering dilemma that haunted many builders for decades.
But all that was solved when steel came into the picture. Lightweight and strong, steel can be mass-produced to a builder’s specification. It was the breakthrough that made skyscrapers possible.
Novel manufacturing processes means builders can have long beams built to an architect’s desire. Steel truly is a builder’s dream come true. For one, it can support more weight than any old-school brick and mortar walls could do. And as it can bear more weight, buildings can soar higher than ever.
Indeed, if you’re planning to build strong, having a trusted supply of steel is wise. It means you’re in a better position to build horizontally or vertically.
And yes, the BurjKhalifa wouldn’t be possible without steel. To stand, the tallest building in the world consumed 39,000 tons of steel along with 330,000m3 of concrete.
Another reason why skyscrapers got to be possible is the use of elevators. Invented in 1883, elevators cut in half the time to travel from one floor to the other.
Imagine all the building materials you need to bring up. The Egyptians, in their quest to build pyramids, had to transport up millions of stones. To note, the Pyramid of Giza used over 2 million cubes of stones. To get it all up, they used a lift, a crude forerunner of the modern-day elevator.
Electricity also made it all possible. Without the power of the alternating current, power tools would not work. Lighting would be impossible.
Skyscrapers are a testament to man’s never-ending quest to expand his world. It shows us also that perhaps Icarus was right after all. Man is meant to be a master of his universe—the sun and the sky including.