In recent weeks and months, American skyscrapers have been much in the news. For the time being, the United States does not appear poised to retake the title for tallest skyscraper (a distinction that has belonged to cities in Malaysia, Taiwan, and United Arab Emirates for more than a decade). With superlative height no longer the most viable way to generate excitement and visibility, we are seeing aesthetics move squarely into the arena of skyscraper competition.

Just over a week ago, 1 World Trade Center topped the Empire State Building on its way to a symbolic 1,776-foot height (when the antenna is included), returning the distinction of tallest New York skyscraper downtown after an eleven-year absence. Not to be outdone, the Empire State Building’s owners, according to the New York Post, are replacing 400 incandescent bulbs that illuminate the building’s crown with 68,000 tiny LED lights that will enable special effects in lighting never before possible. The denial of competition with the new building is reminiscent of the claims surrounding a decision in 1929 to add 200 feet to the Empire State Building’s height, ostensibly to permit a dirigible air-docking mast. As noted in a 2010 article in the New York Times, the under-construction Chrysler Building’s intended height was within four feet of the originally planned 1,050-foot peak of the Empire State Building.


Empire State Building, New York. Photo by Nate Congleton on Flickr

Because the skyline helps define how both tourists and locals view a city, changes can be unsettling. In Chicago, a city that many consider the cradle of modern architecture, Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin has pointed to the proliferation of corporate signage atop the city’s skyline. Yet even building-top signs, given time, can become cherished parts of the view, as seen following the recent announcement that Motorola will replace the iconic Santa Fe railroad sign that has stood over South Michigan Avenue for decades.

World Building, New York. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, LC-D4-18523, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

As much as for their capacity to make high use of expensive land, skyscrapers have always been important as attention grabbers, as Art M. Blake demonstrates in his essay on New York City in American Tourism. Joseph Pulitzer’s 20-story, domed New York World Building in downtown New York, completed in 1890, invited tourists to get a bird’s-eye view from the observation deck of what was for a few short years the world’s tallest building. Four decades later King Kong scaled the Empire State Building in the famous film of the same name in 1933, only adding to its iconic status. Long the world’s tallest building, New York’s venerable Art Deco skyscraper first lost that distinction in the early 1970s with the construction of the original World Trade Center towers and Chicago’s Sears Tower. Yet it remains arguably the world’s most recognizable skyscraper and is a tremendous symbol of the city for tourists. As image becomes more important than ever, it is hardly surprising that LED schemes, representing the latest tech vogue in illumination, are finding their way up the sides of our cities’ most recognizable symbols.