Carol Willis
The Skyscraper Museum, New York City

In both professional circles and in the public eye, the subject of the World’s Tallest Building (WTB) has held the spotlight for more than a century. Singer, Woolworth, Empire State, Sears, World Trade Center: these American giants have inspired dozens of books and documentaries. After the title of WTB left US shores at the end of the 20th century, competition and press attention went global. Key points of discussion have been how to measure height and what parts of the building to count.

Yet there is another competitive category of high-rise size that has been ignored: Biggest. What were, and are now, the World’s Largest Buildings (WLB), measured by floor area? Area, after all, is the dimension that owners value most. Accurate floor area is hard to determine and track, however, because formulas to gauge Gross Floor Area (GFA) can vary widely across cities, countries, and decades.

Measured by floor area, the American skyscrapers completed in the 1970s—the original World Trade Center and Chicago’s Sears (now Willis) Tower—were the biggest ever constructed (and they may still hold that title when rigorous analysis is attempted). Each building had 110 floors and a GFA that topped 418,000 square meters. Twenty-first century supertalls, especially in the Middle East and in China, have far surpassed the former giants in height—but not in floor area. One part of the evolution of the skyscraper is the story of ascending height. Another is of increasing size—but only to a point. The apogee of that evolution came, 50 years ago. This presentation takes note of that fact, and also explores why.