Why do we build tall structures?

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The symbol of growth in China and India of the early 21st century is the proliferation of skyscrapers. This was also the symbol of urbanization in the early 20th century U.S. How did this come about? As cities grow, people are packed into greater and greater densities (e.g., tenements) but there are limits to what even poor people can tolerate. So, the choices are to build out or build up. Building out requires the construction of advanced transportation systems—first trolleys, trains and rails, later cars and buses and roads and bridges and tunnels. Building up requires new techniques of construction of course, but also ways to deal with the energy needed to get up and down, and issues like heating, cooling, lighting and communication. 

In many parts of the world today, notably in Asia, societies are rapidly transforming. A major part of this transformation is urbanization, the flocking of people from the countryside to cities. A sign of this transformation is the construction of tall buildings. Since the Lincoln Cathedral surpassed the Pyramids of Egypt in 1300 CE, all of the tallest buildings in the world were in Europe and North America. Then, in 1998, the Petronas Towers opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Today the five tallest buildings are in Asia (One World Trade Center in New York City is #6)

These areas are being transformed because of their integration into the world economic system that itself was the result of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century in Western societies and the subsequent growth and expansion of those western societies. Interestingly, tall buildings, known as skyscrapers, were a sign of urbanization and industrial growth in Europe and North America at that time. This unit explores the connections between industrialization, urbanization, and skyscrapers, and how it was that skyscrapers were able to be built when and how they were. Key areas of attention will be building materials and related technologies that allowed for taller structures.

Teachers are encouraged to use the following notes as they prepare for this unit, and additional secondary resources are listed at the end of this document.


Supporting Questions

  • Tall Tower

    Lesson focuses on the growth of tall buildings and their structures. Students work in teams to develop the tallest tower they can build with limited materials that can support the weight of a golf ball for two minutes.

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  • Engineering Ups and Downs:

    Lesson focuses on the engineering behind elevators. Teams of students explore principles and requirements of vertical travel, then design and construct a working elevator to service a toy car garage using wheels, pulleys, string, cardboard and other materials.

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  • The Skyscraper Museum