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Reaching for the skies

The Great Pyramid, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, remained the world’s tallest monument for several millennia. But in the late 19th century, Mankind once again began to reach for the sky – sometimes with imagination and symbolism, sometimes purely because it could, and wanted to show as much.

Philip Coppens


Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one remains: the Great Pyramid. Apart from great, it is specifically high. In fact, it was only with the spire of Lincoln Cathedral in ca. 1300 AD that Mankind was able to surpass its height. Reaching a height of 525 feet, the cathedral’s central spire was destroyed in a storm in 1549. Before, the St Lievens Tower in the Dutch town of Zierikzee was meant to be constructed to a height of over 600 feet, but despite this concept’s support from the Vatican, the tower was never realised. So when the spire of Lincoln Cathedral collapsed, St. Olav's Church, in Tallinn, Estonia became the world’s tallest structure, only minimally smaller than the construction it replaced, at 522 feet. That too, however, was hit by lightning, in 1625, making the Great Pyramid once again the tallest structure on Earth. It was only in 1876, when the Notre Dame Cathedral in Rouen was finally completed, rising to a height of 495 feet, that the Great Pyramid lost its pole position. But the cathedral’s fame was short-lived; in 1880, the Cologne Cathedral reached 515 feet in height.

Eiffel Tower, Paris

The original height of the Great Pyramid was 481 feet. Though part of the Seven Wonders, it was not the largest wonder, as it was smaller than the Pharos Lighthouse, whose precise height has been the subject of intense and sometimes vitriolic debate. It is said that its light could be seen from a distance of 32.5 nautical miles, leading one to conclude that its height must have been ca. 650 feet, though estimates range from 383 to 755 feet. Most are only willing to give it a height between 383 and 450 feet, which would thus make it smaller than the Great Pyramid. However, once again, it is modern man doubting the accomplishments of our forefathers, who were quite precise about how high this lighthouse rose: much higher than 450 feet.
Though since destroyed, the bottom of the first square of the lighthouse is now the castle that sits in the harbour of Alexandria, providing a popular tourist attraction, if only to escape the soaring heat of the city and gaze over the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. According to Strabo, it was made out of marble and granite and was 100 feet square at the base, almost double the size when compared to the 55 feet square on which sits The Washington Monument.

The Washington Monument is an extremely large obelisk – and often seen as part of the “Masonic landscape” of Washington, D.C. It measures 555.5 feet in height and is the world’s tallest masonry structure unsupported by steel. It too is made out of marble and granite, like the Pharos lighthouse.
The original intended site for this obelisk was the Jefferson Pier, a few hundred feet west of its present location. It would have designated the precise intersection of the city’s east-west and north-south axes, in line with the White House, and would have been a veritable “obelisk topped with benben stone” in the very heart of the capital. But the idea had to be abandoned on practical grounds: the designated ground was too marshy – resulting in the true east-west axis being thrown off by one degree to the south.
The Great Pyramid was said to have been built in twenty years; the Washington Monument took much longer. As early as 1783, Congress approved the erection of a statue in honour of George Washington, though it was proposed that this would be a more traditional equestrian statue. Lack of funds resulted in new ideas, as well as delaying the laying of the first stone of the Monument, which occurred on July 4, 1848. The Civil War and other problems caused further delays, until it was finally completed in 1888. That year, the Monument became the tallest structure in the world, taking over from the Cologne Cathedral; it held on to its position until the Eiffel Tower was completed a decade later.

The Washington Monument

The delays to the Washington Monument meant that New York’s Statue of Liberty, officially known as “Liberty Enlightening the World”, stole much of the Monument’s limelight. “Liberty” was a colossal statue given to the United States by France in 1886 – two years before the completion of the Monument. The sculptor was Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, but it was Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel Tower, who engineered the internal structure.
The statue is 151 feet tall, with the foundation adding another 154 feet, giving a total height of 305 feet. Not massive, but impressive enough and one of the most recognizable icons of the United States. It means that Eiffel engineered both the most signature sights of both New York and Paris.
But what is less known, is that the Statue was inspired by the Colossus of Rhodes, a wonder of the ancient world, which is said to have stood 100 feet tall, being the tallest statue of the ancient world. It never did span the harbour entrance, as some popular accounts would have it, but it did spark the imagination.
The Collosus stood for only fifty-six years, until Rhodes was hit by an earthquake in 226 BC. The statue snapped at the knees and fell over. The remains lay on the ground for over 800 years, and even broken, they were so impressive that many travelled to see them. Pliny the Elder remarked that few people could wrap their arms around the fallen thumb and that each of its fingers was larger than most statues. In 654 AD, the remains were sold to a travelling salesman from Edessa, who had the statue broken down and transported the bronze scrap on the backs of 900 camels to his home. Pieces continued to turn up for sale for years, after being found along the caravan route.
Since 1970, there has been some debate as to whether to rebuild the Colossus. Those in favour say it would boost tourism in Rhodes, but those against say the cost of over 100 million euros makes the project simply too expensive.

London too has its Monument. 311 spiral steps take you 202 feet up above the London skyline – or at least, it did, before The City became home to several modern skyscrapers.
Designed by Sir Christopher Wren with assistance from Robert Hooke, and erected between 1671 and 1677, it was built to mark the Great Fire of London of 1666. The column was topped by a flaming urn of copper, to symbolise the Fire. The Monument is the tallest freestanding stone column in the world.

Pharos Lighthouse

The significance of its 202 feet height is that it is also the distance to the bakery on Pudding Lane that was the suspected source of the fire that destroyed the city. The Latin inscription on the north panel of the pedestal translates as "In the year of Christ 1666, on September 2, at a distance eastward from this place of 202 ft, which is the height of this column, a fire broke out in the dead of night which, the wind blowing, devoured even distant buildings, and rushed devastating through every quarter with astonishing swiftness and noise ... On the third day ... at the bidding, we may well believe, of heaven, the fire stayed its course and everywhere died out."
Wren and Hooke built the Monument so that it could double as a scientific instrument. It has a central shaft meant for use as a zenith telescope and for use in gravity and pendulum experiments that connects to an underground laboratory for observers to work in. A hinged lid in the urn covers the opening to the shaft. The steps in the shaft of the tower are all apparently exactly 6 inches high, allowing them to be used for accurate barometric pressure studies. However, modern Health and Safety Regulations have required the installation of a platform near the top of the structure, which thus makes such observations impossible – though, of course, astronomers would argue they have now far superior means available – and hence no-one is complaining that tourism takes precedent over science.

Each of these modern monuments has something that the Great Pyramid had not: men could climb inside the structure to the very top and look out across the city. In the absence of such a feature, tourists used the fact that the pyramid’s casing had been dismantled as a blessing, as they could thus climb to the top of the structure – before, recently, the guards were more forcefully instructed to no longer allow such climbs.
Tourism, too, was of primary concern for the Eiffel Tower, which rises to a majestic 1063 feet, easily beating all other monuments in height – and many would say imagination.
The Tower was the winner chosen out of several entries submitted for the Universal Exposition of 1889. Bourdais and Sébillot submitted plans for an all-granite, 986 foot “Tour Soleil” – a “Solar Tower”. It called for a powerful electric light at its summit: a system of parabolic mirrors that would reflect light so efficiently from the tower at its proposal site on the Esplanade des Invalides to all parts of Paris that even the most remote quarters of the city would receive, as the engineers confidently put it, “eight times as much light as is necessary to read a newspaper”. Night would be banished from the City of Light.
As attractive – or scary – as that design was, in the end, Eiffel’s design won the contest. It is believed that he got his idea from the San Jose Electric Light Tower, constructed in 1881. It is known that a French delegation visited San Jose. The Eiffel Tower was built between 1887 and 1889 as the entrance arch for the Exposition Universelle, there to showcase French innovations. Eiffel originally planned to build it in Barcelona, for the Universal Exposition of 1888, but they rejected the concept.
Like the “Tour Soleil”, the Eiffel tower was planning to play with electric light, the new craze of the late 19th century. On the small balcony running around the platform, tracks were laid to carry two high-powered spotlights with a range of seven miles, which could be wheeled around to illuminate different monuments in the city for the pleasure of those on the tower. At the tower’s summit, there was also a beacon that had a range of nearly 120 miles and could be seen by observers from the spires of the cathedrals of Chartres and Orleans. In case of war, it also would be possible to watch out for the movements of an enemy within a radius of 45 miles.

Despite the modern skyscrapers of Tour Montparnasse or the Tour AXA, each attaining heights over 675 feet, the Eiffel Tower continues to be the tallest structure in Paris, welcoming more than five million visitors per year, and more than 200 million visitors since its construction; it is the world’s most visited monument. Its imaginative design is largely to thank for this and that was partly due to the fact that the tower had to withstand nature’s elements, specifically wind, and equally that it had to be easily disassembled; the original licence was only for a period of 20 years, and it was envisioned that when the terrain was handed back to the City of Paris, the tower would be broken down. Its popularity changed all that – plus the obvious source of income the tower brought to the municipal money pot.
Its unique design inspired many copies, including the CN Tower, located in Toronto, Canada, completed in 1976. The CN Tower is considered to be the signature building of the city. Reaching 1,815 ft, it is considered to be the world’s tallest tower, but it is but one of several precise or not so precise replicas of the Eiffel Tower, which can be found from Las Vegas via the English seaside resort of Blackpool to Lyon, France’s second city, who copied the capital’s signature structure and call theirs “Tour métallique de Fourvière” – the metal tower of Fourvière, placing it on the highest hill of the city, thus hoping that it might somehow compete with the Eiffel Tower. It didn’t…

The Atomium, Brussels

A century after its scheduled demolition, the tower remains Paris’ most visited tourist attraction. This unforeseen gift of immortality – or at least a reprieve from execution – was also granted to Brussels’ Atomium, erected for the International Exhibition of Brussels in 1958. The original intent was for the monument to be broken down following the end of the exhibition.
Designed by engineer André Waterkeyn, the Atomium symbolises a crystallised molecule of iron, magnified 150 thousand million times. Each of the nine large spheres that are joined by tubes has a diameter of 18 metres and is made entirely from steel, clad with aluminium. The structure rises to a height of 335 feet and stands on three enormous bipods, dominating part of the skyline of the Belgian capital.

Statue of Liberty, New York

The Eiffel tower remained the tallest structure in the world until the early 1930s, when New York’s Chrysler Building, shortly followed by the Empire State Building, were completed. The latter skyscraper was the world's tallest building for more than forty years, from its completion in 1931 until the construction of the World Trade Center North Tower in 1972. It is now once again the tallest building in New York, after the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
The Empire State Building, though executed in Art Deco style, marked the start in which tall structures began to move away from innovative designs to “just” office buildings, columns of steel reaching upwards to the sky – and in the case of the World Trade Center, falling down, like the Tower of Babel.
The Empire State Building has been named by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. As of June 2007, it is still the ninth tallest structure in the world, the number one position held by Taipei 101 in Taipei, reaching a height of 1671 feet (compared to the Empire State Building’s 1250 feet) and completed in 2004.

Today, there are more than 200 buildings reaching higher than 750 feet, showing that over the past century, Mankind has reached ever more, and ever higher, to the sky. Steel and glass have allowed for imaginative constructions, but few of these modern skyscrapers have much imagination incorporated into them. The higher the sphere we reach, the more mundane the design seems to become.
The Great Pyramid has thus become dwarfed by hundreds of taller structures. But despite no longer being the tallest building, it is still “great”, it still bedazzles anyone who leaves the centre of Cairo for the other bank of the Nile upon which it was constructed so many millennia ago. While reaching for the sky, some have forgotten that height in itself does not bedazzle; tall, can sometimes be just… high, but not a wonder.