The View Down From the Tallest Freestanding Structures on Earth


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We’re fairly used to seeing pictures of the world’s tallest towers and skyscrapers from the outside. The sight of an altered skyline and the soaring, graceful contours of these structures is undeniably impressive, but what about the view from the top? Little can rival the experience of looking straight down from the towering height of an observation deck hundreds – if not thousands – of feet up in the air.

Yet beyond the vertigo-inducing views, these incredible structures owe their existence to masterful engineers – the professionals who come up with innovative designs for building taller and taller constructions. These engineers have to ensure that each soaring edifice is structurally sound, from the foundations to the tip of the highest spire. What’s more, engineers must contend with the potential for fires, earthquakes and typhoons, not to mention the massive wind-shear pressures and other complications involved in building man-made rivals to some of nature’s most magnificent peaks.

Scroll down for views from the 10 tallest freestanding structures on Earth.

10. International Commerce Center (Hong Kong)

10. International Commerce Center (Hong Kong)

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Rising above Hong Kong’s harbor is the magnificent International Commerce Center (ICC). Not only is this incredible skyscraper 1,588 feet (484 m) high, but it also houses one of the world’s highest swimming pools, located on the very top level (floor 118)!

Although the ICC was originally designed to reach even greater heights, the plan for the building had to be modified due to height restrictions in the area that prevent buildings from being taller than the mountains nearby.

The location for the ICC also presented problems for its engineering team. The geological conditions were against the engineers, especially as they had to take into account the fact that the tower would be located on a major fault zone.

Adding to the marvel of its design, this skyscraper is equipped with a state-of-the-art energy optimizer system which checks energy consumption according to the time of day and seasons and reduces overall consumption by up to 15 percent.

9. Shanghai World Financial Center (China)


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The Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) soars to a dizzying height of 1,614 feet (492 m). And with 101 floors and three observation decks, it’s able to offer visitors a stomach-churning view over Shanghai – as you can see from this photo!

The observation deck on floor 100 is located above the skyscraper tower’s distinctive trapezoidal hole. Perched 1,555 feet (474 m) in the air, the SWFC’s outdoor observation deck was the highest in the world when it opened.

Aside from all this, the SWFC is built to withstand an 8.0 magnitude earthquake, and after September 11, 2001, it was redesigned to include two external elevators and 12 fireproof refuge areas. In addition, it contains offices, a hotel, and shopping malls.

The building was designed by Kohn Pederson Fox, an American architectural firm that also designed the International Commerce Center as well as other non-skyscraper buildings such as the Abu Dhabi International Airport, the World Bank Headquarters in Washington D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

There are also currently more skyscrapers being built in China that are due for completion over the next few years. Watch this space!

8. Taipei 101 (Taiwan)


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Located in Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei 101 measures 1,667 feet (508 m) from its base to the tip of its spire. The building, which weighs 705,130 tons, was completed in 2004 and can boast 101 above-ground stories as well as a unique design.

The design of Taipei 101 gives a modern treatment to the traditional Chinese pagoda form, and it is meant to look like a slender stalk of bamboo. Aesthetics aside, this giant structure is thought to be one of the most stable skyscrapers in the world, combining strong steel columns with foundation pilings that plunge 262 feet (80 m) into the ground and up to 98 feet (30 m) into the bedrock.

Taipei 101 is also the tallest and largest “green” building in the world. It was presented with the highest award in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) in July 2011. The building’s double-glazed, green-tinted windows actually contribute quite a bit to the building’s environmental soundness, as they cut out 50 percent of the external heat. And Taipei 101 also recycles its water, providing for 20-30 percent of the building’s needs.

For those more interested in amazing panoramas, two observatories allow visitors a dizzying 360-degree view from the 89th and 91st floors. At such heights, it’s probably a comfort to known that Taipei 101 was designed specifically to withstand earthquakes and typhoons. Its windows can also withstand impacts of up to eight tons!

7. Willis Tower (USA)


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Willis Tower, formerly known as Sears Tower, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Chicago – and it’s easy to see why. Measured from its base to the tip of its western antenna, it soars to a height of 1,729 feet (527 m). Small wonder that this incredible structure held the title of the world’s tallest building for 25 years.

Willis Tower was originally built in the early 1970s using an innovative bundled tube design. Indeed, this is what allowed the building to reach such a record-breaking height. What’s more, the observation deck, on the top (103rd) floor, was made even more vertigo-inducing in 2009, when retractable glass boxes were added to the design.

These viewing platforms hang four feet over the edge of the building and offer a view 1,353 feet (412 m) straight down to the pavement below. The platforms are made out of three layers of half-inch thick glass and can support a weight of five tons. Still, even knowing this doesn’t make the views any less knee-trembling! And if you don’t believe us, take a look at this picture!

6. Ostankino Tower (Russia)


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Russia’s Ostankino Tower is the tallest freestanding structure in Eurasia. And, even when its construction hadn’t been completed, it offered a view down that’s not for the faint-hearted – as proven by this picture, which wasn’t even taken from the top floor!

This massive tower was designed by Nikolai Nikitin, a renowned structural designer and construction engineer. Siberian-born Nikitin also designed other notable buildings, such as the Moscow State University, and the 279-foot (87 m) high statue The Motherland Calls.

The Ostankino Tower rises 1,772 feet (540 m) above Moscow and houses multiple TV and radio stations. Built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Russia’s October Revolution, the construction is considered a masterpiece of Soviet engineering.

The observation deck affords a stunning 360-degree view of Moscow and was visited by 10 million people from more than 100 different countries over a 30-year period. For those interested in climbing to the top, access to the deck is limited to guided tours, and visitors must be over seven years old.

On a more negative note, the Ostankino Tower has had its share of accidents, including a fire in 2000 that killed three people and prompted rebuilding efforts amid fears that the structure might collapse. Maybe we’ll stick with the view from the bottom!

5. CN Tower (Canada)


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Toronto’s CN Tower is a staggering 1,815 feet (553 m) tall from base to spire. Yet for all of its incredible height, this structure’s foundations are merely 49 feet (15 m) deep. Interestingly, the tower is the tallest slip-form structure ever built, and 52,972 cubic yards of concrete were used to construct it.

The antenna on the top was originally going to be raised by crane, but when a U.S. Army Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane helicopter became available, the aircraft was used instead. The helicopter lifted the antenna in 36 sections over the course of three and a half weeks. With a crane, it would have taken six months.

The CN Tower boasts three different observation decks, a revolving restaurant, and an “EdgeWalk.” The EdgeWalk gives daredevils the opportunity to walk all the way around the CN Tower, 1,168 feet (356 m) in the air. Thrill-seekers are tethered to a rail and actually lean out over the abyss with their hands free. Just looking at the view pictured is enough of a thrill for us!

A construction of superlatives, the CN Tower has the highest glass-floor paneled elevator in the world, the tallest metal staircase in the world (with 2,579 steps), and the highest wine cellar in the world.

4. Canton Tower (China)


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The Canton Tower in Guangzhou, China soars to a breathtaking height of 1,968.5 feet (600 m), and the view down it offers certainly isn’t one for vertigo sufferers!

This structure’s twisting and elegant form is made of high tensile steel and a lattice-like outer superstructure, with the superstructure created out of connecting ring and brace pieces. Several “mini-buildings” also hang within this superstructure, which allows visitors to enjoy multiple rooftop outdoor gardens, climb an outdoor staircase through the tower’s narrow waist, and enjoy the incredible views of the surrounding city.

While most skyscrapers and towers have some form of lighting, the Canton Tower surely exceeds them all. At night, it is lit up by thousands of controllable laser lights, allowing for color-changes and animations.

Elevators, meanwhile, speed from the bottom to the top of the tower in a mere 90 seconds. And since such a high-speed change in elevation could cause people ear discomfort due to pressure change, the elevators had to include an air regulation device!

3. Abraj Al-Bait (Saudi Arabia)


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At 1,972 feet (601 m) tall, the Abraj Al-Bait is a stunning feat of engineering – as this view from the top suggests. Located in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the structure was built as part of a modernization initiative and caters to the many religious pilgrims who pour into the holy city every year.

The Abraj Al-Bait houses a five-star hotel, a convention center, apartments, a shopping mall, two heliports, and a prayer room capable of holding 10,000 worshipers. The complex includes seven different towers and was constructed over a period of eight years (from 2004 to 2012).

The highest tower holds a four-faced Swiss-designed clock and a 233-foot (71 m) spire complete with a crescent moon. The clock is the largest in the world, with its four faces measuring 151 feet (46 m) in diameter and a minute hand that’s 72 feet (22 m) long!

Meanwhile, the crescent above the clock weighs an incredible 35 tons and is made out of mosaic gold backed by fiberglass. Furthermore, the spire on which it sits houses an observation deck and a lunar gallery.

As if all this weren’t enough, the Abraj Al-Bait is also the building with the largest floor area in the world. The people who designed all this lofty extravagance? Dar Al-Handasah Architect group, whose headquarters are in Beirut.

2. Tokyo Skytree (Japan)


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Here’s yet another vertiginous perspective. Rising to a dizzying height of 2,080 feet (634 m), the Tokyo Skytree was built to withstand massive earthquakes through two separate design components: a central concrete core, and a steel tube frame.

Oil dampers between the steel frame and the core act as cushions, and they are said to be able to absorb up to 50 percent of the energy from an earthquake. This offsets movement and prevents damage – even if a 7.0 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter directly below the building were to occur. Indeed, during its construction the Skytree survived a 9.0 magnitude quake with no damage – proof of the ingenuity and strength of its design.

Although the Skytree functions mainly as a broadcasting tower, it is also a tourist attraction, with entrance fees to the 1,476-foot (450 m) high observation deck costing an average of ¥3,000 (around US$40).

The tower was designed by Nikken Sekkei Ltd., with the aim of being a “fusion of traditional Japanese beauty and neo-futuristic design.” The color of this impressive tower was itself based on a traditional Japanese bluish-white color called aijiro.

1. Burj Khalifa (United Arab Emirates)


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The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is taller than the Tokyo Skytree by an astonishing 637 feet (194 m)! This beautiful building rises 2,717 feet (828 m) into the air, making it four times the height of the Washington Monument.

Built using a hexagonal core and Y-shaped buttresses and holding the capacity to withstand 7.0 magnitude earthquakes, the world’s tallest freestanding structure is both magnificent and incredibly strong.

The Burj was designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merril, the company that designed Willis Tower, and it, too, makes use of a bundled tube design. Thanks to this design, proportionally it uses half as much steel as the Empire State Building.

The exterior of the building was made to withstand Dubai’s intense heat and includes 26,000 glass panels, installed by over 300 cladding specialists from China. It takes a team of 36 workers four months to clean the entire facade!

As well as 163 above-ground floors (plus 46 maintenance levels in its spire), the Burj Khalifa has 900 apartment buildings, 304 hotel rooms, and 2,957 parking spaces. The observation deck sits on the 124th floor, 1,483 feet (452 m) above the ground level. It is the second-highest outdoor observation deck in the world and offers unparalleled views of Dubai and the Persian Gulf. Just don’t look down unless you’ve got a head for heights!