Skyscrapers and the Tower of Babel

Tall buildings inviting accusations of hubris is as old as the Tower of Babel.

The skyscraper index, which places the completion – or the proposal, it’s not entirely clear – of a “world’s tallest” tower as the sign of an incoming recession or financial crisis.

Careful statistical study has found that the height of buildings can not be used to accurately predict recessions or other aspects of the business cycle, but that GDP can predict the height of building construction.

All the record-setting buildings seem to have been equally useless, no matter how seductive their architecture. In the late 1940s, eight very tall skyscrapers in Europe were built, the tallest in the continent for three decades. They didn’t coincide with any crisis, any financial exuberance, though their steel frames caked in pseudo-historical ornament immediately evoked 1910s New York. They were, respectively, housing towers, a university, a couple of ministries, a hotel and a “palace of culture”; the point was to build them, not what went in them, but in the process, the skyscraper stopped being stacked speculation.

The US had no new tallest buildings after 1973 but still had recessions in 1980, 1981, 1990, 2001 and 2007

There are thousands of skyscrapers and many that are not quite as tall that follow the tallest sometimes cost more than the tallest. Yet where is the correlation to recessions when dozens are completed each year ?

The Golden Gate bridge cost almost as much as the Empire State building and was completed just before the 1937 recession. There are plenty of large scale construction projects that occur as well. There can be cherry picked matching to recessions here as well.

Like the Tower of Babel story there are those who want to create some kind of morality tale warning against those who would dare to build higher and bigger than those who have gone before. It is a story with an appeal to those who are envious of the wealth of those who are building skyscrapers.

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