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And it's a record-breaker, as the late Roy Castle would have said: Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, topped-out last August at 451.9m - the tallest building in the world. "Impossibly romantic... a poesy and drama that has an echo in everybody," its designer, Cesar Pelli, has said. The architectural critic Jonathan Glancey, on the other hand, has a different view: "A huge cruet set." "The 73.6m stainless steel pinnacles placed on the 88-storey towers increased their height," notes this year's Guinness Book of Records.

Malaysia's prime minister, Dr Mohamad Mahathir, was actively involved in the decision to push Petronas's twin towers ever upwards. His "Vision 2020" plan aims to see his country a fully fledged Tiger Economy by the first quarter of the next century, and the vast height of the skyscraper both symbolises and advertises this onward march of industrial growth. Cesar Pelli has said that he intended the Towers' vaguely Arabesque motifs to reflect the architecture of Malaysia's official religion, Islam. But as Rowan Moore of the design magazine Blueprint has tartly pointed out, "It will mean little to the large number of non-Islamic Chinese. It must be said that these immense, metallic minarets verge on crassness."

For two decades after the completion of Chicago's Sears Tower (which is 443m high) in 1973, the world seemed content with the traditional modernist notion that building high, scraping the sky, was essentially a North American thing. The Sears Tower was the world's highest skyscraper, the Empire State Building was at 381m the most gorilla-friendly, and Toronto's CN Tower (553.34m), being uninhabitable up top, didn't really count. In the run-up to the millennium, however, skyscraper technology seems most definitely to be moving east.

Even as Petronas in Malaysia was getting its record-breaking pinnacles stuck on its top last year, the construction of the Baiyoke Tower II was announced for Bangkok, Thailand: 465m, and 94 floors. In addition, the 460m Mori Building in Shanghai, China, should be completed by the year 2000, says its British based scheme-designers, Arup and Partners. The 468-metre 108-storey Nina Tower planned by Chinachem in Kowloon, however, is presently "under review". As is Sir Norman Foster's projected Tokyo Millennium Tower, designed to stand a stupendous 840m with its mast on, but presently awaiting the right developer and site.

"With all these plans for very tall buildings, the chances of everything coming together run at around four out of 10," says Stephen Quinlan of the Australian architectural practice Denton Corker Marshall. These are the odds he is offering on his own firm's chances of getting its current pet project built, a 640m-high glassy obelisk in Melbourne, to be called the Grollo Tower. They seem like reasonable odds also for Sir Norman Foster's 385m London Millennium Tower, the so-called "erotic gherkin", which is currently "on hold". Which of course delights the people who work for this newspaper, labouring half way up Canary Wharf Tower in London's Docklands: 244m high, designed, like Petronas, by Cesar Pelli, and secure for the time being in its status as the tallest building in the UK.

The Petronas Towers hit the heavens in Malaysia exactly a century after the very idea of the modern skyscraper was born in the American Midwest. "Problem: How shall we impart to this sterile pile... the peaceful evangel of sentiment, of beauty, the cult of a higher life?" Thus speculated Louis Sullivan, the Chicago School's leading theorist, in a pioneering essay called "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered" (1896).

"We must now heed the imperative voice of emotion. It demands of us, what is the chief characteristic of the tall building?" Sullivan goes on grandly to ask. His answer probably sums up as well as does anything the spirit behind the current wave of Babels. "And at once we answer... It must be tall." !