We can live and work a mile up

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Just how high can you go? Norman Foster is planning a building in the City of London that will soar 2,065ft - but 60 years after Frank Lloyd Wright first had his dream of a city in the sky, the mile-high (5,280ft) skyscraper is possible.

A lift that travels up, down and sideways has been invented, enabling architects and engineers to fulfil one of the greatest ambitions of the 20th century - a building that towers more than 2,000ft high.

Until now, it has been impossible to contemplate building skyscrapers higher than 1,800ft because the lift cables could not take the strain. But Otis, the lift engineers who installed elevators in Manhattan's Empire State, Flatiron and Woolworth buildings, have designed a lift which moves both horizontally and vertically, so that it is possible to overcome the limitations of the traditional hoists.

The lift would be hauled, as now, up to certain stages but then would move along rails to another lift shaft, through which it would rise through another series of floors.

The invention of the lift was crucial to the invention of the skyscraper - and thus to the cityscape of the early 20th century. Frame construction meant that buildings could be erected economically, but people could not be expected to climb more than five or six storeys.

Cesar Pelli, the architect who designed Canary Wharf, Britain's current 800ft title-holder, believes it is human nature to respond to a giant structure. A tall building, he has said, has "a poesy and drama which has an echo in everybody". He regards his own 50-storey tower as banished to "the edge of a city which is very ambivalent about sky scrapers".

In fact, London's failure to embrace skyscrapers in the way North American cities have is not so much the result of a restrained aesthetic as due to the hazards of building over a network of sewers and Underground tunnels. Lack of finance and the restrictions of the heritage bureaucracy come into the picture, too.

Like any title, the right to be called tallest structure in Britain has had its share of pretenders in every era.

The Gothic tower of Lincoln Cathedral went up in 1070 and was rebuilt after a fire in 1192 to a giddy 524ft, although it is less than half that height today. The next ecclesiastical contender was Salisbury Cathedral, built between 1220 and 1334. It remains the second tallest spire in Europe, 403ft above the ground.

In 1711 the capital won the title, discounting spires, when Wren's rebuilt St Paul's emerged from the ashes of the Great Fire. The cross on top of the dome is 365ft above the pavement.

Pugin and Barry's Palace of Westminster was completed in 1840. Big Ben chimes in the 320ft St Stephen's Tower, but Victoria Tower, at the other end of the palace, is taller at 336ft.

In 1853 Elisha Graves Otis presented his reliably safe lift system at the Great Exihibition in New York. Although iron was readily available, so ambitious structures were feasible, in Britain, disasters such as the collapse of the Tay Bridge in 1879 had created an atmosphere of design caution.

Blackpool's 1894 imitation of the Eiffel Tower is 518ft 9ins tall. London's Telecom Tower, topped out in 1965, is 580ft tall - 620ft if you include its mast. The 35-storey Centre Point, completed in 1967, is more than 200ft shorter. They were superseded by the 40-storey Natwest Tower (1981) which dominated the capital's skyline until Canary Wharf came along and beat it by 200ft.