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The height of vanity: Why taller isn’t better and the 10 vainest buildings in the world

Cities around the world compete for the kudos of having the highest buildings. But many ‘supertalls’ have swaths of space that is uninhabitable
  • @oscarquine

Some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers have been criticised for being built with added “vanity height”, which serves no practical purpose other than to push them into the architectural category of “supertall”.

Click here to see the 10 vainest buildings in the world

A report on the world’s “vainest” buildings, by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), has found that up to 39 per cent of many new skyscrapers’ height consisted of entirely uninhabitable space.

The iconic Burj Al Arab in Dubai – which mimics the shape of a boat’s sail – was found to be the world’s vainest building, with 405ft of uninhabitable space at the top. At 39 per cent of its 1,055ft total height, without it, it would fall well short “supertall” status awarded to buildings of 300m (985ft).

The CTBUH said: “We noticed in Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, that a fair amount of the top of the building seemed to be an unoccupied spire.

“This prompted us to investigate the increasing trend towards extreme spires and other extensions of tall buildings that do not enclose usable space, and create a new term to describe this – Vanity Height.”

The Bank of America building in New York City was judged the second vainest, with 34 per cent, or 131m, of its total height being inhabitable.

The council class “vanity height” as the distance between a skyscraper’s highest living space, and its architectural top. The trend for vanity space began in New York City with the Chrysler building, which was built in 1930.

As China and the United Arab Emirates began competing for the world’s most impressive skylines, the practise of adding it to skyscrapers became commonplace. A total of 61 per cent of the world’s supertalls would lose their status if their vanity height weren’t included, say the CTBUH, while any structure with 50 per cent vanity height would be deemed a non-building.

Standing at 306m, the Shard, designed by architect Renzo Piano, is the UK’s only supertall. The top 20 per cent of the structure is deemed vanity height, with a glass and steel top that tapers off into the sky above London.

A spokesman for the building said: “The design is the design, and it was not come to with vanity in mind. It was the natural conclusion of the building, with the Shard disappearing into the sky.” Piano has said his vision was inspired by the spires of London’s churches, as depicted by the 18th-century Venetian painter Canaletto.

In total, five of the 10 vainest buildings were found to be in the United Arab Emirates. The nation is home to the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa – which came in for plenty of criticism when it was completed due to its supreme height being pointless in a country with so much open land.

The 830m tall building has a vanity height of 244m – which in itself would be enough to become the 11th tallest building in Europe.

As Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker’s architecture critic, pointed out in his review of the tower that “as with most super-tall buildings, function is hardly the point of the Burj Khalifa.”

The vainest building of them all, according to the CBTUH, is the Ukraina Hotel in Moscow. Of its 206m height, an amazing 42 per cent is unusable. However it was not included in the council’s report as, at under 300m, it fell short of supertall status.