6 architectural facts about history’s tallest buildings

TO BUILD some of humanity’s most awe-inspiring architecture, workers had to deal with the technological and environmental challenges that came with their times. Whether from 2600 B.C.E. or the 21st century, the stories of their feats can often be even more impressive than a structure’s final form.

The Great Pyramid: more than 6.6 million tons of stone

Modern headstones can’t hold an oil lamp to the approximately 2.3 million blocks that laborers stacked 481 feet high over the ancient Egyptian tomb of Khufu. Although the king’s burial chamber is encased in granite, most of Giza’s largest pyramid consists of limestone: both the weathered brown core that remains today and the mostly missing pale exterior were built with that rock.

Ulm Minster: 513 years to finish

Construction on what’s now the world’s tallest church began in 1377, but crews in the southern German city of Ulm didn’t dust off their hands for another five centuries. The toil stopped in 1543 due to religious and political changes during the Protestant Reformation. The project was resumed 301 years later, topping out at 530 feet before its completion in 1890.

Shanghai Tower: 120-degree twist

When work began on this cylindrical skyscraper in 2008, China’s most populous urban area already held the country’s two tallest buildings. Today, the structure dwarfs its neighbors and previous titleholders: the needlelike Jin Mao Tower and bottle-opener-esque Shanghai World Financial Center. Powerful gusts were a serious concern for the 2,073-foot-high spire, so architects settled on its distinct coiled look to reduce wind loads by 24 percent.

Potala Palace: 12,139 feet of elevation

Built for the fifth Dalai Lama in the mid-1600s, this red-and-white palace stands high above sea level in the center of Tibet’s Lhasa Valley. While raising a 13-story structure with imposing 16-foot-thick walls and more than 1,000 rooms is a significant undertaking on its own, builders did so while breathing very thin air. The atmosphere around the palace contains 40 percent fewer oxygen molecules than are found at single-digit altitudes.

Eiffel Tower: close to 6,800 gallons of paint

Paris and painting go together like Champagne and Camembert, so it’s fitting that the metropolis’s most iconic landmark needs to be entirely refinished every seven years to prevent its latticed frame from rusting away. That means brushing a fresh coat of brown over each of the 18,038 pieces of wrought iron—a total surface area of about 250,000 square meters.

Chrysler Building: about 3.8 million bricks

After this 1,046-foot skyscraper opened in 1930, it held the title of world’s tallest tower for 11 months—until the nearby Empire State Building beat it by 200 feet. At the time, rumors swirled that the Chrysler Building concealed a retractable, height-boosting rod that could vault it back to No. 1, but the feature never materialized. One fact has been confirmed, though: Each white, black, and gray brick was hand-laid, so it took weeks just to build a few floors.

This story originally appeared in the High Issue of Popular Science. Read more PopSci+ stories.

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John Kennedy

DIY Editor

John Kennedy is the DIY editor at Popular Science. He loves learning new skills and solving problems, often in pursuit of his ultimate goal of making peoples’ lives at least a little bit easier. When he’s not taking things apart or putting them back together, he’s playing sports, cooking, baking, or immersed in a video game.

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