RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There is a question that's looming over the world of architecture. Should the new skyscraper at the World Trade Center site, in New York, count as the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere? The developers say yes but by some measures, the Willis Tower in Chicago, formerly known as the Sears Tower, can still lay claim to that title.

Now, a little-known organization is set to answer that question. and we turned to two of our reporters to get this tale of two cities vying for the tallest.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: I'm Joel Rose, and I'm standing at the foot of One World Trade Center. It's a single, soaring tower wrapped in reflective glass. Earlier this year, construction crews hoisted a 400-foot metal mast into place at the top of the building. And as far as New York is concerned, it's now the tallest building in the country.

VERONICA SMALLS: It has to be the tallest.

TYREEK JONES: The tallest...

SMALLS: The tallest.

JONES: ...not one of the tallest 'cause New York City is...

SMALLS: Is No. 1.

JONES: ...used to known as No. 1.

JERRY ROMANO: It's a fact. It's taller. It doesn't matter to me. I'm just stating facts.

HANK HINSON: Yes, we have to be taller than Chicago (Laughter)

ROSE: That was Veronica Smalls, Tyreek Jones, Jerry Romano and Hank Hinson. Technically, One World Trade Center is 1,776 feet, from the ground up to the light at the top of the mast, which makes it more than 300 feet taller than the top of the Willis Tower.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Sorry, Joel, but I have to stop you there. This is David Schaper, in Chicago, and here at the Willis Tower, you can actually stand and look out from a level much higher than you can inside the new World Trade Center.

BOB WISLOW: We're standing on a sheet of glass, looking 1,353 feet straight down to the street.

SCHAPER: This is Bob Wislow, standing on a ledge extending out from the sky-deck on the 104th floor of the Willis Tower. Wislow is a lifelong Chicagoan who watched the building go up 40 years ago. He's now chairman and CEO of the company that manages it. He maintains Willis Tower will still have the highest occupied floor of any building in the Western Hemisphere.

Wislow says he has great respect for New York, and for the developers and builders of One World Trade Center, which he calls a great symbol of American resilience. But...

WISLOW: I do think technically, if you strictly interpret the rules, that this would continue to be the tallest building.

GLORIA ARAGON: I think it's pretty amazing.

SCHAPER: Gloria Aragon lives in Chicago's suburbs, and comes to the top of Willis Tower because the view is from a height you cannot get anywhere else.

ARAGON: And just looking out at the architecture of the city surrounding on the ledge is a pretty unique experience.

SCHAPER: Even visitors from overseas agree. Lee Colgan and her family are visiting the sky deck from England.

LEE COLGAN: I think Chicago should have it, yeah. The mast doesn't matter. It's the floors, in my eyes. Yeah?

ROSE: Well, fortunately she doesn't get to decide. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat does. It's based in Chicago, suspiciously. But it's made up of people from all over the world. And its 30-member height committee will be debating these buildings today.

ANTONY WOOD: It's a seminal moment for skyscrapers. It doesn't come along every year.

SCHAPER: Antony Wood is executive director of the Council On Tall Buildings. He says when taking away the title of world's tallest building from what was then the Sears Tower back in the mid-1990s, the organization made a distinction between an antenna and a spire.

ROSE: An antenna is just functional - something you stick on top of the building after it's finished, so the council decided that antennas should not count towards height. But it decided that spires do count because they're part of the architectural design of the building.

SCHAPER: Which brings us back to the 400-foot mast on the top of One World Trade Center. Is it a spire, as the designers argue; or is it just an antenna? Or maybe, Antony Wood says, the council should just start over.

WOOD: Really, what it comes down to is this: What are we measuring? If we are measuring man's ability to put materials above the plane of the earth, then it should just be material, irrespective of what that material or function is. Or are we measuring man's ability to put man above the plane of the earth; i.e., are we going with the highest occupied floor? Or something in between?

ROSE: Of course this whole debate is sort of academic. Neither the Willis Tower or One World Trade Center is going to be the tallest building in the world. But the decision could set a precedent that will be around for a long time.

SCHAPER: The Council On Tall Buildings meets today in Chicago. The group could announce a decision as soon as next week. David Schaper...

ROSE: And Joel Rose, NPR News...

SCHAPER: Chicago.

ROSE: New York.

SCHAPER: Chicago.

ROSE: New York.

SCHAPER: Chicago.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.