Why is the Freedom Tower only the fourth-tallest building in the world?

The U.S. made no attempt to respond to the Asian skyscrapers. But we used to be made of sterner stuff! The Manhattan skyline that One World Trade Center joins is itself a monument to the American love of competition and rivalry. Once Elisha Otis invented the safety brake that freed buildings from the limitations of stairs in the mid-19th century, American magnates engaged in a decades-long rush to build the world’s tallest skyscraper. Building after building rose in American cities, each one one-upping the previous record holder.

Make no mistake about it: This was all about rivalry, ego, and superiority, not simple economics. When architect Cass Gilbert asked dime-store magnate Frank Woolworth how tall he wanted his tower to be, Woolworth didn’t mention rental space or the financially optimal height. Rather, he responded, “Make it fifty feet higher than the Metropolitan Tower.” (Metropolitan Life Insurance owned the world’s tallest building at the time, and had previously denied Woolworth a loan.)…

But such fatalism is for a vanquished champion, not an also-ran. To me, the 1,776-foot height of One World Trade Center is the most problematic part of its design. Ostensibly a reference to America’s spirit of independence, the height really represents a turn inward. When Americans built ever taller buildings in the 1920s, eventually surpassing the Eiffel Tower, Europeans were too enamored of their medieval skylines to join the fray, allowing American architects to dominate the new form. When there’s a race going on, you have to try to win it. Shooting for fourth place makes no sense.