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A tall building takes a sizeable square of land and transforms it into multiple cubes of habitable space — story after story rising — converting once-empty sky into a series of interior chambers and environments. Picture it this way: on the island of Manhattan, with thousands of high-rise buildings, there's actually more indoors than outdoors.

The purpose of the original tall building, if you believe that old biblical babble, was to reach heaven. Nowadays, our ambitious edifices maximize commerce and loom as symbols of pride and power.

The high-rise is, as you might guess, an American invention. Which means that Americans brought together into one form the crucial developments that made it possible: steel frames, reinforced concrete, glass, water pumps, the elevator, modernist patriotic hubris.

But in a classic case of technological appropriation, it's estimated that by 2015 the five tallest buildings in the world will all rise above east Asia. Realms like Taiwan possess the know-how and the industry, they need the space, and they're emerging onto the global stage at a perfect moment for making undeniable assertions of nationalistic vanity. If nothing else, really high high-rises herald the global presence of a country.

The skyline of Manhattan is punctuated by over 228 buildings that are taller than the tallest building in San Diego. Even Los Angeles has 23 buildings that rise into more troposphere than any of ours, with one, the U.S. Bank Tower, that's more than twice as high as anything downtown.

The reason for the local height limit isn't because of our sandstone soil, nor because of the seismic fault that runs under downtown. Rather, it's because of a local ordinance that says no taller buildings may escalate near airport flight paths. Phoenix and Tampa have similar regulations in effect.

Some lament the fact that San Diego's skyline isn't distinctive enough or tall enough. Kurt Hunker, award-winning architect and graduate chair of the NewSchool of Architecture, told me, "Some cities seem to have more distinctive high-rise skylines than others. And we don't. San Diego doesn't. We really don't have anything terribly distinctive."

But if the choice lies between (1) a massive, recognizable, famous cityscape with an airport out on some brown faraway mesa and (2) our tidy downtown high-rise clusters with an easy commute to and from all flights, then I'd vote for number two any day. We take to the sky instead of scraping it. Commendably, San Diego, in this way at least, is more "functional" than "status symbol."

According to Emporis Buildings, the largest building database in the world, 118 high-rises currently loom over America's Finest City, 17 more are under construction, 15 others have been approved to begin construction soon, and 29 beyond that have been officially "proposed," which means that they're as good as built.

Think about that. By 2010, our downtown will have undergone a space odyssey indeed. One hundred eighteen high-rises will become at least 179 of them, and likely more. Nine of these new additions will be among the top 20 tallest in town. In just a few years, we stand to enjoy (or lament) a dramatically different skyline.

San Diego's high-rise history began in 1909 with the 155-foot Broadway Lofts building on Fifth and Broadway. The El Cortez Hotel, in 1927, was the first local building to top 300 feet. The El Cortez was the highest in town for over 30 years and was in the top 5 until the high-rise boom finally developed here in the 1980s. Now 21 downtown buildings are officially higher than the El, with dozens more soon to follow.

San Diego's current reigning building and, at 500 feet exactly from grade, the tallest building possible unless the airport moves and/or the laws change is One America Plaza, located at 600 West Broadway.

One America Plaza is nothing if not distinctive. The structure tapers slightly, all the way up (four inches per floor), which means that One America Plaza is an obelisk. A 500-foot-tall glass-and-steel obelisk. But it's the top of the thing that makes it stand out -- say, the last 70 feet or so before the structure gives way to sky. This increment of One America Plaza is a complex, pointy geometry of tilting, angular folds that looks like either the world's tallest shrug or one of Queen Amidala's most outrageous hairdos in Star Wars.

But tilting pointy geometries on the tops of glass-and-steel obelisks garner architectural awards. Since it was completed in 1991, One America Plaza has won San Diego Building of the Year eight times and Pacific Southwest Region Office Building of the Year seven times. And if you take a moment to look at the place, or step inside and swing your eyes around the atrium, then you'll probably understand why.

The architect for One America Plaza was Helmut Jahn. Forty or so years ago, at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Jahn studied under the renowned Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886- 1969), an architect so famous that he has his own kind of building geometry, "Miesian," named after him. (As an aside, Mies van der Rohe is also the answer to the trivia question, "Who said, 'God is in the details'?")

In 1967, Jahn joined an architectural firm in Chicago, which, within 14 years, had added his name to the firm's. At Murphy/Jahn, Helmut Jahn designed, among many other projects, Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, and the United Airlines terminal at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. According to a website called greatbuildings.com, Jahn's ability to combine modernist architectural doctrine with a more intuitive "creative rationalism" has led to "a symbolic code which could be appreciated by both professional architects and the general public."

Anyway, back in the atrium of Jahn's creation on 600 West Broadway, it's all black, white, and gray marble, sleek lines, and pointed angles. A smooth waterfall cascades gently downward, 40 feet, over six tiers of black granite. The lobby shares an information desk, a "Galleria," two halls leading to rows of elevators, and a U.S. Bank. Many of the passersby on a given day are smartly attired -- suited and blazered -- although it's obvious from the other outfits -- shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops -- that this building isn't all business.

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