Architectural one-upmanship: Is there no limit?
Humanity's archives brim with ideas for buildings that would brush the heavens. As early as biblical times, towers were considered symbolic achievements of man. There was Frank Lloyd Wright's famous, if fanciful, drawing of a mile-high structure in 1956. Somewhere in his science-fiction mind Arthur C. Clarke still harbors visions of a ''space elevator'' stretching from the equator and into orbit.
A modern-day equivalent of all this is the enduring yearning to construct the world's tallest building. Today the list of daydreamers and developers harboring this high-rise ambition is growing.
A 210-story building has been proposed for Chicago. A 500-story monolith has been suggested, somewhat tongue in cheek, for Houston. Proposals for buildings from 120 to 140 stories exist for New York. Late last month, New York developer Donald Trump added his name to the roster: He announced plans for a 150-story tower on Manhattan's lower eastern waterfront.
Each generation, of course, produces its share of people who promise to surpass Chicago's 1,454-foot Sears Tower as the tallest building. But enough interest is being generated in supertall structures that many believe a new record will be set by 1990 - if not in the United States, where the skyscraper was invented, then in Southeast Asia, the center of fast-rising economies and ambitions.
The enthusiasm for ''superskyscrapers'' is partly an outgrowth of a tall-building boom throughout the US. Over the past few years skyscrapers have been going up at a dramatic rate. They have altered skylines from Phoenix to Philadelphia - and stirred new concern about their social and environmental impact on urban America.
The continuing shift in the economy has added to the raised roof lines: As the nation moves toward a more information- and service-oriented economy, more office workers - and thus office space - are needed.
To create an extraordinary superstructure, however, involves more than just a desire to shoehorn a lot of people into a slender area. There are also the ingredients of pride and one-upmanship.
''The tallest building is not really an architectural issue,'' says Cesar Pelli, a professor of architectural design at Yale University and head of his own firm. ''It's a desire to be the most different, the tallest, the biggest.''
Fueling this is the change under way in American design - away from the ''box'' shapes of the recent past and more toward a free-spirited architectural style. ''These tall buildings are very active celebrations,'' Dr. Pelli says. ''And if I'm celebrating, it becomes a matter of 'Why can't I have the biggest bash possible?' ''
The question, of course, is how high can - or should - these buildings go. On paper, at least, there's virtually no limit. The overriding constraint, from an engineering standpoint, is wind. This is true even in earthquake-prone areas, according to Leslie Robertson of Robertson, Fowler & Associates, a structural engineering firm that worked on the design for the 1,350-foot World Trade Center in New York.
New building materials have been something of a help and a hindrance. On the plus side, higher-strength steels and lighter cladding systems have allowed structures to shoot higher with thinner walls, leaving more room for office space. But lighter buildings can result in more wind sway.
Engineers get around this with various tricks - which include making heavier claddings, stiffening the steel supports, or putting in special ''dampers'' near the top of the building (such as massive concrete blocks that float in vats of oil to retard the swaying motion). Sophisticated computer modeling and extensive wind-tunnel testing are also increasingly aiding the calculation of wind effect.
A rule of thumb says that a building should sway about one foot for every 500 feet it goes up, which means the Sears Tower could waver some 2.5 feet each side of center. When designing tall structures, engineers also have to take into account how far a building will jut above the skyline as well as the surrounding thicket of buildings. The vortexes and eddies swirling around one building greatly affect another.
Still, in many US cities, a 150- to 200-story building could be built to withstand wind conditions, experts say, given the space and money. Therein lies the key - economics. To build a 150-story tower, notes Dr. Lynn Beedle, director of Lehigh University's Institute for the Study of High-Rise Habitat, would take at least a 250-foot-square ''footprint'' (base). The Sears Tower is 225 feet on a side.
There is also the question of elevator and support systems (plumbing, water, stairs). The taller the building, the more space these require - leaving less room for rental space. Mechanical systems, such as water and fire lines, become trickier the higher you go. Riding elevators to the top of such buildings takes time. Would people be willing to do it? If elevators move too quickly, there can be problems with ''recompressing'' on the way down.
Most engineers, though, think the problems could be solved with enough money. But there are, they point out, the less tangible constraints in creating herculean high-rises:
* Crowding. The building has to be integrated into the local transportation network. Some 130,000 people a day go in and out of the World Trade Center. The building is itself a city, requiring planners to take a careful look at such things as bus routes, subway lines, and parking.
* Street environment. The building also affects the amount of open space and sunlight in an urban area, as well as the climate and general feel around its base.
* Urban design. On a larger scale, such a megastructure should conform architecturally with the city's skyline. Some designers argue that, if one is to go up, the plans should be monitored by a special group on a citywide basis and not left to the whims of one developer.
So the questions remain: Will there be a 120-story-plus building, and if so, why?
''In Western civilization a great number of engineering structures reflect civic pride,'' Vincent DeSimone, partner in the structural engineering firm of DeSimone & Chaplin, said at a tall-building symposium late last year. ''We have heroic structures, and they have captured the public's imagination. ... Ego is what's going to drive the next building 20 stories higher and another 20 stories higher than that. It's going to go from New York to Chicago to Houston to Singapore.''