At 830 m from base to tip, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building—for now.
Iwan Baan
July 9, 2015 11:39 AM EDT

The Chicago Architect Adrian Smith has made a career out of designing extreme skyscrapers, including the tallest building in the world today: Dubai’s 2,722-ft. Burj Khalifa. But he’s about to top himself. Smith and his partner Gordon Gill are behind Kingdom Tower, currently being constructed in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. When it opens in 2019, it will be the first building ever to exceed 1 km, or nearly 3,300 ft. Its vast interior will have 59 elevators–five of them double-deck so they can stop at two floors at once. It will have 157 occupiable floors and use about 80,000 tons of steel. Financed by the Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the tower will anchor a new suburb of Jidda, called Kingdom City, which the Saudis hope will draw millions of pilgrims traveling to nearby Mecca and Medina.

Kingdom Tower is expected to cost $1.23 billion, though it wouldn’t be surprising if that number rises–the Burj cost $1.5 billion. The building probably won’t pay off financially–the Burj has had trouble filling its floors, and Saudi Arabia’s economy has taken a hit from falling oil prices. But supertall towers generally aren’t built for financial reasons. “Someone says, ‘I just want to build it, and I am rich enough,'” says Smith. “It is for bragging rights.”

So if there is no limit to human vanity, is there one for skyscrapers? Possibly not. Smith keeps a scale model of a building 1 mile high that he and his team recently designed. That is almost twice the height of the Burj Khalifa, or nearly four Empire State Buildings stacked on top of one another. It is hard to imagine anyone living at such altitudes, and Smith says the model was “pure research.” Yet he concluded that if someone is willing to pay billions for it, a mile-high building is perfectly feasible. And if there’s anything to be learned from the history of skyscrapers, it’s this: if it can be built, it someday will.

–VIVIENNE WALT/DUBAI

This appears in the July 20, 2015 issue of TIME.

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