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End of an era for an American icon

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CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) -- The era of the record-breaking American skyscraper is over, according to the firm of architects behind Chicago's Sears Tower, once the world's tallest building.

The 442-meter (1,450-foot) Sears Tower, designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill, has been the tallest building in North America since its completion in 1974.

But since 1998 it has been surpassed in height by both the 452m (1,483ft) Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the 509m (1,670ft) Taipei 101 building in Taiwan.

"I think that there was an era when tall was the equivalent of iconic and businesses wanted to demonstrate their prominence and power through the scale of their headquarters," said Skidmore partner Jeffrey McCarthy.

"Today firms are more interested in branding their business by good design rather than by scale. There's less of an imperative to build tall, at least in the United States."

The Freedom Tower, currently being built on the site of the devastated World Trade Center in Manhattan, will claim the title of tallest building in North America on its completion in 2008.

But McCarthy says the real battle to build the world's tallest building has moved eastwards.

"We're seeing perhaps the same motives, the iconic motives or the prominence of tall buildings being more acceptable in the Middle East and China these days," he told CNN.

Skidmore's latest blockbuster skyscraper is the Burj Dubai tower. While final measurements are still a trade secret, rumor has it that the new tower will scale new heights.

But Giles Worsley, architecture critic for the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper, says tall buildings are ultimately just very expensive status symbols.

"It's not about pure economics, it's about impressing," said Worsley. "It's about being noticed. You build a big tower, you get on postcards and you get on the news. It's more of a symbol than anything financially or economically essential."

That desire to be noticed can backfire on a company. Sears moved out of its tower back in 1993 because of financial problems and many companies are no longer willing to take a risk on high profile, high-cost monumental office buildings that might end up symbolizing a misguided invincibility.

Amid concerns over safety following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a new emphasis on environmental sustainability, many companies in the U.S. are now choosing low-key campus-style headquarters, offering all the space of a skyscraper at a fraction of the cost.

But McCarthy argues that re-locating to a campus can damage a company's ability to compete.

"The campus is typically a very insular environment," he said. "It's introspective. Urban settings are much more outward looking. Even companies that are fairly secretive in their operations appreciate the importance of being in locations with their competitors."

Worsley believes a compromise, somewhere between the campus and the skyscraper, offers businesses the best of both worlds.

"By the time the World Trade Center collapsed it was no longer a glamorous place to be; they were relatively cheap offices," he said. "Smart people had moved away into lower buildings.

"If you want to build efficient offices, you build what are called 'groundscrapers' -- perhaps eight or 10 stories high -- they're the more practical, efficient way of actually using space."

But one look at the soaring skylines of Dubai or Shanghai proves that, in some parts of the world at least, prestige still comes before practicality.

-- CNN's Diana Magnay contributed to this report.

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