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'Tallest' building in the West? Symbolic One World Trade Center aspires with spire

Surrounded by sacred ground, destined to become a Big Apple icon and watched with hope by an entire nation, the dazzling new skyscraper that will reshape New York’s skyline is one step closer to completion.

When crews raise the final sections of spire to the top of One World Trade Center, the structure will help the skyscraper soar 1,776 feet into the sky, a patriotic reference to the year the Declaration of Independence was adopted by Congress. The building currently tops out at 1,368 feet above the lobby level – the height of the original World Trade Center’s North Tower.

The raising was originally scheduled for Monday, but the Port Authority postponed it due to wind. No new date has been set.

Once everything is in place, the needle will make One World Trade Center, the gleaming office building in downtown Manhattan constructed to replace the two towers destroyed on 9/11, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey noted in a statement.

Such a designation can be both a tourist draw and a mark of prestige for a destination, said Daniel Safarik, a spokesman for the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

“A tall building is a serious iconic symbol of the aspirations of whoever is constructing it, and that can extend to the developer, the architect, the city in which it’s placed and even the whole country,” Safarik said.

But One World Trade Center’s aspiration to be “the tallest” won’t be official until the council weighs in. The non-profit group has three different methods of measuring skyscrapers, looking either at the height to a building’s architectural top, the highest occupied floor or the height to the tip.

The first method is the most widely used yardstick and the one the council employs to put together its "World's Tallest Buildings” list. A spire usually counts as an architectural top – it’s considered a permanent part of the building, unlike an antenna – but the council has not yet issued an opinion on One World Trade Center because it hasn’t received the final construction drawings, Safarik said.

Once the papers are sent, a “height committee” will make the final determination, he added.

But looking out of his Rector street office window at the World Trade Center construction site, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat Chairman Timothy Johnson told NBC News that, at present, it "looks like the structural mast of an antenna."

If it accepts the spire as an “architectural top,” One World Trade Center will indeed be considered the highest building in the Western Hemisphere. If not, the new skyscraper would rank third, behind the Willis Tower (formerly called Sears Tower) and the Trump International Hotel & Tower, both in Chicago.

However, "tallest building" designations don't carry the same weight they once did. The pace of tall building construction has increased significantly in the past decade, Safarik noted. There were 4,640 tall buildings in 2003, he said. Ten years later, that number stands at 7,889, a 70 percent increase.

The U.S. used to have a prominent presence on the list. When Sears Tower was completed in 1973, it measured 1,451 feet high and surpassed New York City's World Trade Center towers and became the world's tallest building – a distinction it held for more than two decades.

These days, most skyscrapers are popping up in Asia, Safarik said. Moscow and Istanbul are also hot-beds of tall building construction.

“These are places where, at least for some of the population, there is increasing wealth and there is a desire to demonstrate that these locations have significance on the world stage,” Safarik said.

“You’re still going to see some exciting tall buildings go up in the U.S. but we’re going to have to work pretty hard to keep up with Asia.”

Here are the five tallest completed buildings in the world, according to the Global Tall Building Database of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat:

Burj Khalifa, Dubai:2,717 feet

You could run out of superlatives to describe this hard-to-miss skyscraper completed in 2010. At more than 160 stories, it has the highest outdoor observation deck in the world and the tallest service elevator in the world. The building is home to private residences, corporate suites, a hotel and an observation deck on level 124. The builders call it “tangible proof of Dubai's growing role in a changing world.”

Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel, Mecca, Saudi Arabia:1,972 feet

Opened in 2010, this hotel with a tower that soars 120 floors above ground features a giant clock that’s more than five times larger than Big Ben and visible from 10 miles away. The tower also houses a lunar observatory center and a museum. About 6,000 miles of fiber optic cable were needed to wire the hotel for Internet access.

Taipei 101, Taiwan:1,667 feet

This 101-story office center was the largest engineering project in the history of Taiwan construction. For an incredible view, take the world’s fastest elevator to the outdoor observatory near the top. The building even hosts a race in which participants must complete a total of 2,046 steps between the ground floor and the 91st floor.

Shanghai World Financial Center, China:1,614 feet

Soaring 101 floors above the ground, this mixed-use building overlooks Shanghai Central Park, with the 100th floor observation deck providing a spectacular view of the city’s downtown and the Huang Pu River below.

International Commerce Centre
International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong.Siu Chiu / Reuters

International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong:1,614 feet

Located at the western entrance of Victoria Harbor, this shimmering 108-story tower completed in 2010 houses everything from condos and offices to retail space and two hotels. Overlapping panels on parts of the building are meant to evoke the scales of a dragon, adding to the drama of the design.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the spire’s sections would be transported to the top of One World Trade Center on Tuesday. In fact, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey did not set a new date.