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A coworker from another country asked me today if it is true that we have a law prohibiting any building in a place from being taller than their church. I told him I don't know if we still have any such law and, if we had, I most likely would know about it.

So he asked "How come no German city has taller buildings than their church?", this question is now haunting me...

I can barely think of any city or village I ever was in (with maybe 1 or 2 exceptions), here in Germany, where the church wasn't the highest building. Maybe there once was such a law, but if it isn't in force, how did it come to be that there are rarely any modern buildings taller than the church towers?

Or is this just subjective and in fact there are a lot of German cities with taller buildings then their churches?

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    Not just Germany I think... – Lars Bosteen Aug 21 at 13:28
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    @Zaibis The flaw with the question asked by your coworker is it speaks of the church in a city. A village could have one parish church, a town would probably have several parish churches, and a city would have a number of parish churches plus the bishop's cathedral. Writing about "the church" in a city is incorrect. The heights of the churches in a city should vary greatly, and the lowest churches should be lower than the tallest secular buildings, even if there are no skyscrapers in the city. – MAGolding Aug 21 at 19:20
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    @MAGolding: Maybe I phrased it wrong, but the point he made was no building taller than the tallest church". – Zaibis Aug 22 at 5:37
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    Churches tend to have spires. Most other buildings don't. – Strawberry Aug 22 at 14:36
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    Somehow related: Why does Germany have no skyscrapers except for one city? Because skyscrapers are not economical and are often built for prestige. And the only german city with skyscrapers is Frankfurt, the city of banks. – Markus Kull Aug 22 at 14:57
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As DevSolar noted in his answer, churches generally are tall, their spires even higher, but to answer

Q Why in most German places is the church the tallest building?

it might suffice to say just: No. Church spires are now usually not the tallest structures in most German places. That is an assumption quite far from visible experience on location or from written list of records. But as broad and a founded on an unproven assumption the question is, for what is there, we have to observe a multitude of influences, if not reasons.

For a while though, they often were. As community projects, at least co-financed by the church, they served a much different function than residential or commercial buildings. Touching the sky as being near 'the realm of God', signaling wealth, prestige and devotion, all offset the inherent disadvantages of building high: unstable structure, more empirical than statically pre-caclculated construction, price, and usability of enclosed space.

The "building" definition is indeed a curious one.

For that we need a bit more detail.

In German there are three categories to distinguish:

  1. Gebäude, 'building' in English, but as the pictures in Wikpiedia show, most people would include churches within this category.

    "Buildings are independently usable, covered structures that can be entered by humans and are suitable or intended for the protection of humans, animals or property.

  2. Bauwerk, 'edifice, (building) structure'. Pretty ill-defined, larger, more inclusive category, no proper English translation displaying the differences.
  3. Turm, 'tower'.

    A tower is a walk-in vertically aligned structure that is defined by its height. This means that its height is either a multiple of its diameter or its thickness and/or it clearly exceeds the surrounding buildings or adjacent components (e.g. the nave of a church or the wall of a city fortification). A tower can stand on its own (real tower, e.g. round tower), or be part of a larger building or structure (e.g. church tower, minaret; towers as part of a castle or city fortification).

These are all not defined precisely and without overlap on Wikipedia. The civil service and legal definitions may be a bit clearer. But colloquial speech is even fuzzier than Wikipedia.

The church steeple with its spire is therefore often just a part of the 'real' building and counts for its height either on its own, or has to be counted separately. Whether counted separately or pars pro toto for the entire church building's height, that means one should either look simply at the highest man made structure including all kinds of towers, or one has to look at the unquestionable building-characteristic of a church and look at the roof height over the nave.

If we go by artificial structure, we also get Colonius Tower (Cologne), Olympic Tower (Munich) etc. The main difference observed is probably churches do not have more floors in use than residential buildings of their time (mainly ground floor, large open space, emporium, 1–3 galleries, the rest mainly service personnel reserved?). Radio towers do not service with God, but serve a similar function in communications? I'd say that if some people feel the need for it, and have the will, they build stone circles, Frauenkirchen, radio towers or pyramids.

From the definitions we have to conclude that the proper and unquestionable 'building' part of a church would have to be measured as just up to its roof height over the nave. That means that the highest church spire in the world in Ulm would be impressive on its own with its 161m. But the nave is only 41 m high. This phenomenon applies of course to most churches.

For Ulm this further means the church-building does not make it for the top ten of 'proper' buildings, the highest measured in as 82 m. But if going just for the highest structure in Ulm then the radio-tower measures 162m and an industrial 'edifice' comes in 125m.

For Eastern Germany we can also observe the official socialist city planning until the 1970s explicitly called for erecting 'city dominants', large buildings the specifically should be built 'higher than church spires.'

For the little Jena that means the important St Michael church clocks in 50m for the steeple/tower, but the JenTower, with fully occupied floors comes with 144m.

This doesn't mean that this 'dominance' was a somehow 'communist idea'. For Dresden we observe the radio tower to be 252m tall. The more famous but only second-tallest church, Frauenkirche church, built in the 18th century measures 91m. But two industrial towers are higher than the church. More important concerning 'dominance': The tower on city hall was built from 1901–10, and the inhabitants also explicitly called for it to demonstrate the 'citizens power' and so they built it 100m high.

Taken together, the present situation displays that most cities, towns and villages now have as highest man-made structures, colloquially called 'buildings', communications towers, industrial edifices, wind power stations. Only in small towns then come church towers, while in larger towns and cities we see commercial offices, residential high-rises being taller since around the 1960s. Just a minority of old settlements that weren't destroyed in recent wars or by capitalist development strategies –and thus often have an intact 'old-town' – still look as if the church is the highest building. 'Look' because most grew and when sprawling into the country-side gathered high-rises and towers as well.

Since before the elevator, climbing 5 stories was mandated to be done on foot. And this is still quite a drag for most people, or for older folks even bordering on the impossible. When the churches were the highest structures, residential housing rarely exceeded 5 floors. And within churches the same effect is observed. In houses the ground or better yet first floor were the beletage, and within churches the room height may be impressive, but the usable floor space much reduced in comparison. Only the spires of churches went up for really no practical reason.

As such, today in most German, if not European cities, houses still aren't the biggest buildings, or man-made structures. Now the industrial chimneys, radio towers or wind craft engine towers top it off over church spires and regular skyscrapers.

Add to that the effects that in several places you just cannot go any higher: in several cities there were and are building regulations in place, some had to do with health and safety, some with mere optics and a few indeed that the church had to remain the largest visible structure. But these are rare in comparison to a lot of physical constraints the environment presented in many places. Like in Paris, many geological situations make it impossible to put too much pressure in the form of mountainous stone structures onto the ground. Pisa's tower is evidence how lucky they got until now with this 'unfounded aspiration'.

But that's really getting us back to the "why" for the relatively short time that church spires were the tallest structures in town in Germany:

enter image description here

This is a reconstruction of Bologna in the 11th century! An unsustainable development with no apparent practical use. This skyline is no longer there. But a few remnants of this style are visible in today's San Gimignao

enter image description here

These are all medieval structures, and the church is clearly not the tallest of them. This style was copied in Germany, among the affluent trader families. In Italy, the communities came to the decision that these were unsafe and wasteful showoffs, so they had to be dismantled down to few floors, if they didn't come crashing down in earth quakes already by then.

In German Regensburg for example we still see The Golden Tower

enter image description here

next to the cathedral.

Problem here was, the private tower is 9 floors and 90m tall, built in 1250 and completed in a fairly short time. The cathedral was only started in 1275 and took until 1450 to be usable; not: finished. As so often, the spires then weren't even as high as they are today. Around 1860 they looked like this:

enter image description here

As was noted in comment below the question, the claim rests on the assumed instruction: "no building taller than the tallest church". That this cannot be the sole governing rule after ~1520 seems evident if looking at the confessions: Why should a Protestant house be allowed to be bigger than a Catholic church, if in a Catholic region the Protestants happened to be a bit richer so they could have built a slightly taller spire to their congregational structure? Even if this seems to be entirely counterfactual, we might see the potential for ample conflict out of jeopardy for such an ecumenical guideline.

Summary

For most of the time there was no practical need for anything that high, almost no practical means for anything being that high. Costs were often prohibitive, the usability very limited. Only for a very short time there were community restrictions as the only thing limiting structural heights. Since they either fell completely or exceptions on application were increasingly granted, the special place for church spires as highest points on man-made structures was gone again. It was always a combination of conditions, of hard facts stemming from material realities and community decisions. In reality, whenever a need was seen, the will as well as the finances were existing, then people build as high as they could while buildings still remained usable.

82

Many churches in Europe (not just Germany) were built centuries ago, when the church was by far the most important and prestigious building in any city. Building them took decades, sometimes even centuries.

For quite some time, no other building project in any city could possibly contend with its church. And even if you could, why would you? One, you would possibly be getting funny looks and asked if you had delusions of grandeur. Two, what would you do with a building that large, and especially, tall? Castles and fortresses usually don't sit inside a large city, and building them too tall makes them vulnerable. Palaces don't really benefit from being exceptionally tall. Compared to that, tallness is what sets a christian church apart from other buildings, "being closer to god" and being a grace to the city and having the bells sound far and wide and all that.

Enter the modern era. Prices for land in cities became expensive, "building tall" became cheaper, and higher buildings started to pop up.

I could keep going for quite some while here, but I think I made my point: Wherever "building tall" became economical (or someone with lots of money wanted a prestigious skyscraper -- in either case, large cities), churches are no longer the tallest buildings. In smaller cities, or towns, "building tall" never was economical, and the church remains the only structure where people were at some point willing to have an uneconomic building.

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    The now tallest buildings aren't correct. In Berlin the Treptowers are 2m taller. Further, in most cities a curious paralel for communicating (with God? ;) is now the tallest building. The industrial chimneys and radio towers… Go to Alexanderplatz and see 386m vs Treptowers 125 and Park Inn 123m. – LаngLаngС Aug 21 at 14:36
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    I went with List of tallest buildings in Germany ordered by Height (m), which lists the Park Inn first. Going to the respective entries Park Inn is listed as 125m without antenna spire, 149.5m with spire, while the Treptowers is listed as 125m, "height to tip" 127.5m. You're right about the Fernsehturm Berlin, of course -- no idea why that isn't listed. – DevSolar Aug 21 at 14:50
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    @MAGolding And where, exactly, is the flaw? No matter if one church or many, that doesn't change the reasoning either way. – DevSolar Aug 21 at 20:43
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    @DevSolar The reason the Fernsehturm Berlin isn't listed on the wiki page you linked in your comment, is that it doesn't fit the requirements of the list. "Only habitable buildings are ranked." Just FYI. – sbecker Aug 22 at 11:38
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    It is also interesting that quite often the secular rulers and the clergy used the symbolism of having the highest building to simply signify power. In several cities town halls or palaces were built slightly higher than the church, mostly for symbolic reasons (e.g. the "Hausmannsturm" in Dresden). – Kakturus Aug 22 at 14:13
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The maximum building hights are determined by each city (or as in Berlin possible each City District).

In Berlin the first Bebauungsplan (Building Plan) of 1862 regulated standard street widths of 22 meters and a few years later a general Traufhöhe (hight of roof base) of 5 floors between 21 and 22 meters and a court yard (Hof) of 3.50 meters were introduced.

Since 1700, new areas were mostly build with wider, straight streets. Starting in the 1880s the older areas were bought up by the city and were replaced according to the newer regulations. The last area (Fischerinsel) was done in the 1960's.

Note that "Traufhöhe" is not the total building height, but the height of the lower end of the roof (which gave an upper limit for window heights, which was important for the fire department).

Also the amount of floors depended on the average floor height. Starting in the 1920's and more so in the 1950's lower ceilings became the norm, so that building's with 6 floors are common.

A special Dachgeschoß (a floor within the roof) would not be counted.

The goal was to avoid small, dark, winding streets and allow the fire department to assume the maximum height that in general is needed and that in the court yard an area exists for them to turn around in.

Exceptions were always (in conjunction with the Fire Department) possible, but until about 10-20 years, seldom

  • Churches, Synagoges were common exceptions

It had nothing to do with churches, but since most churches are higher than 22 meters, that may be the cause of this impression.


Note:

The English version 'Eaves' seems to handel this topic differently than the German language version where Traufhöhe is an extra Sub-Topic.

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    Note that "Traufhöhe" is not the total building height, but the height of the lower end of the roof (which gave an upper limit for window heights, which was important for the fire department). Though this indirectly influences the total building height. – Paŭlo Ebermann Aug 22 at 22:45
  • @PaŭloEbermann I have incorporated your comment into the answer. – Mark Johnson Aug 23 at 6:37
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Building up is expensive.

Except in high-density urban areas with very high land values, erecting tall buildings is not economical. In most places around the world, it will be cheaper to build two 20-story buildings than one 40-story building. The vast majority of German towns and villages do not have the economic pressure needed to make building up worthwhile. So, the tallest buildings tend to be the ones whose construction is not governed by a strictly economic rationale. The primary purpose of a church is not to make money - they are tall for aesthetic and cultural reasons, not in order to fit more tenants on the same plot of land. The "optimal" height of a building from an economic perspective is much lower, but churches play by a completely different set of rules than other types of buildings that are erected solely to generate a profit.

In many of the larger German cities, you do see that churches are dwarfed by modern skyscrapers. The economics of space in these cities have skewed to the point where building up is cheaper than building out. But there are many more small cities than large cities, so there are many more places where building out is cheaper than building up - in these places, it's common to see a church as the tallest building.

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The assumption is wrong.

Almost every city in Germany today has buildings higher than its churches. In fact, the highest church tower in Germany (Munster in Ulm, 161m) doesn't even have a chance to join the top 100 highest buildings of Germany. The highest building in many German cities is the TV tower.

In many villages and some small towns, an ancient church might still be the tallest building, simply by the fact that density isn't high enough to make economic sense for tall buildings, and churches were traditionally (read: in the middle ages) built to be visible from afar and to dominate the one- or two-story houses around them. That was intentional, to show the power of god, but it was also 500 to 1000 years ago.

  • That isn't true either for small towns, strictly speaking. Those now might not have all a 'TV tower', but all have now tall wind power towers and mobile phone stations… – LаngLаngС Aug 23 at 11:14
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I think most answers are ignoring an important fact: in medieval times, a church was also a fortification. They were built tall to provide ample surveillance of the land around the village or town. The walls were large and sturdy to provide defense against attackers. And although many might think that the intention was to protect the population, the matter of fact is that churches were more about protecting the gold and silver stored inside them.

Other than that, it was a matter of cost and building time. As technology changed, they started to be surpassed in size by other buildings.

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    Welcome to History:SE. Your answer would be greatly improved by adding sources to support your assertions. You might find it helpful to review our site tour and Help Centre – sempaiscuba Aug 23 at 19:42
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Historically, churches in the vicinity of a village or town performed a very important practical function: they acted as lightning conductors. It's well-known that lightning tends to strike the tallest objects in the vicinity; it therefore made sense to build one structure that was much taller than the rest, and was robust enough to absorb a strike without too much damage.

Hence the fitment of spires and towers built of stone or iron, rather than wood and straw as most roofs were made of at the time. By a happy coincidence, such structures also served the churches' purposes by becoming a convenient place to install bells, and later clocks, to draw the population's attention.

More recently, both churches and other tall buildings have been fitted with lightning conductors to enhance this effect, often dissipating the charges that lead to lightning strikes before they actually occur, and preventing damage to the structure in the case of a particularly severe thunderstorm.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    I am skeptical that anyone builds a tall church spire specifically to attract lightning, and there isn't any downside to having a second or third tall structure along with the church that also attracts lightning. Yes, tall churches may offer some lightning protection to nearby buildings, but it's not the primary reason why they're tall and other buildings are not. – Nuclear Wang Aug 22 at 15:39
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    This also assumes that the builders were aware of the conductive properties of tall stone spires, that contradicts my understanding of history. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 22 at 16:20
  • You don't need to fully understand a phenomenon to empirically observe its effects and take advantage of it. The Church would have been in a good position, organisationally speaking, to notice that villages that had a tall church on top of a nearby hill tended to suffer fewer instances of "God's divine wrath" than nearby villages which did not. Over the centuries, more churches would then be built with such advantageous properties. – Chromatix Aug 22 at 16:35
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    Your sources, especially the latter, seem to contradict your claim about church towers being built as defense against lightning. – 8bittree Aug 22 at 22:31

protected by Pieter Geerkens Aug 25 at 15:21

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