story of the skyscraper
has given a lot of things to the world; but in terms of urban
lifestyle, none is as significant and as visible as the skyscraper
Tall buildings, their tips sometimes hidden in the clouds,
skyscapers have become the symbol of modern urban civilisation, and today
they are found worldwide. But until the mid 20th century, they were
very much a distinctive feature of the American city.
The skyline of
If you ask a person to describe an American city,
the chances are that he will mention the word skyscraper. Tall
buildings, their tips sometimes hidden in the clouds, have become the
symbol of the American metropolis,
a symbol of twenty-first century urban
civilisation. American cities have not always had
skyscrapers, but it is now almost a century and a half since the first
skyscrapers began to distinguish their skylines.
For millions of people coming to America from Europe, the
first proof that they had reached a new world was the moment when they
first caught sight of
of Manhattan. Surrealistic, superhuman, the skyline was like nothing
they had ever seen in the old world — a concentration of tall
buildings, their tops scraping the sky, hundreds of feet above the
ground. These were New York's famous skyscrapers! This was America!
Insurance building, Chicago: 1884
The first skyscrapers, however, did not develop in New York,
but in Chicago, in the late nineteenth century. Chicago at that time
was the boom town of the United States — New York was just
the front door. Chicago was at the centre of the new American
adventure, and the new adventure was the West. Chicago was the point at
which the West began.
In the year 1871, a large part of booming Chicago was
destroyed as a major fire engulfed much of the downtown area. The fire,
however, was a great stimulus to architects: not only did it show them
the need to design modern buildings that would not be liable to burn
very rapidly, but it also gave them plenty of opportunities to put
their new theories into practice.
By the late 1800's architects and engineers had made great
steps forwards. Until the nineteenth century, the height of buildings
had been limited to a maximum of about ten stories as a result
of the building materials used — wood, brick or stone. With
the exception of churches and cathedrals, few earlier buildings went
higher than this, because they could not do so. And even the great
churches of mediaeval Europe had to respect basic mechanical constraints. The
walls needed to be terribly thick at the bottom, and often supported by
complicated systems of buttresses
and flying buttresses,
to stop them falling down.
In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution resulted
in the development of new techniques, notably the use of iron. This
allowed the building of much bigger buildings, in particular railway
stations, the "cathedrals of the Industrial Revolution", and exhibition
buildings. Opened in 1889, the nineteenth century's most famous iron
and steel structure reached unheard-of new heights. The Eiffel Tower,
1010 feet high, pointed the way to the future: upwards!
Yet plain iron and steel structures had their limitations.
They were not really suitable for the design of human habitations or
offices — and in
the event of fire, they could collapse very rapidly.
It was in fact the combination of the old and the new that
allowed the development of the skyscraper: the combination of metal
frames and masonry
The metal frame allowed much greater strength and height, without the
enormous mass and weight of stone-built structures; the masonry
cladding allowed traditional features, such as rooms and partitions, to be
included in the design with relatively few problems. The man generally
considered as the father of this new technique was the Chicago
architect William Jenney.
Though Jenney was the father of the metal-frame building, his
own buildings did not go any higher than contemporary brick or stone
buildings already going up in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere.
Jenney's "Home Insurance Building" in Chicago (photo above) was only
ten stories high, and stylistically similar to other buildings which
did not use a metal frame.
It was left to Jenney's successors, notably Lewis Sullivan and
David Burnham, working in Chicago and New York, to go futher. Burnham's
"Flat-iron Building" in New York, erected in 1902, reached new heights
for an office building, with 20 stories; and at 290 feet (about 90
metres), it is known as New York's first skyscraper.
The reasons for building skyscrapers were clear, particularly
in a city like New York, whose downtown
district, Manhattan, could not expand very easily on a horizontal
plane, limited as it was by the Hudson and East rivers. Apart from
upwards, there were not many directions in which Manhattan could grow.
And once the building techniques had been mastered, vertical expansion
became the most desirable solution for the city's businessmen.
Since those early days, and in particular since the Second
World War, skyscrapers have mushroomed
in all the world's big cities; and they keep getting higher and higher.
Before the First World War, New York's "Woolworth Building" had reached
792 feet (241 metres) ; and by the Second World War, the Empire State
Building —for many years the world's tallest — had
actually passed the Eiffel Tower. In the 1970s, the enormous twin
towers of the World Trade Center, 107 stories high, went even further.
But did they go too far? As bold icons of modern America,
they became the target of terrorism when radical Islamic
terrorists used passenger jets to destroy them, in the terrible events
of 9/11 - the 11th of September 2001.
Architectural dreamers of a hundred years ago or more imagined
cities in the sky, giant
buildings where people lived thousands of feet above the ground, above
the clouds, above the pollution. Today, although some people believe
that modern skyscrapers are too high, they now characterise cities all
over the world; and they keep getting higher. Fires in a few tall
buildings, for instance in Dubai, have led to
further questions being asked; but in spite of the occasional disaster,
skyscrapers are here to stay — at least for offices and city
hotels. Symbols of our civilisation, they are not likely to be
: very big city - catch sight
start to see - skyline
: profile -
levels - constraints:
limitations - buttresses and flying buttresses:
used to hold up tall buildings, especially in Gothic architecture -
the event of:
if there is - masonry :
stone, bricks or concrete - cladding:
non-stress-bearing walls (stress:
force) - downtown:
to appear in lots of different places - giant
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______ nineteenth century, ______ Industrial Revolution
resulted in ______ development of ______ new techniques,
notably ______ use of ______ iron. This
allowed ______ building of much bigger buildings, in
particular ______ railway stations, the "cathedrals of the Industrial
Revolution", and ______ exhibition buildings. Opened in
1889, ______ nineteenth century's most famous iron and steel
structure reached ______ unheard-of new
heights. ______ Eiffel Tower, 1010 feet high,
pointed ______ way to ______ future: upwards!
Yet ______ plain iron and steel structures had their limitations. They
were not really suitable for ______ design of human
habitations or ______ offices — and in ______ event
of ______ fire, they could collapse very rapidly.
It was in fact ______ combination of ______ old
and ______ new that allowed ______ development
of ______ skyscraper: ______ combination of ______
metal frames and ______ masonry cladding. ______ metal frame
allowed ______ much greater strength and height,
without ______ enormous mass and weight of stone-built
structures; ______ masonry cladding allowed ______ traditional
features, such as ______ rooms and partitions, to be included
in ______ design with relatively few problems. ______
man generally considered as ______ father of this new
technique was the Chicago architect William Jenney.