The Origins of the Skyscraper

For many observers our sole original contribution to the spatial arts is the alternately praised and condemned skyscraper. Foreign critics find in this typically American construction either a triumph of engineering skill comparable to the Roman amphitheaters and baths, or a poorly designed architectural monstrosity. Most agree that few buildings of this type have reached the excellence of design to be found in American motorcars. Curiously, one of the first skyscrapers designed, a twenty-eight story building by L. S. Buffington, of Minneapolis, was developed from a modification of Richardson's Romanesque forms into an original structure of more than average dignity. This edifice, although completed only on paper, seems to have influenced contemporary builders through the unique quality of its interior construction. Buffington, its inventor, defined the skyscraper as "composed of a braced skeleton of steel with (masonry) veneer supported on shelves fastened to the skeleton at each story." His plans for the new building showed square cast-iron columns anchored to a foundation of concrete reinforced with I beams.

During the years when Buffington dreamed of his building and used a modification of this same system of construction in the West Hotel at Minneapolis, Colonel W. L. B. Jenney built the Home Insurance Building in Chicago. In 1886 Burnham and Root built the sixteen-story Monadnock Building, also in Chicago. In 1891 they used the first riveted steel frame, thereafter called "Burnham construction," in Chicago's twenty-story Masonic Temple.

Buffington was followed among the earliest builders of skyscrapers by Louis Sullivan, who not only showed great originality in the new style of construction, but also in the invention of an appropriate form of ornament. Sullivan quickly recognized the decorative possibilities in steel construction and designed the Guarantee (Prudential) Building in Buffalo so as to emphasize in its exterior design the greater weight carried by the vertical members. The frame was cased with terra-cotta tiles delicately colored with intricate design. Sullivan's original influence, one of the most powerful in the development of 20th-century American architecture, made itself felt through the Transportation and Fisheries Buildings at the Chicago Exposition and later in the works of his pupil, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Although the chief considerations in the design of skyscrapers are necessarily utilitarian, distinct advances in their formal design have been made during the past twenty years. To the practical Americans, the primary appeal of the earliest skyscrapers was that of economy. Such a building was designed to give a maximum rental capacity on a minimum of ground area. With technical improvements in steel construction, it would seem as though no limit need be put to the number of stories, which like horizontal cells cluster around the elevator shafts.

The first thirty years of skyscraper building convinced designers that above a certain height the maintenance costs must exceed rental income. Engineers skilled in mechanical appliances, electricity, traffic control, water supply, and heating designed the successful skyscrapers of the thirties. The skyscraper suffered in formal quality because of the primary interest in utility. Experience soon showed that in such crowded centers as downtown Manhattan and the Loop section of Chicago too many high buildings reduced the light in the streets and the lower stories. Then increased lighting bills added to the maintenance costs. At this stage, it was found advisable to pass laws making setback construction a requirement. This forced the builders to use more interesting masses, which soon came to play a decorative role, as in the French Building on upper Fifth Avenue, New York. Here the recessed upper floors lend a dynamic effect to the tower, which seems to gather momentum from the steps to push skyward, like the Central American pyramid temples.

Since the simple, unbroken repetition of windows gives an unpleasing, monotonous effect, designers following Buffington and Sullivan soon learned to stress the vertical lines in the exterior construction, to decorate the tops of the setbacks and the termination of the building with bold flat ornament. Architects like Cass Gilbert, in the Woolworth tower, and Raymond Hood, in the Chicago Tribune tower, searching for a suitable type of design, employed Gothic detail. Among the many plans for the widely advertised Chicago Tribune competition, the unbuilt design by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, like Buffington's design forty years earlier, was the one which had the greatest influence upon the ensuing building development. It stressed the verticality of the building by simplifying detail and employing setback construction for its aesthetic effect. Raymond M. Hood, the builder of the Chicago Tribune tower, profiting by Saarinen's suggestions, improved his design in the New York American Radiator building, where he not only used setback construction but employed colors.

The chief rule of the skyscraper architect, proposed by Sullivan and stressed by Wright, Saarinen, and Hood, was that the form of the building should follow its function. This raised the question whether the chief function of the skyscraper is to appear vertical or to suggest the presence of a number of horizontal floors supporting people, machinery, and manufactured products. Raymond Hood, having perfected the News Building, which better than any other stressed verticality, turned to the design of a building which would bring verticality and horizontality into a perfect equilibrium; a building which should interest because of its color and give the maximum of light and floor space for the minimum of maintenance cost. About his McGraw-Hill Building, in New York, Hood wrote:

The concept of architecture as a logic does not in any sense imply the neglect of appearance, but, on the contrary, logic and knowledge always have been the road to beauty. . .

A logically designed plan is nearly always capable of producing an acceptable form or mass and an outward appearance that satisfies aesthetic demands. The materials, their color and texture, and details of elaboration also contribute to appearance and are largely matters of choice. The "progress photograph" of the McGraw-Hill Building, included in the illustrations, shows the practical development of and relation between the structural construction and the enclosing walls of the fa├žades. These enclosing walls are analogous, may we say, to a glove that is slipped on the hand to shelter and protect.

After the depression of 1929, when American businessmen found that the highest skyscrapers could not pay, architects turned to the design of smaller buildings with greater refinement. The discovery of new materials, particularly glass brick and weatherproof metal alloys, and the development of air conditioning led to the design of new building types. The Corning Glass Works Building at 718 Fifth Avenue, New York City, with sculptured details by Sidney Waugh, marks a step forward in design. Here modern American architectural form reaches a state of refinement comparable to that achieved by the designers of late American motorcars. The function of this building as a display room and offices for Steuben glassware is completely expressed by the immaculate design. Its sparkling glass units, framed in bars of Indiana limestone and nickel silver, suggest the skilled workmanship in the product sold.

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