The first century of the skyscraper: a short history

Living the high life. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

From the legendary Tower of Babel to the iconic Burj Khalifa, humans have always aspired to build to ever greater heights. Over the centuries, we have constructed towering edifices to celebrate our culture, promote our cities – or simply to show off.

Historically, tall structures were the preserve of great rulers, religions and empires. For instance, the Great Pyramid of Giza – built to house the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu – once towered over 145 metres high. It was the tallest man-made structure for nearly 4,000 years, before being overtaken by the 160-metre-tall Lincoln Cathedral in the 14th century.

Other edifices, such as Tibet’s Potala Palace (the traditional home of the Dalai Lama), or the monasteries of Athos were constructed atop mountains or rocky outcrops, to bring them even closer to the heavens.

The Shard: a tall order. Image: Davide D'Amico/Flickr/creative commons.

Yet these grand historical efforts are dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the 20th and 21st centuries. London’s Shard looms at 310 metres tall at its fractured tip – but it’s made to look small by the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, which stands at more than 828 metres.

And both these behemoths will be left in the shadows by the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah. Originally planned by architect Adrian Smith to reach 1,600 metres, the tower is now likely to reach one kilometre high, once it’s completed in 2020.

So how did we make this great leap upwards?

Ingredients for success

We can trace our answer back to the 1880s, when the first generation of skyscrapers appeared in Chicago and New York. The booming insurance businesses of the mid-19th century were among the first enterprises to exploit the technological advancements, which made tall buildings possible.

Home Insurance Building. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Constructed in the aftermath of the great fire of 1871, Chicago’s Home Insurance building – completed in 1884 by William Le Baron Jenney – is widely considered to be the first tall building of the industrial era, at 12 stories high.

Architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler first coined the term “tall office building” in 1896, drawing on the architectural precedent of Italy’s Renaissance palazzi. His definition denoted that the first two stories are given over to the entrance way and retail activity, with a service basement below, repeated storeys above and a cornice or attic storey to finish the building at the top. Vertical ducts unite the building with power, heat and circulation. This specification still holds good today.


The American technological revolution of 1880 to 1890 saw a burst of creativity that produced a wave of new inventions that helped architects to build higher than ever before: Bessemer steel, formed into I-sections in the new rolling mills enabled taller and more flexible frame design than the cast iron of the previous era; the newly-patented sprinkler head allowed buildings to escape the strict, 23-metre height limit, which was imposed to control the risk of fire; and the patenting of AC electricity allowed elevators to be electrically powered and rise to ten or more stories.

Early tall buildings contained offices. The typewriter, telephone and US universal postal system also appeared in this decade, and they revolutionised office work and enabled administration to be concentrated in individual high-rise buildings within a city’s business district.

Changes in urban life also encouraged the switch to taller, higher-density facilities. Street trams, subways and elevated rail links provided the means to deliver hundreds of workers to a single urban location, decades before the European motor car appeared on American streets and reshaped urban form away from the city grid.

Apart from a few high rise mansion blocks around Central Park, New York, the terraced house reigned supreme in the crowded cities of the pre motor car age, such as Paris, London, and Manhattan, and evolved to nine stories in ultra dense Hong Kong.

Early office towers filled their city blocks entirely, with buildings enclosing a large light and air-well, as an squared U, O or H shape. This permitted natural light and ventilation within the building, but didn’t provide any public spaces.

Chicago imposed a height limit of 40 metres in 1893, but New York raced ahead with large and tall blocks. Many of these, such as the Singer, Woolworth, MetLife and Chrysler buildings, tapered off with “campanile” towers, battling to be tallest in the world.

Second-generation giants

The Equitable Building, Manhattan. Image: Yottabytedev/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1915, following the completion of the 40-storey Equitable building on Broadway, there was such alarm at the darkening streets that New York introduced “zoning laws” that forced new buildings to step ziggurat-like as they rose, in order to bring daylight down to street level.

This meant that while the base still filled the city block, the rest of the tower would rise centrally, stepping back every few stories, and it forced the service core to the building’s centre, leading to the loss of the light-well and making mechanical ventilation and artificial lighting essential for human habitation. This was a radical change in the shape of tall buildings, and the second generation of skyscrapers.

As architectural historian Carol Willis would have it, “form follows finance”: the developers of early 20th century high rise office blocks would work out how to maximise the amount of usable floor-space in a city site, before asking an architect to put a wall around it. Such vast wall surfaces with conventional windows invited patterns of geometric decoration, and the ziggurat style came to be the most recognisable architectural symbol of the Art Deco movement.

Race to the top. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The mania for profit-driven tall development got out of hand in the late 1920s, however, and culminated in 1931 with the Chrysler and the Empire State buildings. The oversupply of office buildings, the depression of the 1930s and World War II brought an end to the Art Deco boom.

There were no more skyscrapers until the 1950s, when the post-war era summoned forth a third generation: the International Style, the buildings of darkened glass and steel-framed boxes, with air conditioning and plaza fronts that we see in so many of the world’s cities today.The Conversation

David Nicholson-Cole is assistant professor of architecture at the University of Nottingham.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Meet the YIMBY campaigners hoping to ease the housing crisis

Some houses, being built. Image: Getty.

The nimby is a wearily familiar political breed. Though individuals may support new housing and infrastructure projects in theory, they oppose them in practice (“not in my backyard”). For fear of consequences such as a fall in property values, locals reliably revolt against proposed developments – and politicians retreat. The net result is that cities and countries are denied the housing they need. For the past decade, the UK has fallen far short of the 250,000 new homes required annually to meet demand.

But the nimby has now met its dialectical opposite: the yimby. In contrast to their opponents, yimbys not merely tolerate but welcome development (“yes in my backyard”). The earliest known usage of yimby was in a 1988 New York Times article (“Coping in the Age of Nimby”) and the first organisation was founded in 2007 (Yimby Stockholm). Sister groups have since been established in Toronto, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Helsinki and, most recently, London.

John Myers, a 44-year-old former barrister and financial analyst, co-founded London Yimby with four others last year. They were inspired by the capital’s dysfunctional property market (London is the most expensive major global city for buying or renting) and the success of groups elsewhere.

“We saw what was happening in the States,” Myers said when we spoke. “The San Francisco group has just had three new laws passed in California to get more housing built. There are now more than 30 US cities with yimby groups… There really is a feeling in the air that something has to be done.” Myers lives in a small mortgaged house in Camden, north London, but most of the group’s volunteers are private or social housing tenants and range from “the very young to retired grandparents”.

“The big problem with the housing crisis,” Myers told me, “the dirty little secret that politicians don’t like to talk about is that, actually, people quite like house prices to go up.”


In 2013, shortly after launching the Help to Buy scheme, the former chancellor George Osborne told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up” (the average London house now costs £484,362). Though the exorbitant price of housing (such that there are now more outright owners than mortgagors) has become an electoral problem for the Tories, homeowners remain an obstacle to development.

In a recent report for the Adam Smith Institute (“Yes In My Back Yard”), Myers made three proposals to win over this bloc: allowing individual streets to grant themselves planning permission to extend or replace buildings; permitting local parishes to develop “ugly or low amenity” sections of the green belt; and devolving planning powers to city-region mayors.

“There are ways to get support from local people for high-quality developments but we have a system right now that doesn’t try and get that support,” Myers said. “It just imposes measures from the top down.”

In some US cities, yimbys have antagonised anti-gentrification campaigners by supporting luxury developments. There is a tension between the aim of greater supply and that of greater affordability. Myers argued that it was crucial to have “clear rules on what percentage [of affordable housing] is required up front, so it gets priced into the land and taken out of the landowner’s pocket”.

The replacement of stamp duty with a land value tax, he added, would leave both “the buyer and the seller better off: the buyer doesn’t have to scrape a deposit together and the seller doesn’t have the price reduced by the amount of stamp duty”.

That some Conservatives are now prepared to consider previously heretical measures such as building on the green belt and borrowing £50bn for housing investment may herald a new era. The yimby bulldozer is beginning to dislodge the nimbys from their privileged perch. 

This article previously appeared in our sister title, the New Statesman.

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