The world’s first skyscraper

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Chicago’s Home Insurance Building may no longer be standing, but it utterly changed the way we design cities, in ways that were previously unthinkable. It won’t surprise anybody to learn that the very first skyscraper went up in the United States, but it will surprise some to learn that it went up in Chicago. While it didn’t take Manhattan long to claim the steel-framed high-rise as its own, the skyscraper boom began in the capital of the American Midwest in 1885 with William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building, which rose to its then-impressive height of 10 storeys (and, after an 1890 addition, 12) by means of metal, rather than just masonry.

Legend has it that Jenney, an engineer by training and an ÉcoleCentrale Paris classmate of Gustave Eiffel (designer of the eponymous tower), first suspected that an iron skeleton could hold up a building when he saw his wife place a heavy book atop a small birdcage, which easily supported its weight. This opened a new chapter in the history of towers, helped by the Great Chicago Fire (in which more than three square miles of the mostly wooden central city burned to the ground in 1871), and by Chicago’s surging 1880s economy.

The name first came into use during the 1880s, shortly after the first skyscrapers were built, in the United States. The development of skyscrapers came as a result of the coincidence of several technological and social developments. The term skyscraper originally applied to buildings of 10 to 20 stories, but by the late 20th century the term was used to describe high-rise buildings of unusual height, generally greater than 40 or 50 stories.

The increase in urban commerce in the United States in the second half of the 19th century augmented the need for city business space, and the installation of the first safe passenger elevator (in the Haughwout Department Store, New York City) in 1857 made practical the erection of buildings more than four or five stories tall. Although the earliest skyscrapers rested on extremely thick masonry walls at the ground level, architects soon turned to the use of a cast-iron and wrought-iron framework to support the weight of the upper floors, allowing for more floor space on the lower stories. James Bogardus built the Cast Iron Building (1848, New York City) with a rigid frame of iron providing the main support for upper-floor and roof loads.
For obvious reasons, when the New York Home Insurance Company wanted a new Chicago headquarters in the city’s cleared-out downtown, they wanted it fireproofed – but they also wanted it tall, accommodating “a maximum number of small offices above the bank floor”. Jenney’s metal-framed design won their open contest, not only thanks to the relative fire-resistance of its materials, but to the additional protection offered by its outer iron columns, covered in stone.

Unlike its predecessors – the generations of large buildings supported by nothing but their own masonry walls – the Home Insurance Building wouldn’t have to get thicker, darker, stuffier and heavier to get taller. It weighed only a third as much in iron and steel as it would have in stone.

By developing and refining the concept of the skyscraper, the Chicago School’s influence not only changed the way we built cities in the 20th century, ushering in previously unthinkable densities, but remains visible in the newest additions to major skylines today. Jenney’s design gave Chicago’s modestly sized central business district – now known as the Loop – a way to expand upward, rather than outward. It was a concept whose limits New York, and later other world capitals, would keep pushing over the following century.
The 1940s saw the emergence of a “second Chicago School”, which took the pioneering work in new directions – upward, for the most part. This movement gained momentum during German modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s time at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology, innovating with 3D “tube” structures, just as the first Chicago school innovated with steel beams. Bangladeshi engineer Fazlur Khan made the boldest initial steps with tube structures, using them to design the city’s John Hancock and Sears (now Willis) Tower.
These tube structures have continued to make possible the kind of skyscrapers that set world records and shape their cities’ identities – buildings like New York’s World Trade Center, Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers and even Jeddah’s Kingdom Tower, which upon completion will, at 167 storeys, be the world’s tallest building. Even though the skyscraper itself counts as a quintessentially American invention, the most daring examples now appear mainly outside the US.
As the population density of urban areas has increased, so has the need for buildings that rise rather than spread. The skyscraper, which was originally a form of commercial architecture, has increasingly been used for residential purposes as well.

The design and decoration of skyscrapers have passed through several stages. Jenney and his protégé Louis Sullivan styled their buildings to accentuate verticality, with delineated columns rising from base to cornice. There was, however, some retention of, and regression to, earlier styles as well. As part of the Neoclassical revival, for instance, skyscrapers such as those designed by the firm of McKim, Mead, and White were modeled after Classical Greek columns. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Building in New York City (1909) was modeled by Napoleon Le Brun after the Campanile of St. Mark’s in Venice, and the Woolworth Building (1913), by Cass Gilbert, is a prime example of neo-Gothic decoration. Even the Art Deco carvings on such towers as the Chrysler Building (1930), the Empire State Building (1931), and the RCA Building (1931) in New York City, which were then considered as modern as the new technology, are now viewed as more related to the old ornate decorations than to truly modern lines.

Another factor influencing skyscraper design and construction in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was the need for energy conservation. Earlier, sealed windows that made necessary continuous forced-air circulation or cooling, for instance, gave way in mid-rise buildings to operable windows and glass walls that were tinted to reflect the sun’s rays. Also, perhaps in reaction to the austerity of the International Style, the 1980s saw the beginnings of a return to more classical ornamentation, such as that of Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building (1984) in New York City.

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