ARC 331: Skyscrapers

field trip

March (TBD)


Introductory comment or great big question

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learning objectives

At the conclusion of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify main modern monuments in the period by name, date, designer/client and location (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Define terminology specific to technique, style and structure (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Describe integration of technology (material and non-material) in individual monuments (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Explain stylistic/technical changes in design as they relate to cultural context (COMPREHENSION)
  • Summarize the main concepts in important works of theory by key writers (COMPREHENSION)
  • Explain the development of the vocation/profession of building designers from (comprehension)
  • Visually analyze buildings from this period to suggest date, place, and designer (ANALYSIS)
  • Recognize change in architectural styles by comparing their formal and technical characteristic (ANALYSIS)
  • Critique the agency of people and technology w/in the process of design (EVALUATE)
  • Evaluate different theoretical and design approaches and defend personal preference for one or more (EVALUATE)

part 1


"Rising" relates not just to growing height of the first tall buildings of the nineteenth century, but perhaps primarily to the rising real estate values that encouraged clients to buy small urban plots and ask their architects to grow their buildings upwards of four or five stories. Such was not feasible earlier than the 1850s not because of structural technology, but another technology, that made it possible to lift people into the air without too much exertion on their parts.

  • Read: Gelernter,  chap. 7
  • Read: Colquhoun: chap. 2

Although New York and Chicago are the regular stars of this story, it's worth noting the overlooked Jayne Building in Philadelphia. Started by a builder named William Johnston but largely designed and built by Thomas U. Walter around 1849, it was a very early, very tall building, that made use of conventional lifts for goods and made people climb the steps. Visitors were rewarded for a sweeping view of the city from its observation deck--perhaps the first one ever constructed in a commercial building.


part 2

Proud and Soaring Things

Chicago might look a lot like Cleveland or Milwaukee were it not for a devastating event in October, 1871.

Skyscraper construction took off dramatically after the Chicago Fire of 1871, allowing Chicago to move into prominence as a place for structural invention. Key here was a recent arrival, William Le Baron Jenney, who had studied at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (significantly, not the École des Beaux-Arts). After designing parks for a time, he opened an architecture office, invented the fireproof steel frame, developed curtain wall technology, et voilà, the Chicago School was born.

Jenney's office was quite the place, and includes Daniel H. Burnham, Louis Sullivan, William Mundie, William Holabird and Martin Roche among its alumni.)

Of them, Sullivan is maybe even the most profound member of this profound group, in part because he wrote about what he was doing when he was designing great tall buildings.

The Chicago School constructed a great number of significant buildings in short order. An interesting pair came out of the same office at about the same time: Burnham and Root's Monadnock () and Reliance () Buildings. They're a great comparison for thinking about how architects considered the formal design problem for tall buildings, and also technical considerations. (Note also in the Reliance video, which has a lot of footage from the 1980s, that you can see just how bad things can go when terra cotta is not maintained well.)

Finally, Sullivan's Schlessinger & Meyer Store, a.k.a., Carson's.


part 3

Into the Twentieth Century

The Chicago School skyscrapers were truly of a time and place. At the same time, New York architects were more likely to design steel-framed confections swaddled in historical ornament. Into the new century, architects split by the 1920s into increasingly Gothic expressions and Art Deco expressions. High points include the construction of the "Cathedral of Commerce," the Woolworth Building (Cass Gilbert, 1910-12) and the competition for the Tribune Tower (Chicago, 1922).

Streamline Moderne; Art Deco

A new approach to the type was popularized and perfected by Raymond Hood, who completed a whole gaggle of elegant skyscrapers that typified the Jazz Age in New York:

  • Daily News Building: 1929
  • McGraw-Hill Building: 1931
  • Rockefeller Center: 1939

Related, but even jazzier, are the Art Deco skyscrapers that rose in all major American cities:

  • William Van Alen.  Chrysler Building, New York: 1928-30
  • Holabird & Root.  Chicago Board of Trade: 1929 (with Ceres by John H. Storrs; Grain Bearer (Egyptian) & Corn Bearer (Native American) by Alvin Meyer)

With the Great Depression, construction of tall buildings ground to a halt, signifying the reduction in business nationwide, which would last until the end of the Second World War.

additional resources

Additional Resources