The Origin and Evolution of the Skyscraper

Topics: Skyscraper, Empire State Building, Burj Khalifa Pages: 5 (1517 words) Published: December 12, 2011
There was conceivably no building type in the United States that represented the Twentieth Century more than the skyscraper. It established the political, industrial, and technological ability of the new world becoming the major architectural symbol of America. Urban hubs, such as Chicago and New York, developed concentrated groups of towers that prevailed the city skylines, as cathedrals had done centuries earlier in other parts of the world. The origin of the skyscraper or structures of large heights can be traced throughout architectural history. Though the phrase “skyscraper” was not a coined description, there were still buildings and structures of large scale, “scraping the skies”. The Egyptian pyramids, the Tower of Babel, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and even the Pagodas, being constructed of stone and brick are all examples of tall structures that had been raised throughout history. The earliest tall buildings of the United States up until the late 19th century were of solid masonry construction. In order to hold up the weight of a building the walls had to be thick, so most structures were no taller than about seven stories.[i] This resulted in using a large amount of floor space. In 1871, a fire completely destroyed the city area of Chicago, Illinois. The end result was catastrophic due to the weak structural components of the buildings. The city then brought in architects that used new technology to rebuild it bigger and stronger. As greater heights were planned, the need arose for a form of construction that would permit thinner walls through the entire height of the building. In the late 1800’s architects began to use cast iron with masonry. This was followed by the cage construction, in which the iron frame supported the floors and the masonry walls bore their own weight. Englishmen, Henry Bessemer invented the first process for mass-producing steel inexpensively, essential to the development of skyscrapers. The next step was the invention of a system in which the metal framework would support not only the floors but also the walls. This was designed by William Le Baron Jenny in 1883, in the Home Insurance Building in Chicago. It was the first building in the world that employed steel skeleton construction and resembled a modern skyscraper.[ii] A number of other similar constructions followed, making Chicago the birthplace of the early skyscrapers. In the 1890's, the steel frame was developed into its final form, that of a completely riveted skeleton bearing all the structural loads, with the exterior or thin curtain walls serving merely as an enclosing screen. By the end of the 1890’s some U.S. cities had buildings that were twenty-two stories tall, including elevators and larger proportions of windows.[iii] At the turn of the 1800’s came the early 20th century American Architecture. The new construction materials and methods gained from decades before set a new tone for cities nationwide. Commercial and residential buildings were of unprecedented height and more progressive than ever. As with other structures of this period, skyscrapers in the early part of the century were eclectic in style, based to a large extent on the all-encompassing influence of the Beaux-Arts[iv]. However, eclectic architecture seemed to avoid the Gothic style, the one historic style that had stressed vertically. In 1913 the Woolworth Building, nevertheless, Gothic-inspired was created. Being for many years the tallest building in the world. The production of tall buildings on the increase drew environmental problems and concerns. The most serious of which was the relegation of streets to dark canyons, walled in by towering skyscrapers.[v] The New York zoning law of 1916 regulated the building height relative to the width of the street. The outcome of the law was the upper stories of buildings being “stepped back” gradually from the line of the street. The skyscrapers established a new form due to the law. Around a...
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