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Spring 2002
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How to Build Skyscrapers
Robert Adam
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At the end of the nineteenth century, American architects added a new chapter to the great classical tradition of building. The skyscraper—the term appeared in 1883—joined the basilica, the church, the market hall, the gallery, and the railway station in creating new opportunities for reinventing the classical tradition out of its own past and carrying it forward into uncharted territory. In less than 50 years, America learned how to extend the classical and Beaux Arts traditions to buildings of great height—buildings the Imperial Romans, Venetians, and Britons would have built, if only they could.

Where has it all gone? In the last 50 years it is as if this monumental achievement had never taken place. The Beaux Arts and classical traditions behind the Flatiron Building and the Tribune Tower, already reeling from the Depression and World War II, were knocked out cold by Modernism—a new revolutionary and authoritarian fashion from Europe. When a few new traditionalist architects began to stir in the 1970s, they reawakened with a strange amnesia. The prevailing architectural establishment told them that skyscrapers and the new technology that went into building them was the exclusive property of Modernism—and most new traditionalists fell for this lie hook, line, and sinker. They surrendered skyscrapers (and glass and steel and much else besides) completely.

This head-in-the-sand attitude is not a harmless peculiarity—it is catastrophic for architecture and for urbanism. Like Aristotle’s helmsman, today’s traditionalist architects are responsible for the loss of the ship by abandoning the tiller. The skyscraper is the defining urban building type of our era—the building type that shapes most modern cities, that houses modern corporations, and that confers on its most successful practitioners prestige, fortune, and the power to define the norms for architecture today. Unless traditional architects offer an alternative, society is left at the mercy of Modernist banality, whose tendency is to turn all cities into Houston—soulless, placeless, disposable. Without someone to keep the humanizing traditions alive, the great cosmopolitan lessons learned by the Beaux Arts and art-deco heroes of skyscraper design will turn to the dust of history.

And what lessons they were! Presented with opportunities only imagined in the old world, American architects did not flinch from the problems of adding to a tradition born in the limitations of stone and brick. Energetically—exuberantly, even—they evolved the appropriate design principles in the great experimental era of the last two decades of the nineteenth century, reinvigorating the old language of classicism and using it to say new and entirely up-to-the-minute things.

Behind their accomplishment, of course, lay a gradually improved understanding of structures, the industrialization of construction, the development of electricity, and the invention of the safety elevator. To this must be added capital and organization. Such buildings require incentive, finance, and the marshaling of labor and materials on a grand scale.

But no one has really defined what makes a skyscraper. When is a tall building tall? Is it a fixed height, a number of floors, comparison with its neighbors, or comparison with buildings gone before? The first so-called skyscraper, W. Le Baron Jenny’s 1885 Home Insurance Building in Chicago, was only ten stories high. The first New York skyscraper, George B. Post’s Union Trust Building of 1889, is only 11 stories high.

By the standards of scarcely a decade later, these 1880s constructions were just big buildings. Their ten to 11 stories were not unprecedented. The Romans went as high as 12 stories with apartment blocks (although we don’t know what the upper wooden parts were like). The Beffroi, the thirteenth-century municipal bell tower at Bruges, is at least 12 modern stories high. Narrow towers of 12 or more floors were quite common in medieval and classical architecture as bell towers (both secular and sacred) and fortifications.

A design vocabulary for high buildings was well established within the classical tradition. In ancient Greece, two sets of columns were sometimes set one on the other to give height, but in ancient Rome, the first mega-building—the aptly named Coliseum—stacked four sets of classical columns and arches one on top of another to create a building 158 feet high. In Roman baths and on triumphal arches there were other ways of expressing height. Huge monumental columns rising through more than one story (giant orders), soaring arches, and massive vaults rose to heights of 100 feet.

These classical precedents went into the making of early tall buildings in New York. The Pulitzer Building by G. B. Post in 1889 stacked up six layers of columns and arches below a three-story dome. The extraordinary Potter Building by N. G. Starkweather in 1883 had giant columns four stories high sitting on four-layer pedestals and supporting three upper floors. Perhaps the most famous combination of these techniques was the Park Row Building designed by R. H. Robertson in 1886, for nine years the world’s tallest building. Five layers of giant orders are stacked up on one another, variously three, four, or five stories high and all sitting on a six-story base with its own giant entrance colonnade.

In New York and Chicago, but particularly in Chicago, a type of tall building evolved from a commonplace floor-by-floor division used for lower buildings. Each floor was often, but not always, treated decoratively as one layer of classical columns. Heights gradually increased from seven or eight stories in the 1870s to 18 or more floors in the 1890s. Chicago architects often relieved the monotony by a characteristic rhythmic repetition of multi-story oriel windows. They used these simple stacked facades for unpretentious utilitarian buildings; the repeated detail lent itself to prefabrication.

As height increased, these established historic references ran out of steam. Extreme versions of stacked orders, like the 1897 St. Paul Building in New York, by G. B. Post, started to look odd. As the utilitarian versions increased in size they became no more than dull stacks of windows and walls, which Alfred C. Bossom described as “the Packing Case Type” in 1934.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, a growing recognition of the power and uniqueness of the skyscraper gave it a prestige that led to a spate of competitive building—particularly by rival newspapers and insurance companies in New York. The prestige of height was not enough; the buildings had to have the status of explicit historic architectural references, asserting the dignity of temples or palaces for commercial buildings—and, without irony, these had to be seen on a skyline anything up to 40 stories above the ground. This threw up some real oddities. Historic building types were stretched or sat on top of incongruous multi-story bases. The New York Times Building in Times Square, by Cyrus Eidlitz in 1904, had Giotto’s campanile from Florence Cathedral perched precariously and asymmetrically 12 floors above the street. The Hotel New Netherland, by William Hume in 1893, was an oversize Dutch renaissance palace. Most extraordinary was the Singer Building, by Ernest Flagg in 1906, which had a huge and fabulous three-layered French renaissance tower growing off-center from the roof of a Brobdingnagian French renaissance chateau.

Out of this extraordinary ferment of experimentation came a major breakthrough. In 1890, Bruce Price made a proposal for a new building for the New York Sun newspaper. The first major commercial project for the architect, it was a 31-story version of the campanile in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, entered through a three-story triumphal arch. It was never built, but the idea reverberated for 50 years.

In the first place, there sprang up a whole family of skyscrapers more or less based on the Venice campanile. In New York alone, there were the 1909 Metropolitan Life Tower by Napoleon Le Brun and Sons, the 1910 Bankers Trust Company Building by Trowbridge and Livingston, the 1929 New York Central (now Helmsley) Building by Warren and Wetmore, and the 1936 U.S. Court Building by Cass Gilbert. In Boston, there was the Customs House Tower by Peabody and Stearns in 1913, and in Los Angeles the City Hall by Austin, Parkinson, Martin, and Wilkinson in 1926.

There was, however, much more to this than just variations on a north Italian bell tower. The architecture of the Venetian campanile recognized one essential element of tower design—that the intermediate floors were of minor consequence in the composition. What mattered most were the normal pedestrian eye level and the skyline. And if this was true out in the open in St. Mark’s Square, how much more true it was in the built-up grids of American cities. The street wall and the entrance to the tower were often all that one could see close up, while from a distance, it was the roof, mass, and profile that counted. The intermediate floors, while not to be ignored (and, as with the Woolworth and Flatiron Buildings, often with shallow relief decoration), were the background to the major statements above and below. This three-part division has, since the late nineteenth century, been compared to the classical column, with its decorated base, plain or fluted shaft, and decorated capital.

This lesson, once learned, had a major impact on subsequent New York skyscraper design. Bruce Price’s own American Surety Building, designed four years after his New York Sun proposal, had only simple rusticated details from the fourth to the fourteenth floor and was capped by a temple with a heavy cornice and three-story attic. The Gillender Building, close by, by Berg and Clark, started in 1896, had similar intermediate floors with occasional balconies and a stepped temple and dome on top. Cass Gilbert, in both his Broadway Chambers Building of 1899 and his West Street Building of 1906, had three-story bases and elaborate arched structures on the skyline, with very plain walls, pierced only by windows, between. The list could be extended many times.

Louis Sullivan, probably independently, reached the same conclusion in 1890. His ten-story Wainwright Building in St. Louis has a massive base and heavily decorated upper floor and cornice. The absolute simplicity of the base and the recessed decoration of the intermediate floors were modified on his later tall buildings, such as the 17-story Schiller Building in Chicago in 1891 and the 14-story Union Trust Building in 1892, to provide a more decorated base and greater simplicity in the intermediate floors. The level roofline, expressed as a heavy and decorated cornice, was the clue to their Chicago origins.

The final lesson of the campanile was that towers were best seen as a whole. In early New York skyscrapers, the tower or skyline elements of tall buildings were often visually independent, as in the New York Times Building; or sprouting up out of a lower building, as in the Singer Building; or awkwardly asymmetrical, as in R. H. Robertson’s American Tract Society Building of 1894. These devices diminished the effect of structures that were designed not just to be high but to flaunt their height. If, as far as possible, the architecture of the tower were visible from top to bottom, how much more impressive it would be. Even when the top-to-bottom towers were only one element of a larger building, the tower could have an architectural life of its own.

So it was that by the 1920s the ancient traditions of classical composition proved their worth in a new world. They continued to tell us who we are by telling us where we came from, linking us to the cultural past that gave us not just our architectural language but also our most cherished ideals—the ideals that gave us the freedom and prosperity of which these buildings are monuments. Like all great traditions, these too lit the path to change; like all good principles, they guided variety. Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building of 1910 and Hood and Howells’s Tribune Tower of 1925 apply the same rules to Gothic design. Bertram Goodhue’s freestyle Nebraska State Capitol of 1924 and William van Allen’s art-deco Chrysler Building of 1930 take the principles of composition into new territory. In the footsteps of the ancient Romans, as the inheritors of the Italian renaissance, American architects had added something new and lasting to the ever-receptive traditions of Western architecture. This was a truly great achievement.

How could we forget this in a few short years? Did we really lose it all for a hatred of tradition and a thirst for revolution?

Obsessed with technology, the Modern movement took the skyscraper as its own: what better could express the age than its most advanced engineering? This was the age of revolutions, when all traditions would be overturned. In 1923, Le Corbusier, in his seminal book, Towards a New Architecture, promoted a “City of Towers” and took as his basis “the vital constructional event which the American sky-scraper has proved to be.” But if he liked the engineering that went into the invention of the skyscraper, he issued a grim warning against the style its inventors developed: “Let us beware of the American architect.” And so he and his fellow revolutionaries set in motion the collective professional rejection of America’s great contribution to the classical tradition.

In no time, they reduced the skyscraper to a dumb box. As they rejected the principles of base and skyline, their stripped-down versions of the Chicago packing case were only appreciable as a whole shape, and so had to be pushed back from the edge of the street to be seen. Not only did these Modernists reject the architectural lessons of the last 50 years, but they eroded the fabric of the city in doing so. Either windblown and unwanted plazas gave onto hidden entrances, or raw structure crashed into the sidewalk.

Soon bored with the rash of glass and steel slabs by—or more often in direct imitation of—Mies van der Rohe, deracinated architects could only turn to differences of shape and texture to stand for advancement. Memories were so short that only 40 years after the last traditional skyscrapers were built, a crude slice off the top of the Citicorp Building would appear to be a dramatic addition to skyline design. Now we see gherkin-shaped buildings, arrowhead-shaped buildings, lipstick-shaped buildings, oval buildings, buildings with odd tops, and so on and so on. The only exciting idea is that the shape is, well, interesting. At the outer limits, we have more peculiar, and therefore still more “interesting,” shapes by the likes of Frank Gehry and Danny Liebeskind. These buildings, tall or not, are architectural one-liners: once you’ve got the empty message, there’s nothing left.

What is tragically absent is one ounce of architectural continuity or one hint of wider meaning. The Modernism of these buildings is just taken for granted. Parrot-like, it subsists on the analogy of the machine: the machine as industrialization, the workplace as machine, the house as machine, the building as machine, the machine as modernity. This obsolete ideal lives on only in architecture, in a Modernism so ideologically bankrupt that it has nothing further to say and subsists on a lumpen confidence that it owns the future. So complete was Modernism’s purge of education that Philip Johnson’s cartoon versions of traditional skyscrapers could be mistaken for a revival of culture, far removed though they are from Stanford White’s or Cass Gilbert’s educated, cosmopolitan, and sometimes daringly inventive variations upon classical themes.

But it is not too late. Architects like Allan Greenberg and Robert A. M. Stern in America, and Demetri Porphyrios and my own firm abroad, believe that we can rejoin the great lineage of history and restore to our cities the lessons of the tall building learned so few years ago. While we don’t need to fill up the historic centers of London or Paris with skyscrapers, we also must not abandon a great tradition to Philistine novelty in the urban neighborhoods that call for tall buildings.

Each of our firms has produced designs that handle the tradition in very different ways. Allan Greenberg’s skyscraper projects, regrettably, are as yet unbuilt. His apparently simple and effortless plan for an apartment house on New York’s Park Avenue expresses the tripartite principle with absolute clarity and is a model of how to use a wholly conventional classical vocabulary with consummate sophistication to transform an elementary rectangular tower into an urbane landmark. Except on the bottom and top floors, the windows, arranged in a completely regular pattern, are simple holes in the wall with simple frames. But the base has a row of two-story pilasters, interlaced with a row of one-story inset columns, one of which is missing at the center to form an imposing entrance framed by a pair of the two-story pilasters. On the third floor, above all this, is a row of squat attic columns. Above that, the intermediate floors, decorated only with rusticated blocks at the corners, act as the shaft of a column to support the giant frieze and cornice that make up the top floor. On this top floor are balconies, recessed behind a one-story-high classical order—columns, bases, and entablature—that appears intricate and delicate in relation to the huge cornice above and the plain facade below.

Robert Stern’s surprisingly complex Berkeley Street Tower in Boston, by contrast, uses the classical vocabulary and the tripartite skyscraper tradition to create an orderly composition out of an asymmetrical and mixed-use plan. The six-story base, with its own two-story stone retail base below plain brick facades, fills the site and is punctuated by strong classical entrances. Above this, and over to one side, rises a 22-story tower in the same brick and with the same simple windows as the base building. The rooftop of this tower, by contrast, a distinctive four-story pavilion, marks the skyline with stripped-down flat columns framing glass-curtain walls and a high stone attic decorated with a suggestion of garlands. The sparingly used stone classical detail gives distinction to a relatively low-cost brick shell.

Demetri Porphyrios’s eight-story office building in Birmingham, England, is not really a tall building, but it makes creative use of the principles of tower design to create a fascinating and unexpected landmark. It is full of surprises. The two-story stone base has a nearly full-length open Gothic arcade. The simple intermediate floors have stone Greek-revival details set in brick, while the rooftop building is a cross between a Roman basilica and a Victorian market hall set up in the sky. Embedded in one side is a Byzantine tower. Porphyrios combines a series of traditional forms and details, as if to tell us that his design owes its origins to no single strand of the classical tradition but to the full range of its diversity.

Like Allan Greenberg’s, my own firm’s projects for tall buildings are so far unbuilt. For Reading in the south of England, we designed a simple and sheer 14-story apartment tower, lying at a highway intersection on the edge of the city center and acting as a landmark for the fast-growing but anonymous town. The massive rusticated base holds two stories of car parking. On the upper two floors, stone columns and a heavy cornice create a rooftop temple of penthouse apartments with views over the surrounding countryside. A copper roof and pepper-pot lanterns house the heating and ventilation plant. The design of the building takes maximum advantage of its position on the perimeter. It is visible down a straight approach road for nearly half a mile. The narrow, curved facade that it presents to this distant view exaggerates its tower-like appearance and enhances its landmark status.

For a proposed major redevelopment on a ridge close to the center of the town of Basingstoke, we designed three identical apartment blocks, each a curved ziggurat looking due south, over the top of the surrounding town, to distant hills. Each block is not strictly a tower, since it is wider than its 14-story height, but the design creates the dramatic appearance of a cluster of towers and houses. The high drums on each of the descending roofs provide ventilation, drawing naturally heated air through the building. The whole assembly of towers sits on a rusticated brick base for car parking. Recessed balconies give depth to the clustered stone towers, and there are gardens on each stepped roof. At the top of the higher towers, giant three-story columns stand free on continuous balconies and create powerful rooftop temples.

All these designs, the unbuilt ones as well as the built, were real projects for real clients. Each learns from and adds to the classical skyscraper tradition, embracing not just steel, concrete, mechanical, electrical, and glass technology inherited from the nineteenth century, but also the new alloys, plastics, reinforcement materials, microelectronics, and control of the internal climate of the twentieth and twenty-first. The tripartite organization of each design, which concentrates detail where it counts (a fundamental practice in all classical design), allows these buildings to announce their classical virtues with economy.

But such buildings are a drop in the ocean of anonymity that is swamping our cities everywhere. The world needs more traditional architects to proclaim that the Beaux Arts skyscraper can enrich and humanize our cities anew. Traditional architects must wake up from dreams of ancient techniques that consign them to little things and low horizons. We must carry our torches high on the peaks of enterprise and keep the flame of the traditional skyscraper alive.

 

 


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