Why They “Scrape” the Sky
DO YOU know which is the highest building in your town or city? In your country? In the world? It probably is a skyscraper. Skyscrapers are now a worldwide phenomenon. Tourist hotels scrape the skies of hundreds of popular beach resorts. Cities vie for the distinction of having the tallest skyscraper. But here’s a question that affects all of us: Are skyscrapers really beneficial to our life-style?
To satisfy your curiosity on one question, where would you expect to find the world’s tallest structure? In the United States of America? Or maybe Russia? In fact, the answer is Canada. It is the Canadian National Tower in Toronto. At 1,821 feet,* it is the tallest freestanding structure in the world. But, of course, it is a tower, not a habitable building in the normal sense of the word. In that case, which is the highest building or skyscraper in the world?
For that we have to go to the United States. But to which city? To New York, perhaps? No. To Chicago, where the Sears Tower reaches a height of 1,454 feet. Although it tops the New York World Trade Center by more than a hundred feet, both giants contain the same number of floors—110!
Speaking of heights, have you noticed how many people are fascinated by altitude? So much so that many of the highest buildings in the world have special elevator service for the tourists. And here is a question to ponder: If Elisha Graves Otis had not invented the world’s first safe elevator in 1853, would skyscrapers have become practical?
Why Have Tall Buildings?
Man’s fascination with heights goes away back into history. For example, the oldest extant historical record tells us that in the third millennium before our Common Era men got together on a valley plain in the land of Shinar, Mesopotamia, and said: “Come on! Let us build ourselves a city and also a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a celebrated name for ourselves, for fear we may be scattered over all the surface of the earth.” (Genesis 11:1-4) In effect, they wanted a tower that would “scrape the sky”—a “heavens” scraper! The result was the famous Tower of Babel.
Did you notice the motive for building that tower of long ago? “Let us make a celebrated name for ourselves.” Yes, they associated a tall building with making a reputation for themselves. In a way, they were thinking like modern-day publicity agents and commercial magnates. Why so? Because a 20th-century tendency is to think that ‘biggest is best’—and if you can have your name attached to it, even better.
In this respect, note what Frank W. Woolworth, international chain-store owner, said with regard to New York City’s 60-story Woolworth Building, constructed in 1913. (At 792 feet it was the tallest building in the world.) “I wanted to build something bigger than any other merchant ever had. The Woolworth Building is the result.” At the same time, he made an even greater name for himself as a businessman. However, in 1930 his “tower” was superseded in the skyscraper league by the 77-story Chrysler Building, rising to a height of 1,046 feet. The Chrysler reign was soon cut short by a yet higher structure, the 1,250-foot-high Empire State Building, completed in New York City in 1931.
Two major factors have influenced the worldwide proliferation of skyscrapers: the desire to exploit to the maximum the limited ground space; and on some occasions the psychological need of the financial backers to glorify themselves. As writer James C. Giblin stated: “Skyscraper design in New York was also influenced by the ambitions and desires of the people who financed the buildings. These real-estate developers, industrialists, and merchants wanted their names connected with magnificent-looking buildings that would proclaim their wealth and power to everyone who looked up at them.”
What Inspired the Architects?
From where did the modern architects get their inspiration? Mr. Giblin continues: “[They] thought that the best way to satisfy their clients was to borrow design ideas for their skyscrapers from the temples of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and from the great Gothic cathedrals of Western Europe. Those structures had been built as monuments to emperors or gods; why not use them as models for skyscraper monuments to 20th-century millionaires?”
Curiously, several modern skyscrapers have been called cathedrals. For example, the Woolworth Building, an outstanding example of modern Gothic architecture, was called by a clergyman the Cathedral of Commerce. The University of Pittsburgh skyscraper, also of Gothic style, is known as the Cathedral of Learning. And author Giblin suggests that the 36-story skyscraper of the Chicago Tribune newspaper could also rightly be called the Cathedral of Journalism.
Where Was the First Modern Skyscraper?
Where and when was the first modern skyscraper built? Since the most famous skyscraper horizon is Manhattan, it would be natural to think that New York was the first city to have a skyscraper. However, there are three North American cities that contend for that “honor”—New York, Chicago and Minneapolis. Which can rightly claim the crown?
If the definition of a skyscraper were any building over ten floors high, then New York would win with the Equitable Life Assurance Society Building, erected during 1868-70. But to architects and engineers a skyscraper is not just a building that “scrapes the sky.” The true skyscraper is based on an iron or steel framework, which was the revolutionary design innovation of the 19th century. That permitted buildings capable of sustaining great height and weight. Therefore, which city wins the accolade?
The authoritative answer is given in Space, Time and Architecture by the Swiss art historian Sigfried Giedion: “It is well known that the first skyscraper actually built . . . along modern principles of construction was the ten-story building of the Home Insurance Company of Chicago (1883-85).” Yes, Chicago was the first city to have a genuine skyscraper.
Now there appears to be a running feud between Chicago and New York as to which will have the tallest building in the world. For a long time, New York held that distinction. Then in 1974 it lost it to Chicago’s Sears Tower. But for how long? Will someone finance the construction of a yet taller skyscraper in New York? If so, what will be the motive? Will another skyscraper actually benefit New York?
Are Skyscrapers Beneficial to Man?
This leads to more far-reaching questions. Do skyscrapers and high-rise buildings really favor the man in the street? Is it conducive to good human relations to have so many people crammed into such limited areas? What about the strain on public transportation systems and the city’s sanitation facilities? Fire hazards are another factor to be taken into account.
Serious doubts are being raised about the overall efficacy of skyscrapers, especially by persons concerned about the threat to the environment and ecology. As Lewis Mumford put it: “Actually, the skyscraper, from first to last, has been largely an obstacle to intelligent city planning and architectural progress. Its chief use has been to overcrowd the land for private financial advantage, at no matter what cost to the municipality, and to provide a costly means of publicity and advertisement.” So the question is valid, Why “scrape” the sky?
One foot = 0.305 meter.
[Picture on page 26]
Two former world-title holders—the 60-story Woolworth Building (1913) and the 110-story World Trade Center (1970), New York City