The modern skyscraper is now the dominating feature of the skyline. Its many variations can make any city instantly recognizable with just a glance. Meager in comparison, the 7 and 10 story brick buildings peppered throughout many cities, not long ago would have towered over the existing metropolis.
Thanks to the rapid industrialization of the 19th century to the present, the skyscraper we know today would have exceeded even the most ambitious imaginations of its founding architects.
Precursors to the Skyscraper
Throughout human history, we’ve seen many colossal precursors to the skyscraper that challenged what was believed to be humanly possible. The Obelisk, for example, a “tapered monolithic pillar, originally erected in pairs at the entrances of ancient Egyptian temples” could be found in ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, and eventually the United States. An ancient Egyptian monument, many of which still stand today, the Obelisk was a dominator of the city’s architecture.
The temple of Hatshepsut (an Egyptian Pharaoh) displayed a monumental obelisk standing at a towering 30 meters . The United States borrowed this marvel design when the Washington Monument was built, standing at an amazing 170 meters. The human engineering of the ancient Obelisk still baffles archaeologists today.
Another astounding feat of engineering is the Egyptian Pyramids, the most revered of which are the Great Pyramids of Giza. The “largest of the three pyramids at Giza, known as the Great Pyramid…was 481.4 feet (147 meters), making it the largest pyramid in the world” when it was originally built. The Pyramids remain some of the most impressive examples of engineering in human history.
Another example of religious architecture that would open the door for the modern skyscraper, was the construction of massive Christian churches. Early Christians like the Egyptians posed great importance on religious structures, and churches constructed beginning around the 12th century began to reach heights previously unimaginable through the use of tall extending church spires, and technological advancements in building techniques. The expansion of the Roman Empire contributed massively to the spread of Christianity, which saw cities across mainly Europe, building monumental Cathedrals.
These structures not only showed religious devotion but also displayed the economic prosperity and technological advancements of the cities in which they were built.
The best example of sky-scraping churches are those built in the Gothic style. Gothic-style churches erected during the Medieval period were extremely ornate and grand in scale. While still made of stone like the churches, Pyramids, and Obelisks of the past, technological advancements allowed for Gothic churches to reach incredible heights, and for their walls to be punctuated by large windows. One such advancement was the flying buttress.
The flying buttress is a mechanism that serves to alleviate the wind pressure on the roof of “cathedrals with tall, pointed vaults projected high above the landscape, where winds were much stronger than at ground level”. As churches grew taller, architects had overcome new challenges imposed by the newfound heights.
The Lincoln Cathedral was one such Gothic-style church that amazingly surpassed the soaring heights of the Great Pyramids of Giza. Located in Lincoln England, the Lincoln Cathedral stood at an incredible 160 meters or 520 feet high . In fact, “many historians claim it became the tallest building in the world upon completion… in 1311; if so, it was the first building to hold that title after the Great Pyramid of Giza, and held it for 238 years until the spire collapsed in 1548”.
Though the construction of grand churches was primarily of religious concern, they came to be a great symbol of prosperity and notoriety. Cities across the world would soon enter a competitive race to the sky, and mass industrialization and the availability of iron and steel would allow for tremendous new peaks.
The Impact of the Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century would bring about the Bessemer process, a method of steel beam mass production invented by Henry Bessemer, an English inventor. This invention would revolutionize the way we make buildings. The architect George A. Fuller would implement the Bessemer process to build one of the world’s first skyscrapers, the Tacoma Building in Chicago.
Fuller revolutionized the use of steel beams to create a “load-bearing skeleton on the inside of the building”, rather than using load bearing walls which had previously been the norm, and prevented buildings from exceeding their limited heights.
Highly agreed upon as the first skyscraper, the Chicago Home Insurance Building was completed in 1885 and stood at 10 stories, or 138 feet tall. The Chicago Home Insurance building did not however contain a steel skeleton, rather it had a steel frame on the outer walls, so some historians contest its spot as number one. Some consider Fuller’s Tacoma Building as the first true skyscraper.
The metal internal skeleton has become a defining factor in what makes a skyscraper. Built only a few years later, the Eiffel Tower would again push the boundaries for what was possible through the use of a metal skeleton.
Several early examples of the skyscraper began popping up across Chicago and New York City throughout the end of the 19th to the turn of the 20th century. A New York City landmark, the Flat Iron building is one of these examples. Built in 1902, the Flat Iron building stands at a whopping 22 stories, or 86.9 meters.
While these historic buildings are now swamped under an array of colossal skyscrapers, at the time these buildings defined the skyline, like the World Trade Center in New York City, or the Willis (previously known as the Sears Tower) in Chicago do today.
The Limitations of Early Skyscrapers
While the steel skeleton was a revolutionary building technique and certainly allowed for the Chicago and New York skyline to reach new heights, it didn’t come without limitations. One factor being, stairs! The elevator was invented to combat this.
American inventor Elisha Otis created what “he called the ‘safety hoist,’ the first elevator equipped with an automatic safety device to prevent it from falling if the lifting chain or rope broke”[otis]. In 1857 the first of Otis’s safety elevators were installed in the store E.V. Haughwout & Co. in New York. His invention would lay the groundwork for the Otis Elevator Company, founded by Otis’s two sons after his death [otis].
The elevator made tall buildings more attractive to live in by eliminating the issue of stairs. This amazing and useful invention, along with the mass production of steel and iron, would further build innovations across the United States. The rest of the world would soon follow, and cities would transform into the iron and concrete jungles we recognize today.
Evolution into Newer Materials
Well into the 20th century, skyscrapers continued to be built with the steel skeleton and stone facade model. The iconic Empire State Building, built in the 1930s, for example houses a steel interior frame, with a limestone facade. So, why did we stop building with stone and transition towards newer materials, like concrete and glass?
Mainly, because stone has a limited and finite availability. During the “19th century, available stone and vast swaths of old-growth forest made heavy masonry” affordable and popular. However contemporary resources of limestone and lumber are limited, and therefore extremely costly. Consequently, not only did architectural styles evolve simply because of tastes, but also due to economic, material, and social necessity.
With the new possibilities found by internal steel skeletons, buildings could now be filled with more windows than their previous counterparts. With load bearing external walls, buildings couldn’t sustain so much glass. Now buildings could have facades made entirely of glass.
In almost any modern city the majority of newly built skyscrapers appear to be made out of giant walls of windows. Concrete and cinder blocks replaced stone masonry, and skyscrapers starting as early as the 1960s began to take on this new, more modern aesthetic.
This new glass skyscraper can be built quicker, and more affordably due to the lightweight nature of glass. Also, if serving a residential purpose, glass buildings can be extremely attractive to buyers and renters, because it promises uninterrupted views and natural light. Windows on buildings have been getting larger and larger since the Industrial Revolution, and have now engulfed entire cities.
The Skyscrapers of Today (and Tomorrow)
The world’s tallest skyscraper today, (or rather tomorrow) is the Dubai Creek Tower, which is currently still in construction. While the final height is unknown, the absolute minimum height will be 828 meters , nearly a kilometer tall! The Dubai Creek Tower will exceed the Jeddah Tower, and Burj Khalifa, the next two tallest skyscrapers in the world. That’s nearly 20 times the size of the first skyscraper, the Chicago Home Insurance Building.
Contemporary skyscrapers have taken on unfathomable new shapes that limited stone masonry would not be able to achieve. Glass skyscrapers from the 1960s to 1990s typically were trapped in the rigidity of a rectangular shape, but architects of the present day have continued to push boundaries, with skyscrapers taking on organic, and at times disorienting forms. The Aqua building for example in Chicago, the birthplace of the skyscraper, has a rippling facade of glass and concrete that creates a certain flowing movement that earlier stone skyscrapers could not attain.
Even more recently, completed in 2019, the dizzying Vancouver House skyscraper, in Vancouver British Columbia has transformed the city’s skyline. The tower’s twisting form of reflective metal box shaped pods, has astounded viewers. The unique illusion of this building is created by a triangular base which gradually transforms into a rectangle as it rises.
Though some locals have spoken negatively about the brutal design, it is in the least an interesting departure from the blue-glass monotony of the Vancouver skyline, and an amazing display of modern engineering.
The Future of Skyscrapers
In the less than 150 years since the completion of the first skyscraper, (the Chicago Home Insurance building) architects and engineers have stretched our reach into the sky by a kilometer. It’s a wonder to imagine how the next 150 years will define our skyline. The recent push towards green buildings, particularly in Singapore, alludes to a hopefully more environmentally friendly, and environmentally integrated skyline in the near future.
A skyline that can contribute to clean air, while also providing housing, work spaces, and centers of commerce. The seemingly endless competition between nations to build the tallest structure seems asinine, and hopefully developers will turn to a more people-forward approach to skyscrapers in the years to come.
So what’s next? Perhaps floating cities? With the dubai creek tower spanning almost a 1000 meters into the sky, it doesn’t seem like we’re that far off.
1. Bellis, M. 2020. “The First Skyscrapers – Learn the history of skyscrapers”
2. “Dubai Creek Tower”
3. “Egyptian Pyramids”
4. “Flatiron Building”
5. “Lincoln Cathedral”
6. “obelisk | pillar”
7. “The Technology Of Construction”
8. Wagner, Kate. 2019. “We Don’T Build ‘Em Like We Used To—But That’S Not A Bad Thing”