The Continuing Evolution of the Skyscraper

Through the images, books and periodicals in the RIBA’s collections, we can track some of the key stages in the evolution of skyscrapers.


Skyline of New York in 1912. © RIBA Library Books and Periodicals Collection British and American skyscrapers compared. Source: Builder, 3 March 1922, p.344. © RIBA Library Books and Periodicals Collection Reliance Building, Chicago, 1895. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection Woolworth Building and Empire State Building, New York. © RIBA British Architectural Library

 

Oriel Chambers, Liverpool. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Oriel Chambers, Water Street, Liverpool.
© Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

The history of skyscrapers is one linked closely to technology. Construction techniques used in one small building in Liverpool, completed in 1864, were some of several innovations that made tall buildings possible in North America, then Europe later on. With just five floors, Liverpool’s Oriel Chambers is itself not a skyscraper, but its iron frame freed the walls from supporting the weight of the structure (1). Architect Peter Ellis was able to dispense with thick masonry walls and substituted these for glass curtain walls, which maximised the penetration of natural light into the interior. These ideas were essential to what happened after in America.

Reliance Building, Chicago (1895)

The Reliance Building was an early skyscraper and the first to use large plate glass windows. A 15-storey building designed by Burnham and Root and later by Charles Bowler Atwood, it was John Root (of Burnham and Root) who spent time in Liverpool and would have seen Oriel Chambers and he devised the reinforced concrete slab foundation which supported the weight of his heavy buildings (2). Although both buildings had large areas of glass to allow light in, by this point the world was moving away from iron as a structural material, and it was a steel frame that held up Root’s building.


The Woolworth Building, New York (1913) 

Commissioned in 1910 to design the headquarters of Woolworth Company, Cass Gilbert’s ornate Neo-Gothic design was on its way to becoming the world’s tallest building in 1912 when the Architectural Review felt confident enough to predict that Gilbert’s new building on Broadway, New York, “ will be the most beautiful building as well as the ‘highest building in the world ’ ” (3).  

The skyscraper was a new building form which used the latest technology, such as elevators (the Woolworth Building had 29 when it first opened, the Reliance Building had four), and faster construction methods (4). The Architectural Review questioned if such a building type could also be beautiful? In collaboration with artists and craftsmen, Cass was able to cover the interior spaces and the facades with decorative stone carvings, metal work, murals, plastering and mosaics glass. 

Page from 'Bauten der Technik' illustrating three skyscrapers in New York, 1927. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Image: Page from ' Bauten der Technik ' illustrating three skyscrapers in New York, 1927.
© RIBA Library Photographs Collection 

Empire State Building, New York (1931)

The Woolworth building was just one of many towers in New York, where each new building that went up tried to taller than those that went before it, a competition that gave the city a unique and vertical skyline. At the same time in Europe, there were few skyscrapers in the early 20th century and in many cities it was the cathedral that was still the tallest landmark. Only in a few places, such as with the Liver Building in Liverpool (1911), 55 Broadway in London (1929) and Boerentoren (1932) in Antwerp, all office buildings, was the power of commercial interests strong and wealthy enough to begin to challenge God.

The Empire State Building was the biggest building anyone had ever known and one of the most pleasing aesthetically  

 ' The Empire State Building: the making of a landmark' by John Tauranac, 1995, p.19

Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, Hong Kong, 1935. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, Hong Kong, 1935.
© RIBA Library Photographs Collection

After World War I, the American lead in skyscraper design continued with the completion of the 102-storey Empire State Building designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression. From 1931 until 1972, it was the world’s tallest building (4). Art Deco was the dominant style for skyscrapers in the inter-war era, not just in New York in examples such as the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, but in the Far East in the cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong.

 

 

 

Post-war developments  

At Seagram, Mies created a building that transforms not only the city but the view and experience of a key part of the city

Barry Gergdoll in ' Building Seagram ' by Phyllis Lambert, 2013., 2013, p.x (6)

One of the finest examples of Modernist architecture is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 38-storey Seagram Building. Completed in 1958, its expression of its structure was to influence many other architects beyond Manhattan in the years after World War II. With Modernism on the rise, no longer were skyscrapers to politely hide their beams, columns and cross braces behind decorative stonework and terracotta. 

Birmingham Post & Mail Building, Colmore Circus, Birmingham. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Birmingham Post & Mail Building, Colmore Circus, Birmingham.
© RIBA Library Photographs Collection

The skyscraper as a form was to be common across the Atlantic after the end of hostilities when many British cities followed the American example by building upwards. In London this was spurred on by the repeal of the London Building Act which since 1894 had prevented tall buildings from being built in the capital. The 1960s saw the completion of Centre Point in London and the Birmingham Post and Mail building in Birmingham. With their reinforced concrete frame, smooth marble or concrete cladding and glass skin walling, the skyscrapers of the post-war era were to be less ornamented and more functional affairs.

 

From the standpoints of both aesthetic and environmental design a high standard has been achieved

' Newspaper works and offices for Birmingham Post and Mail Ltd' , Architects' Journal, 1965 Dec. 8, p.1400 (7)  

The 21st Century: Beyond the box

The Gherkin is the best in the UK- but still not as good as it should be quote

'Tall buildings', Architects' Journal, 2006 August 31, pp. 24-25 (8)

'Gherkin', 30 St Mary Axe, London
'Gherkin', 30 St Mary Axe, London.
© Wilson Yau, 2009

Not only did skyscrapers continue to grow taller with each successive new build, but technology aided by computers was able to calculate and manufacture precision parts; skyscrapers were able to move beyond the box and take on new shapes and nicknames after the millennium. In London, though there was the Lloyd's Building of 1986, this trend really began in 2004 with Foster + Partners’ 180-metre scheme at 30 St Mary Axe, often referred to as the ‘Gherkin’. It has been joined by 20 Fenchurch Street – also known as the ‘Walkie Talkie’ – and the Shard.   In other cities too, large office buildings were taking new forms, such as the CCTV Headquarters, a 44-storey loop in Beijing opened in 2012. The evolution of this distinct and highly-visible building type continues to be driven forward by technology and civic and commercial rivalry.  

 


References (available in the British Architectural Library , RIBA)

1. History: Oriel Chambers . Architectural Review, May 1956, pp.268-70 2. Pridmore, J., 2003. The Reliance Building: a building book from the Chicago Architecture Foundation . San Francisco : Pomegranate, 2003
3. The work of Cass Gilbert . Architectural Review, January 1912, pp.3-16
4. Hugh McAtamney & Co., 1913. The master builders: a record of the construction of the world's highest commercial structure. Baltimore and New York: Munder-Thomsen Press
5 . Tauranac, J., 1995. The Empire State Building: the making of a landmark . New York and London : Scribner
6 . Lambert, P., 2013. Building Seagram . New Haven and London: Yale University Press
7. Newspaper works and offices for Birmingham Post and Mail Ltd . Architects' Journal, 1965 December 8, pp. 1385-1406
8. Tall buildings: The Gherkin is the best in the UK - but still not as good as it should be . Architects' Journal, 2006 August 31, pp. 24-25
 

Article by Wilson Yau, British Architectural Library, RIBA

 

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