Skyscrapers from A to Z

 

Michael Sorkin

SKYSCRAPERS FROM A TO Z

 

AMERICA

Where else but the United States could the skyscraper happen? Where else concatenate avarice, ambition, bureaucracy, speculation, underdevelopment, technology, and the waiting grid? While not exclusively American, the tower’s thoroughgoing here, ubiquitous. No city of substance lacks a skyline, a clump of spires – however few – that signify the threshold of arriviste urbanity. Skyscrapers are part of the minimum apparatus of American urbanism, joining expressways, domed stadia, air-conditioned shopping malls, and gentrified dereliction. As once the bank was signified by the gold leaf on its dome, now it requires marble mullions and a reach exceeding the grasp of the Phone Company Building across the street. The town’s leading law firm cannot be suitably housed elsewhere. The tower speaks by conferring address. 

 

HARDY AMIES

I was once asked, “For whom do you design? What are you thinking of?” It is an ideal man that we are working for. He is a decent citizen, pays his taxes. He is well aware of all that goes on around him. He reads the Wall Street Journal but he also knows his way around the Museum of Modern Art. He is 39 long. He can be any age; he looks forty-five but his bank balance is that of a man of seventy.

Hart, Schaffner, and Marx. Kohn, Pederson, and Fox. Amies’ man is the Modular of the Multinational Style. In the design of the American skyscraper, the architect has almost always been coextensive with the client, a room full of 39 longs, a Mont Blanc in every breast pocket. The well-dressed executive has not only been the paradigm for occupancy, he’s been the model for the building itself.

 

ATRIUM

Distended into misnomer by acromegaly, the attenuation of the interior courtyard has soared to unprecedented heights. John Portman, little acknowledged as a skyscraper lion, has, in effect, tuned the skyscraper outside in. His hotel courts rise so high, buildings can easily fit inside them; they’re packing cases for skyscrapers. In the case of his Marriot Marquis Hotel in New York City this is literally so. Set within the central space is a cylindrical elevator shaft rising 53 stories, constrained like a pig in a poke.

Portman’s places reclaim as void the cancelled space consumed by ordinary towers and offer regulated vistas which, if outer-directed, would encompass the unregulated, uncontrollable, uncertain city. These gargantuan atria seek to compensate for the inclemencies of cities befouled by industrial and cultural effluent by appropriating nature. Portman’s places – which at their most luscious extremes look like Bernini on an acid trip – are inevitably swadled in enough dangling greenery to refoliate the Amazon Basin.. Their most refined precedent, however, is Kevin Roche’s Ford Foundation Building, a seminal inversion of modernism’s classic vision: the park’s now in the tower. The city – so un-natured, stripped so bare by its buildings, even – retains a little indoors, just a reminder.

 

BABEL

Ruskin antedated all towers by this first. In his initial Edinburgh lecture of 1853 he declared:

“Let us build a tower whose top may reach unto heaven.” From that day to this, whenever men have become skilful architects at all, there has been a tendency in them to build high; not in any religious feeling, but in mere exuberance of spirit and power — as they dance or sing — with a certain mingling of vanity — like a child builds a tower of cards.”
 

BARTLESVILLE

This little town in Oklahoma is home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower, the greatest of them all. Designed in the ‘20s for a Manhattan site but unrealized until the '50s, it’s Wright Agonistes, a bristling, angular, bundle of energy. Relegated to the plains, Bartlesville is Broadacre City's revenge on its maker, "the tree that escaped the crowded forest.” Brilliantly expressive at every level of resolve, it's also a social condenser, mixing living and work places. More Wright:

The elevator building — tall, taller, tallest. The skyscraper is a fireproof American natural. Once upon a time confined to the congested areas of monstrous cities a landlord’s ruse to have, to hold, exploiting excess concentration an expedient snare — adding picturesqueness to the urban sky the American skyscraper has now escaped. Here you will see it sorting out upon adventure now relying upon its own virtues for its very life.
As a free-standing quadruple in its park, casting its shadow upon its own ground, it may be not only beautiful and economical but truly advantageous concentration — in our crowded areas of cities its concentration was disadvantageous. But the skyscraper did hasten the coming era of decentralization. Hitherto a doubtful human asset adding to traffic problems of undesirable congestion instead of relieving them the skyscraper hero becomes a free agent for a desirable concentration.... So on the rolling plains of Oklahoma comes a fresh realization of the modern advantages of architecture yet unknown to the big city. As trees the forest have no chance to develop their own individuality to full expression of their own character as would be seen if they were isolated, so the quadruple skyscraper now has a chance to be itself, free standing in the countryside. The upended street here bears natural advantage for a natural use of the technical advantages of our own time…. Witness the release of the skyscraper from slavery (commercial bondage) to human freedom.
 

BESSEMER

Sir Henry, of course, invented a steel making process which, by forcing a blast of air through molten iron, removes impurities in the metal and adds enormously to its strength and ductility. The useful possibilities were quickly recognized.

 

BRECHT

How would Brecht have spoken to Wright? Here’s what he wrote in a stanza of the "Late Lamented Fame of the Giant City of New York.” First stanza's before the Crash:

Those skyscrapers — 
The men who piled their stones so high
That they towered over all, anxiously watched from their summits the new buildings
Springing from the ground, soon to overtower
Their own mammoth size. 
(Some were beginning to fear that the growth of such cities
Could no longer be stopped, that they would have to finish their days
With twenty stories of other cities above them
And would be stacked in coffins which would be buried
One on top of the other.)

Second stanza's after:

What of skyscrapers? 
We observe them more coolly. 
What contemptible hovels skyscrapers are when they no longer yield rents! 
Rising so high, full of poverty? Touching the clouds, full of debt?

The architect and the poet might have seen eye to eye.

 

CATHEDRAL OF COMMERCE

On April 24, 1913, Cass Gilbert's masterpiece, the Woolworth Building, was illuminated when President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in Washington. Two years later, the Panama—Pacific Exposition cited it as the “most beautiful building in all the world erected to commerce.” The name itself was the coinage of a well-known New York clergyman of the day, S. Parkes Cadman, who thus baptized the latest bifurcation of form and function:

When seen at nightfall bathed in electric light or in the lucid air or summer morning, piercing space like a battlement of the paradise of God, which St. John beheld, it inspires feelings even for tears. The writer looked upon it and at once cried out “the Cathedral of Commerce” — the chosen habitation of that spirit in man which, through means of change and barter, binds alien people into unity and peace.

The idea to build a new tallest building in the world (it remained the newest until 1930) in the gothic style had come from Frank Woolworth himself, the king of the five and ten cent store, who'd been greatly taken, while visiting London, with the Houses of Parliament. Woolworth had amassed his huge fortune on the basis of three retailing principles: (1) all merchandise must be fixed at the price of 5 cents; (2) everything must be paid for in cash; (3) merchandise must be displayed on counters so that customers might see and choose each item themselves. True to his principles, Woolworth paid cash for his building. Marcel Duchamp, with perfect recognition, included the building in the category of ready-mades.

It should be noted that Woolworth was only the first in a line of secular cathedrals. The Paramount Building in Times Square, designed by C.W. and George L. Rapp of Chicago in 1929, was called “The Cathedral of Motion Pictures.” At the same time Charles Z. Klauder was building the “Cathedral of Learning" to house the University of Pittsburgh. Gilbert himself had a somewhat more sanguine description of the skyscraper: “The machine that makes the land pay”.

 

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Two years after winning the Chicago Tribune competition of 1922, Raymond Hood wrote:

My experience, which in reality consists of designing only two skyscrapers, does not justify my expressing an opinion as to whether a building should be treated verti­cally, horizontally or in cubist fashion. On the contrary, it has convinced me that on these matters I should not have a definite opinion. To use these two buildings as examples, they are both in the “vertical” style or what is called “Gothic” simply because I  happened to make them so. If at the time of designing them I had been under the spell of Italian campaniles or Chinese pagodas, l suppose the resulting composition would have been horizontal.... Nothing but harm could result if at this stage in our development the free exercise of study and imagination should stop, and the standardizing and formulating of our meager knowledge and experi­ence should now take its place. It might be proper to say something precise about the different styles but I am as much in the air about style as I am about everything else.

The Chicago Tribune competition is easily the most commented upon event in the history of the skyscraper. In general, it's read as having a double poignancy. First, as a moment at which dizzy eclectics confronted the moderns: on the right-hand screen Raymond Hood, on the left Gropius. The lecturer offers a knowing wink: après ça, la déluge. The second obser­vation is traditional to architectural competitions and is focused on the runner up. As Corb was to the League of Nations or the Palace of the Soviets, so Eliel Saarinen is to the Chicago Tribune, not first, but best.

It’s an analysis that hangs on a pretty slim reed. Tafuri admires Saarinen's tower as the prolegomena to a range of “enchanted mountains,” telescoping, set-back towers that proliferated through the '20s. More, the “organicism” of the building/mountain is seen as vindicating both the theory and practice of Louis Sullivan, who was, by then, plunged into miserable obscurity, scant two years away from his death. Writing in bitterness after the competition, Sullivan fulsomely praised Saarinen and derided Hood:

Confronted by the limpid eye of analysis, the first prize trembles and falls, self-confessed, crumbling to the ground. Visibly, it is not architecture in the sense herein expounded. Its formula is literary: words, words, words. It is an imaginary structure, not imaginative. Starting with a false premise, it was doomed to a false conclusion, and it is clear enough, moreover, that the conclusion was the real premise, the mental process in reverse of appearance.

But if the range of submissions to the Tribune Competition was broad, it was even more remarkably thin. The amazing welter of images — a now indisputable totem for plurality — was also an exemplar of the way, in changing, things remain exactly the same. This great moment was an announcement that the character of the urban office tower was utterly fixed, that the only alterations to which it would be subsequently susceptible were sartorial. In terms of the organization of the lives of its inhabi­tants, the social and physical character of their workplace, the proposal of Hilbesheimer, the most degree-zeroid submission, differs not one whit from that of the klutzily eclectic Holabird and Roche, winners of the third prize. By 1922, the typological development of skyscraper was more or less at an end. 

 

LE CORBUSIER

In 1935, a reporter from the New York Times accompanied Corb to the Rainbow Room atop the RCA Building to admire the view. “But,” according to the story which later appeared in the paper,

the modern architect was not particularly impressed. He was looking for architecture, not theater, and shy, besides, of succumbing to drama so melodramatic. Moreover, he was looking for architecture in his own sense of the word — in this case, the city that is a machine for living in — not merely frightfully expensive scenery built to knock the beholder's eye out. “They are too small,” he said, looking straight at the Empire State Building, tallest in all the world of filing cases for men and standing on one of the biggest pieces of ground devoted to that purpose in the city.

 

NOËL COWARD

From Law and Order: ”I don't know what London's coming to — the higher the buildings, the lower the morals.”

 

DANGER

Acrophobia becomes an urban privilege with the rise of the skyscraper, further elaborating the lexicon of fears modern life makes available. Fear first translates to danger for those who actually construct the towers. Dolores Hayden cites an English reporter's account of one byproduct of the construction of the Woolworth Building:

Anybody in America will tell you without tremor (but with pride) that each story of a skyscraper means a life sacrificed. Twenty stories — twenty men snuffed out; thirty stories — thirty men. A building of some sixty stories is now going up — sixty corpses, sixty funerals, sixty domestic hearths to be slowly rearranged.

This neat calculus has now diminished and the human cost of high-rises must be figured with more inexact standards, with greater concealment. An unpublicized secret of the Portman hotels is the prodigious inducement to suicide their vast atria seems to provide. The folklore of every city in which such spaces sit is flush with stories of hapless revelers crushed to death in mid-Martini by the misery-ending plunge of some stranger.

The real danger in a skyscraper, though, is not free-fall but fire. Survivors plucked from the roof of some towering inferno by intrepid heli­copter pilots is one of the stable tropes of the nightly news. Ditto, the charred remains the morning after. A skyscraper fire can begin for numerous reasons — from bad wiring to smoking in bed — and its spread can fly in an unimpeded rush through ductwork or plenum, elevator shaft or electrical chase. But the skyscraper fire transforms the history of building fires in that they cannot, by definition, be escaped or fought from without. Just as the skyscraper's enormity defeats conventional hose and ladder tech­nology, the latest strategies for protecting tenants envisage points of refuge within the burning building rather than total evacuation. The fate of the occupant is tied too intimately to that of the building: like a space ship, life can only be led within.

 

DECO

The United States went unrepresented at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, the "showcase of modem design" meant, in part, as a long-delayed response (global warfare had intervened) to the Cologne German Arts Exhibit of 1914. America was absent because then Secretary of the Interior Herbert Hoover when approached about official participation replied that America possessed no modem design. (The Germans did not participate for other reasons.) Never mind, the influence entered America nonetheless on the backs of a thousand decorators.

For the first time, a modern decorative system swept the country, establishing unity, if not parity, among objects of every class, from ashtrays to skyscrapers. As the redoubtable Emily Genauer wrote on the fashion page of the New York World Telegram one December in the '20s: “The affinity between art and decoration is so close this season that presently the two words will belong with other twin terms like Bread and Butter and Scotch and Soda.” Paris wasn't the only retail source. Early as 1919, a shop dealing in goods produced out of Josef Hoffman's Wiener Werkstatte was being operated by the architect Joseph Urban, an Austrian émigré, at the comer of Fifth Avenue and Forty-Seventh Street. Urban later contributed several major ziggy-zaggy monuments himself, including the International Magazine Building of 1927, the Ziegfeld Theater of 1926, and the New School of 1930, which features a pip of a Poelzigesque auditorium, still in use.


HARLEY EARL

Harley Earl was, for decades, the head of the “Art and Color” section at General Motors: the man who defined automobile styling as we know it, the man who invented the tail-fin, the man who codified the apparatus of the annual automotive image change. Earl’s prominence as successor to designers like Bel Geddes, Loewy, and Teague, marks not only the displace­ment of style by styling in industrial design but the capture of the high ground from architecture by consumer durables. Indeed, with the Earl epoch, American architecture in general and the skyscraper in particular saw their own transformation into no more than a particularly large and slightly more durable variety of consumer object.

 

EIFFEL TOWER

Barthes says the Eiffel Tower is a “pure — virtually empty — sign” and “ineluctible, because it means everything.” Well, sure. But to the skyscraper its message is quite specific. With the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the skyscraper's main routines of meaning were fixed, its expressive dimensions secured. Standing free, iconically exact, technologically rooted in the 19th century, judgeable by a relentless rhythm of extent, this was pure skyscraper. The virtually empty sign only reflects the virtual emptiness of the signified. The iconography of the skyscraper embraces little more than that of this tower: the elevator lobbies and landings, the view-point, the panoramic restaurant. The skyscraper's utility lies exactly in its emptiness, the refusal of its spaces to specify their occupancy, waiting the textureless inhabitation of bureaucracy.

 

HUGH FERRISS

The Virgil of the skyscraper, the singer of its song. Ferriss, the architect who chose simply to draw, gave the skyscraper a context in representation that it was never fully to assume in life. As America's pre-eminent renderer for decades, he kissed vitality into myriad unmaterialized schemes. His draw­ings for countless colleagues imputed a brooding boldness, a sense of mass, a sinuous darkness, to the skyscraper. He established the tower’s time of day: midnight.

Under Ferriss’s hand, skyscraper building was transformed from technique to cause, from object to urbanism. Ferries both spiritualized and naturalized the tower. Without doubt, his greatest work is the series of drawings made to dramatize the zoning envelope studies done with Harvey Wiley Corbett in 1922. Here we see the skyscraper successively material­ized from a crystalline matrix of pure architectonic matter. At a stroke, Ferriss recast the character of the skyscraper from technology to geology, from assemblage to carving. No coincidence that Ferriss's disappearance from the scene precisely reflects the skyscraper's glassification, its lunge to insubstantiality.

 

FOSHAY TOWER

America's most charismatic national monument is Washington's, the monster obelisk on the Mall. Wilbur Foshay, a Minneapolis manufacturer of kitchen utensils straight out of William Dean Howells (who had himself called skyscrapers “the necessity of commerce and the despair of art”), bankrupted himself building an office building of identical shape in the difficult year of 1929. He nevertheless succeeded — thanks to the enormous chiseling of his name on all four sides of the summit — in adequately animating the thrusting signifier to assure, if not immortality, at least a certain blessedness of memory. Thomas van Leeuwen has unearthed a stanza from a local wag, penned at the tower's dedication:

A symbol of that other shaft
Revered the nation through
The vision of a dreaming lad
In stone and steel come true.
 

FOUNTAINHEAD

Well-known reactionary novel by Ayn Rand, better known 1949 film starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. The hero — Howard Roark — is an architect, who dynamites his own work — a housing project which interestingly pre-capitulates the equally celebrated blasting of Pruitt-Igoe — rather than see it altered and sullied. Ironies abound: Roark is the defender of modernism against the academicism of the critical establishment.

At any rate, the dénouement takes place at the summit of a skyscraper, built under the sponsorship of a finally found, ’individualist’ client, a newspaper baron called Gail Wynand. He describes his apocalyptic ambitions for the tower, claiming:

The age of the skyscraper is gone. This is the age of the housing project. Which is always a prelude to the age of the cave. This will be the last skyscraper built in New York....The last achievement of man on earth before mankind destroys itself.

In the filmed version, Neal enacts the ascent of a re-sexed spermatozoan up an exterior construction elevator, buffeted by Reifenstahlian winds, until she reaches the Zarathustrian Cooper waiting at the summit of the huge shaft. Standing in the position of potency, they overlook the city, a tiny pool of human ejaculate, a glistening fantasy of male puissance. 

 

FLATIRON

Amiens at 23rd Street, photographed at all hours by Edward Steichen, a Monet for moderns. The architect, Burnham; the year, 1903. Its incredible lightness of being is part serendipity, the triangular plan a product of pure extrusion from an anomaly in the grid created by the cross-slash of Broadway. The Flatiron is the most elegant justification for the skyscraper's characteristic mode of created value: simple multiplication.

 

GOD IS IN THE DETAILS

In a sartorial morality, codes lie in stitching. The skyscraper, in its present incarnation, functions in the fashion system. By the 1970s, production of skyscrapers in America had been completely brought in line expressively with the strictures of men's clothing: the tailoring of comparable goods to the needs of a limited range of envelopes and the creation of a system of marginal distinction by which both signature and status could be discerned. On the production side, firms were organized between bespoke and off-the-peg designers. Down-scale offices like Kahn and Jacobs and Emery Roth produced ready to wear goods while the likes of Cesar Pelli, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, Philip Johnson, and, a little later, Kohn, Pederson, Fox, were sewing custom.

The typical corporate client, of course, was an upper middle-class male whose primary acquaintance with elaborate visual systems was his daily dress. This had undergone a number of important transformations since the war. In 1950, Esquire, still in its heyday, introduced the so-called "Mr. T." look, and, for perhaps the first time in history, men and buildings came to dress identically. "Mr. T.” (like Mr. T-Square) was "a trim look characterized by natural shoulder, narrow lapels, and straight hanging lines.” Fabrics and colors were drawn from an extremely limited range. Despite such vagaries as the small checks of 1952, the "Continental" look of '56, Ivy League details, Madras jackets, and a certain waxing of lapels, this look (the fabled Brooks Brothers #1 Sack Suit being the central paradigm) dominated men's dress until the "Peacock Revolution” of 1966-67 when Gentleman's Quarterly declared, "men's fashions will never be dull again.” 

 

HANCOCK BUILDING

The giant insurance company has long been a patron of high profile towers. SOM's 1969 Chicago effort suborns mixed use to a single reading. Dramatically trussed, "Big John” strains to become a pyramid but the batter's too mild to form a point within its hundred stories. The slope does, however, nicely force perspective from below. Another happy piece of symbolism is Hancock’s similarity to an oil derrick, brother instrument of extraction. It's easily the best minimalist tower of the period. The only problem is the wimpy travertine plinth.

More or less concurrent is Harry Cobb’s Hancock in Boston, the double-notched, reflective-glass rhomboid. This is no time to go into the long history of the speculum. Still, it's clear the fashion for mirror panendemic among designers is more than mere invert narcissism. Mirror does "solve” a couple of thorny problems. First, it's thought to accommodate to the skyscraper's two most difficult contexts: the historic city center and the context of no context of surrounding skyscraper kin.

Hancock addresses the first issue, "reflecting" Richardson's Trinity Church, consuming it, an inoculation against dominance. There's a conceptual parity established among church, tower, and sky, all mentalized and made immaterial. The same process crops up in uniformly glassy milieu, where the images of opposing towers bang back and forth in a barber shop game of infinite regress. Of course, the real reason architects love mirror is that it’s at once transparent and volumetric, giving guiltless rein to the play of shapes. 

 

INTELLIGENT BUILDING

What a concept! Colloquially, it refers to a nirvana of regulation afforded big buildings by the advent of the computer. Linked by fiber optics, central control is imposed on heating, ventilation, elevators, lighting, security, fire protection, as well as telecommunications and electronic office services. The aim, according to one avatar of such technologism, is "to make buildings behave much like living things, continually gathering information through different senses and adjusting their behavior in response.” Definitively, the walls will have ears and work will take place in the belly of the beast.

The rise of the intelligent building augurs a transformation. As the skyscraper itself becomes an organism, the living things forced to inhabit it turn subsidiary, to parasites, microorganisms. Instead of controlling their environments, they’ll be controlled by them, by the highly sensitive pantactic apparatus, by the pre-programmed statistical conceits or homeostasis. Unfit, anomalous subjects, trapped in the office when the computer lowers the temperature for the expected departure of the section for lunch, will simply have to bring sweaters.

 

HENRY JAMES

From The American Scene:

One story is good until another is told, and skyscrapers are the last work of economic ingenuity only till another word be written. This shall be possibly a work of uglier meaning, but the vocabulary of thrift at any price shows boundless resources, and the consciousness of the finite, the menaced, the essentially invented state, twinkles ever, to my perception, in the thousand glassy eyes of these giants of the mere market.

 

KING KONG

We all know the last line of the film, spoken over the great gorilla's lifeless form: "It wasn't airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” But which beauty? Instinctively one guesses the blonde, the pheromonal Fay Wray. But mightn't it have been the architecture, the Empire State's spire, chosen from a la, number of possibilities in 1933? Had the ape's aesthetic sensibilities run to the Daily News or McGraw Hill buildings, his fall might have been only to the flat top of the slab.

The undergraduate wisdom on the symbolism of Kong counterposes nature in all its blind instincts against civilization and its insuperable mechanization. But this mistakes Kong's monstrosity. He fell because he was too big to take the stairs, because he simply couldn't or wouldn’t ride the elevator, because he made a mess of the city. In 1945, the Empire State Building killed a plane, which struck it at the 76th Floor. In the scissor, stone, paper calculus of these things, then, it was airplanes that killed the beast, airplanes and their master, the tallest building in the world.

At the time of the film's 1976 remake, the world's tallest building had become two: the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Kong's scale — insufficient to embrace both towers — obliged him to choose. Alas, the choice was Hobson's: both towers were exactly the same and offered exactly the same consequences. Is it a wonder the ape died depressed? It wasn't helicopters that killed him, or even buildings. It was ambivalence.

 

NIKITA KRUSCHEV

 

From Kruschev Remembers, his memoir: "If you've seen one skyscraper, you've seen them all.”

 

LARKIN BUILDING

Wright’s Larkin Building — created for a giant Buffalo soap manufacturing and mail-order business — is a paradigm for virtually every aspect of the skyscraper save height. His brief was to create an archetypical headquarters for 1,800 office workers charged with processing an avalanche of more than five thousand pieces of mail-order correspondence per day. Tucked among the enormous factories of the corporation, the building produced by Wright is a veritable factory of bureaucracy, its desks serried into a paperwork production line of visible efficiency, illuminated by its great central light-court.

As a type, Larkin mediates between the factory and the office tower, softening the oppressions of both by offering an architecture of character, amenity, and mild polemic. Part of this comes from the paternalistic decorative agenda promulgated by the "enlightened" corporation and its architect. Larkin is ornamented with slogans, half Horatio Alger, half Mao Tse-tung. "Honest labor needs no master. Simple justice needs no slaves,” reads one. Part of this comes from the architecture itself. The visiting Erich Mendelssohn noted that "The directors are only separated from the employees by a railing. This has a double aspect — an incentive and democracy.” This reading was extended by the visitor to a vision of a kind of functionalist colonialism: "The building conveys a spontaneous élan out of an early felt logic or development — too early for this intransigently rough colonial country, but early enough to arouse a whole generation, to instruct them and to drive them on further.”

Wright himself pandered, declaring:

Finally — it seems to me — that the American flag is the only flag that would look well on or in this building, the only flag with its simple stars and bars that wouldn't look incongruous and out of place with the simple rectangular masses of the exterior and the straightforward rectilinear treatment of the interior. I think our building is wholly American in its directness and freshness of treatment. It wears no badge of servitude to foreign "styles” yet it avails itself gratefully of the treasures and the wisdom bequeathed to it by its ancestors. 

 

LARKIN TOWER

The other Larkin building. Proposed by the architect John Larkin in 1926 for a site now occupied by Hood’s McGraw Hill, this 110-story tower could have been the first building to exceed the height of the Eiffel Tower.

 

LIBERTY

The Statue of Liberty of 1886 fills a small lacuna left in the conceptual framework of the skyscraper by its great establishing genius, Gustave Eiffel. The asymptotic signification of the tower is redressed here by the act of cladding. Questions of quiddity are satisfied by ultimate reification: the thing’s a woman. Here, in the only instance of a skyscraper definitively female in its iconography, Eiffel is midwife at the birth of the second great skyscraper tradition, haberdashery. In the yin—yang relations between architecture and its engineering, Eiffel occupies both sides. In his tower, the primacy of construction gives form to a masterpiece. At the statue, the engineer repairs undercover, allowing the fascinations of structure to be subverted by the exigencies of dress.

 

MARINA CITY

The history of the doubled skyscraper can be traced to Bertram Goldberg’s executed 1959 design for the twin towers of Marina City in Chicago. Of course, the pre-history of such soaring doppelgängers is hoarier, dating at least back to the binary spires of ecclesiastical westworks. The tendency is first incarnate in Manhattan in the great doubled apartment towers on Central Park, the San Remo and Majestic of 1930, the Century and Eldorado of 1931, or the Waldorf of 1936. As with Chartres or Notre Dame, though, the twinness rests on a unitary base, attached. Marina City elevates the concept to a scale previously unheard: identical towers, identically oriented, right next to each other.

 

MILE-HIGH SKYSCRAPER

If the measure of the skyscraper is measure, Wright's 1956 proposal is the definitive essay in the "metaphysics of extent.” It was also the master's ultimate embrace of the morphologically contradictory impulses of phallus and suburb. While Wright could argue, on the one hand, that the city and its skyscraping densities were pestilential and anti-democratic, he could likewise realize — as in the programmatic rationale for Bartlesville — that the skyscraper could function as liberator, that the vertical concentration would free up territory below for the happy labors of fresh-air breathing yeopersons: instead of ravaging the city, this skyscraper was to be the city, containing its every aspect. And it is surely satisfying that our greatest architect produced the scheme for what would have been our tallest building. More, Wright definitively one-ups Corb, supplanting his vision of a replicant forest of towers-on-a-grid with one big one.

 

MOVIES

When the Crash killed construction after 1929, the skyscraper was reincarnated in Hollywood. it's a key shift, this displacement of construction by representation. The depression only accelerated the national appetite for escape and many unemployed architects migrated west to accommodate. Indeed, the studios were organized along the lines of the big architectural offices and developed distinctive architectural styles. Paramount's Art Deco, Universal's Gothic and — most famous of all — MGM's B.W.S., or Big White Set, were pre-eminent. Leading architect defectors include Cedric Gibbons of MGM and Van Nest Polglase of RKO, the two best known, as well as such titans as Hans Poelzig and the redoubtable Joseph Urban. These and their collaborators are the heroes of the skyscraper's continuity, keeping its lust alive on a million flickering frames of celluloid until the real thing could rise again.

 

MULLION

The warp in the skyscraper's skin.

 

NEW YORK

Home of the skyscraper, if only demographically, and, without a doubt, the site of the emergence of the first skyscrapers to fit the Sullivanian query as to "the chief characteristic of the tall office building." He outlines his response to this question in his celebrated article of 1896 "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”:

At once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect. It is the very open organ-tone of its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chord in his expression of it, the true excitant of his imagination. It must be tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.

But this is written by a Chicagoan and, if heart-felt and bracing, hardly embraces Manhattan's genius loci. The New York skyscraper occurs at the intersection of greed and grid. Regulated by the patterns of property, it finds its identity eking out singularity within the constraints of a uniform matrix. And yet, the genius of New York as a skyscraper city is not in any of its monuments but in their aggregation: New York is skyscraper city because it has produced the New York skyline. Property relations have been the guarantor. In a speculative market where value is virtually measured by inches, prime buildable sites are, by definition, either on or adjacent to other prime buildable sites. While legislation, geology, and art have played their roles in the invention of the skyline, the most forceful hand has been the old invisible one.

The result has been an architecture of densification, tending always to maximum concentration and scale. Its aesthetic melds replication and excess in a sort of hyper-pituitary San Giminano effect. The parameters of superiority are judged very narrowly, the rules of the system are altogether complicit and yet the aggregate results can go out of control. Stability is always accorded to what presently passes for convention; history is just bunk. This is the way in which the city renews itself, by a continuous destruction of predecessor insufficiencies. Like a forest, the city tends to climax. Unlike the forest, the dominant forms continually mutate, a superior growth is always possible, relegating currently hegemonic species to the shade.

 

BEVERLY NICHOLS

From The Star-Spangled Manner of 1926: "a skyscraper is the most exquisite setting for a passionate love-affair which has been devised by man.”

 

ISAMU NOGUCHI

In front of the 1967 tower for the Marine Midland Bank, a flush façade SOM slab of matte black spandrels and black glass, stands a large red cube, poised on one comer. The cube's the work of Isamu Noguchi, designated sculptural presence of the era. Skyscrapers have long embraced adjacent scultural programs as certifications of their own artistry and as evidence that their visual systems are extensible across the broad range. In the age of their greatest self-confidence, the typical icon was a reduced version of the skyscraper itself, sculpted or muralized at portal or lobby. By the '60s, as corporate modernism devolved towards signification degree zero, the universal anonymity of total control, the necessity of the marker continued unabated but its content had virtually evaporated. The art world accommodated. Sol Lewitt and Don Judd were in the galleries, commanding both attention and high prices. Their kin stood in front of a hundred tall buildings, wanly certifying the affectless pretensions of the larger packages behind them.

 

ORIGIN TALE

According to the mechanically determinist theories preferred in the usual texts, the modern office building was invented in Chicago towards the end of the 19th century by a remarkable collection of architects including Daniel Burnham, Elihu Root, William LeBaron Jenny, and Louis Sullivan. This theory proposes that the rise of the skyscraper was — mainly — the consequence of the twin technological advances of the newly available rigid steel frame and the development of a safe and efficient elevator mechanism. The expressive side of the tale is similarly functionalist. The Chicago school is adduced as great for its prescience, its proto-modemism, for initiating the long march that was to culminate half a century or so later in the Seagram Building. Thus, for example, Sullivan's Schlesinger and Meyer store (later Carson, Pine, Scott) is remarked upon primarily for the long, simple, undecorated bays of the upper stories, while the freaked out decoration below is found paradoxical, in the worth of one standard historian, "like the work of another man.” Take this tale as you will.

 

PHALLUS

The skyscraper is the instrument for the reproduction of the land on which it sits. Thrusting erection, glistening shaft, mighty tool, sky-penetrating giant, it cannot resist its own metaphor. As Sullivan described one of H.H. Richardson’s buildings: "here is a man for you to look at ... a real man, a manly man; a virile force ... an entire male ... a monument to trade, to the organized commercial spirit, to the power and progress of the age ... a male ... it sings the song of procreant power ...”

Or, as Benjamin de Casseres has it in Mirrors of New York:

We in New York celebrate the black mass of Materialism
We are concrete
We have a body
We have sex
We are male to the core
We divinize matter, energy, motion, change.
 

QUINTESSENCE

Can it be other than the Chrysler Building? Certainly it offers the compleat mythos: strainingly tall spire, named for a big industrialist, a brief hour as tallest in the world, strong image. The building — constructed in the years 1928-30 — was the work of William Van Alen, an architect of orthodox American beaux-arts background who somehow exceeded himself and then disappeared. His innovations, of course, include that stainless steel crown, the greatest top of them all; emomously well proportioned set-backs; the famous basket-weave pattern in brick (recalling perhaps Semper’s vision of the skin of the primitive hut but certainly clarifying the implicit haberdashery of the cladding of tall buildings); a lobby of surpassing flamboyance and luxus; the frieze of hub-caps and automobile tires; and an acute correction of the perspectival distortions that plague horizontally banded tall buildings when viewed from the ground.

 

ROCKEFELLER CENTER

Rem Koolhaas has called it "a masterpiece without a genius.” To be sure, a committee labored long on the project, dragging it through a succession of incarnations. Never mind the presence of Hood, and Ferriss lurking in the background, it is hard to assess who did what. But what is the achievement of the masterpiece?

Here's the summary of the public relations poets retained by the developer:

The Taj Mahal lies in solitary grandeur on the shimmering bank of the Jumna River. Rockefeller Center will stand in the midstream rush of New York. The Taj is like an oasis in the jungle, its whiteness tense against the gloomy greenness of the forest. Rockefeller Center will be a beautiful entity in the swirling life of a great metropolis — its cool heights standing out against an agitated man-made skyline. And yet the two, far apart in site and surroundings, are akin in the spirit. The Taj, in tribute to pure beauty, was designed as a temple, a shrine. Rockefeller Center, conceived in the same spirit of aesthetic devotion, is designed to satisfy, in pattern and in service, the many-sided spirit of our civilization. By solving its own varied problems, by bringing beauty and business into dour companionship, it promises a significant contribution to the city planning of an unfolding future.

The spirit of this description is not so far off. Like the Taj, Rockefeller Center's a totem, an endlessly researched icon of urbanist success, the pre-eminent integration of the skyscraper into a satisfying vision of the city. Setting aside for the moment the ample satisfactions of its architectural expression, the moving masses of chiseled limestone, the, astute decoration, the composition of the ensemble, one element stands out in its historic situation: the plaza. As Tafuri observes, Rockefeller Center presents the first ostentatious presentation of a commercial development as civic attraction for an entire neighborhood. And its small but powerful intercession in the grid has become the absolute model for subsequent urban amenity: in the luster of Rockefeller Center a thousand plazas are reflected.

What’s striking about the reception of this relatively paltry piece of open space is its self-imposed contradiction. As Fortune magazine described it in 1936, Rockefeller Center was to "combine the maximum of congestion with the maximum of open space.” The plaza is one strategy of reconciliation, an intensely charged compensatory signifier, meant less to alleviate than to justify congestion. And, second, it is the only partially realized scheme to place gardens on the building roof tops, like plots of land thrust upward, caught by the act of extrusion. The plan view of the complex thus becomes like an aerial photograph of a rural factory in wartime camouflage, the little fake towns and fields spread across its vast roof arguing for its very non-existence. So too are skyscrapers civilized.

 

MONTGOMERY SCHUYLER

America's first great critic of architecture rapidly understood the skyscraper not simply as a type but as a "problem.” As corrective he was a strong advocate of regulation. And he had strong feelings about the kind of skyscrapers he wanted to see. "The most successful of sky-scrapers,” he wrote in 1899, "are those in which the shaft is made nothing of, in which the necessary openings occur at the necessary places, are justified by their necessity but draw no attention to themselves.”

This proto-functionalism is also reflected in Schuyler’s affection for Paul Bourget, a writer whom he quoted reputedly, especially the following passage about Chicago skyscrapers:

The simple force of need is such a principle of beauty, and these buildings so conspicuously manifest that need, that in contemplating them you experience a singular emotion. The sketch appears here of a new kind of art, an art of democracy, made by the crowd and for the crowd, an art of science in which the certainty of natural laws gives to audacities in appearance the most unbridled the tranquility of geometrical figures.

Thus early were the standard saws of skyscraping set firmly and irresistably in place.

 

SEAGRAM BUILDING

The holy of holies, the omega point of the plaza and slab, Rockefeller Center reduced — Seagram is the initiatory artifact of the great age of the multinational skyscraper style. By the time he designed Seagram's, Mies van der Rohe had come a long way from the ghostly immaterial glass of his seminal skyscraper studies of the 1920s. Seagram is stunning for its quiddity, an essay in substance. The building swells with dignity, the windows very dark, bronzed to match the genuine bronze of the mullions and spandrels. Luxe materials are used unstintingly: deep green marble, travertine. With Seagram, the definitive displacement of craft by material and mechanical precision had arrived. The skyscraper sememe was pared to the bones and ready for replication. Seagramoid slabs grew like post-shower champignons around the globe. Soon, too, bronze the color had displaced bronze the material as the absolute signifier of civic dignity, visible in street lamps and shop fronts, bus shelters and waste receptacles. Seagram, had been flattered to death.

 

SINGER BUILDING

While Ernest Flagg's Singer Building held the world's tallest title only briefly, it retains the distinction of being the tallest building ever demolished, torn down in 1967-68 for an SOM black box. Easily the most phallomorphic tower ever erected, the penile bulge at its top was of Mansardic inspiration, Flagg being one of America’s great advocates of the "French School.” But it was also inspired by Flagg's conscientious reformism, his prescient fear of a city cast into a permanent pall by overbuilding and into permanent chaos by excessive density. Singer covered but a fraction of its site, a 612-foot tower a scant 65 feet square. It’s also a building of which it was boasted — with legitimate pride — that no worker was killed during construction.

 

SOLOW BUILDING

Built in imitation of the First National Bank of Chicago Building of 1965-69, designed by C.F. Murphy and Perkins and Will, Solow (along with its doppelgänger, the Grace Building) was designed by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM and put up in the mid '70s. The down and outward swooping curve of these buildings precisely replicates the contemporaneous fashion for bell-bottom trousers. The New York versions are to be distinguished from the Chicago by the presence of cuffs, highly unfashionable.

 

SPANDREL

Woof to mullion's warp. Louis Sullivan is the acknowledged master.

 

SUPERMAN

Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. 

 

TAYLORISM

Frederick Taylor published his Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. The date marks the birth of social engineering in its modern guise. Taylor was the leading apostle of the "scientific” management of labor productivity and corporate administration, of so-called "functional” management. This sort of goal-oriented operation was easily extended into the social realm. For architecture there were various consequences. Taylor was much admired by those seeking to rationalize the form of the city (Corbusier among the foremost), especially through the expected efficiencies of zoning and the logic of concentration. Naturally, the Taylorite organization of the factory shop-floor for efficient production found its mirror in the bureaucratic manufactories found in skyscrapers. Time and motion melded seamlessly with time and space in the deployment of architectural energies. The skyscraper is Taylorism verticalized.

 

TRANSAMERICA BUILDING

Pereira's prick, as it was once called by San Franciscans after its erection there in 1972. It’s one of the greats, the first and only true realization of the skyscrapers longing to pyramidalize itself. The effect is mitigated only by the appearance of two rectilinear ears in the building's upper stories: unfortunate, if inevitable, consequence of the fact that an elevator shaft cannot itself diminish as it climbs skyward.

 

TRIPARTISM

Accompanying his submission to the Chicago Tribune competition, Adolph Loos included the following: "The great Greek Doric column will be built. If not in Chicago, then in another city. If not for the Chicago Tribune, then for someone else. If not by me, then by another architect.”

Master ironist Loos was both wrong and right. If just that column has yet to be perpetrated, its equivalent already had been and continues to be. Virtually from the time it had begun to be talked about, the skyscraper had conceptually thrived on the ease of analogy with classical architecture, with the column in particular. There it was, after all, a tall object with a base, a shaft, and a top, just like a column. And thus treble, it accorded easily with other trinities, most especially with the most memorable subdividing in Aristotle's Poetics, the larger artistic beginning, middle, and end. Or, to use another analogy, shoes, suit, and hat.

As Diana Agrest has pointed out, though, the history of the building/ column dates back at least as far as Enlightenment times and she cites, as one example, the wacky column house of the Desert de Retz near Marly, designed by de Monville. This is certainly a prime example of memory serving as a primary means to meaning. And, surely, in the hey-day of the eclectic skyscraper (now returned to us once again) images of antiquity were primary guarantors of content. But the triplet has by now been more broadly functionalized, merely designating locations, not prescribing solutions. Having been presented with pure extrusion as, at least, a possibility, there’s a certain collective incitement among architects to consider articulation at, minimally, these three locations. As symbol devolves into logo, it’s imperative that something be pressed on.

The top naturally emerged as primary. Skyscrapers reconceptualized the city into two planes, the plane of use and the plane of meaning. The tops of buildings constituted a heavenly city divorced from the realities of production. Small wonder early expression turned on a broad variety of sacred architecture: gothic spires, pyramids and mastabas, the tomb of Mausoleus, tempietti of various descriptions. Put another way, if the shaft comprised the skyscrapers use value, the top was surplus value: here, indeed, was the symbolic paradise of capital. Perhaps the most succinct top of this era is that which surmounts the great building designed for Irving Trust at the head of Wall Street by Vorhess, Gmelin, and Walker in 1932. At Irving, capitalism’s priesthood is literally housed. The top contains a magnificent chamber for convening the ritual meetings of the bank's board of directors.

 

UNITED NATIONS

There's some irony in the fact that Le Corbusier's only executed skyscraper was neither designed nor built by him. Here's the history. Shortly after plans for the project were first discussed, Corb sailed for New York and began to work on a scheme. What emerged was the famous "Project 23-A”, a brise-soleiled slab in a garden, a mini Ville Radieuse, Rockefeller Center's slab simplified and rotated 90 degrees, its greenery restored to grade. Corb awaited the commission.

It never came. Instead, a committee — headed up by Wally K. Harrison — was appointed to carry out the scheme. What they (re)produced was clearly the Corbusian parti and Corb's vehemence at the appropriation (he even claimed his sketchbooks had been stolen) is perfectly understandable. And yet, the UN's beautiful: the force of the idea overwhelming the mediocrity of the detailing, the dissipation of its intended particulars. Here's a skyscraper like none other, the slab grazing in its perfect garden, its frail harmony with nature goading the faint songs of cooperation attempted within.

 

VERTICAL ASSEMBLY BUILDING

The VAB at the Cape Canaveral Space Center is, without a doubt, the emptiest signifier in the free world. Designed by Urbahn, Roberts, Seeley and Moran, the vast VAB is a maximum atrium minimally designed, the largest "empty" space ever captured. The building skyscrapes both by virtue of its own immensity and because of its functioning as a containment vessel for the skyscraper in its most literalized form, space rockets. These not simply reach directly into the heavens, their proportioning and set-backs directly recall classic forms. More, their tripartite organization into "stages" shares a common vocabulary of proportion and gestalt. The VAB, like the atrium, is a microcosmos, a benign environment, pared of risk, but also, of course, of the full measure of thrills.

 

WAR

Colonel W.A. Starrett, the most public of the great New York construction dynasty, wrote in 1928 that "building skyscrapers is the nearest peace-time equivalent to war.”

 

WORK

In Fritz Lang's Metropolis, status and hierarchy are questions of up and down, workers toiling in subsurface drear while privilege sports in sun and air. In the skyscraper, the matter devolves on the old in and out. Despite basic verticality, status is adjudicated in relationship to the perimeter. An "economic" floor plate for an office tower demands that a large part of the work-force be seated away from windows. In practice, this relegates the low-paid, mainly female, clerical population to viewless, artificially lit zones at the building's center or else to privacy-minimal office landscapes separated from executive areas by distance and finish quality.

The role of the skyscraper as a bureaucratic population concentrator is king modified by the transformations wrought by the burgeoning electronic office. There are two principal effects. First is the heightened rationalization and discipline imposed on clerical work, the increasing creation of the "electronic sweatshop.” The computerized office affords vast new possibilities for both speed-up and surveillance, the monitoring of a worker's every keystroke. Second is a more geographical effect, new possibilities for anomie, mediation, and dispersal.

The need for literal propinquity vanishes before the computer's ageographia. In one possible near-term future, physical contact becomes the privilege of the managerial élite. The vast clerical work-force is obliged to find its own space, harnessed to the CRT at home, piece-working. The corporation frees itself of the need to provide health-care, day-care, or any physical facility at all. In this calculus of dispersal, the non-producing component is simply turned off, excised from the network. Thus is the skyscraper even more potently symbolized. Turned from the literal pan-opticism of the viewing platform, it becomes pan-electronic, the center of a nexus of surveillance whose extent is now illimitable.

 

WORLD TRADE CENTER

The significance of this duo lies both in its twoness, the fact that two completely indistinguishable world’s tallest buildings could have been constructed at once, and in its barely affected stainless steel walls. With definitive exactitude, the World Trade Center extracts the skyscraper from the realms of architecture and places it squarely in the territory of consumer durables. Styled to approximately the same degree (and with comparable finesse) as a toaster or microwave oven, the skyscraper's traditional strategy for infinity-extrusion is supplanted by a freshly imposed vision: infinite replicability.

 

X-BRACING

Just one way we build ’em high.

 

X-CITY

An unbuilt 1946 scheme by Wally K. Harrison for what was to become the site for the United Nations building, a vision that finally played itself out at the Albany Mall. As Rem Koolhaas has noted, X-City was a modernistic revision of the urbanist ideology of Rockefeller Center, an attempt to update the idea of renewalist ensemble along more Radiant City lines. The "X" offers a double nominalist strategy, alluding first to a designated object of experimentation, as in aircraft nomenclature, and second, to the plan configuration of the principal, skyscraping building. The curves of its not quite touching double slabs have strong biomorph overtones, chromosomal in shape, unfulfilled harbingers bearing a dim unrealized pattern. 

 

MINORU YAMASAKI

For want of a "Y”, I break policy, the exclusion of architects from this lexicon. I justify this by having omitted to mention the architect as author of the World Trade Center. Nonetheless, there's a larger point: history differs from biography. The skyscraper, in the immensity of its economic and technical address, does tend to marginalize its agents even as it reduces its inhabitants to the status of ants.

 

ZONING

New York's 1916 Zoning Law is often attributed to the Equitable Building, completed in 1915 to the designs of Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, the successor firm to D.H. Burnham. The tower was built to a floor area ratio of 30 and, according to many, the 1916 Law was the direct result of Equitable's virtually meteorological effect on its surroundings. The alternative reading is simply that architects — glimpsing the alternative — entered into a pact of the phallus, to save the thin tower from the risk of premature economic obselescence.

Either way, the Zoning Law — which codified the character of set-backs and the skinniness of towers — was, as Koolhaas has so succinctly put it, "a back-dated birth certificate” for the skyscraper.

1988

 

 

Originally published in: Michael Sorkin, Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings (London, New York: Verso, 1991). We are grateful to Michael Sorkin and Verso for allowing us to republish this piece.

 

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