Architecture | Skyscraper

A New Building Type Spreading Across The Globe  | Part 1 by Heidi

The skyscraper is one of the icons to be found in each American city, they symbolise power and wealth and rule the skyline of the most famous cities in the USA. They have never lost their uniqueness and started to fascinate the whole world so that even historical cities like London could not escape their congeniality - but where did this building type come from and how did skyscrapers evolve. Even more importantly why are we so keen to go higher and is the skyscraper the building form of the future?

Building high as well as creating a long lasting and visible sign always appealed to human kind but the creation of high rise buildings required first of all the development of efficient materials and construction technologies. Another key aspect is building services. Invented during the industrial revolution the lift, telephone and electric lighting have not only been used for the first time in high rise constructions but also contributed to the realization of skyscrapers. They would not have been viable without the comfort of vertical travel in an elevator.


The first high rise buildings appeared in the United States where land owners tried to maximize the use of their inner city plots by piling usable space on top of each other. Going high also helped to cope with the demands of urban growth and rural depopulation. Two American economical centers - Chicago and New York - promoted the evolution of skyscrapers starting in the 1870s in Chicago where parts of the city had to be re-constructed due to a big fire.


Wainwright Building, sketched by Heidi
Wainwright Building, sketched by Heidi
Monadnock Building, sketched by Heidi Mergl
Monadnock Building, sketched by Heidi

But the first skyscraper was actually located in St Louis, Missouri where Louis Sullivan unveiled the design for the ten storey high Wainwright Building (45 meter) in 1890. It had been constructed in conventional brick work like most of the first high rise constructions. The 60 meter high Monadnock Building designed by Burnham and Root completed in Chicago in 1892 followed the same principle resulting in two meter thick ground floor walls. They had to carry the 16 storeys above and only allowed for small window openings.


An optimized construction soon overcame the insufficient daylight provision and the structural limits of brick work by separating the structure from the façade. A sophisticated skeleton made of steel replaced the thick load bearing walls releasing the façade from its structural purpose. This opened up new opportunities for architectural façade treatment and Chicago’s school of architecture developed the leitmotif that the appearance of a building should represent how it works internally.

appearance of a building should represent how it works internally.

Louis H. Sullivan famous for his architectural theories phrased the principle mentioned above as 'form follows function' and William Le Baron Jenney implemented this into the First Leiter Building in 1879 foreshadowing modernism. Timber girders and joists supported by cast iron columns cope with the internal loadings. The external brick piers only have to carry their own weight and the almost floor to ceiling high windows.


First Leiter Building Sketch By Heidi Mergl Architect
Woolworth Building  Sketch by Heidi Mergl


Europe witnessed the invention of this new building type with euphoria but quickly realised that it would not be easy to incorporate high rise into traditionally grown cities like London, Paris or Frankfurt. The Eiffel Tower built in 1889 was the only exception and due to be demolished directly after the international exhibition. Clerical symbols of power ruled the skylines of Europe and have been the criterion for urban development. Hence the highest building in London at this time was still St Paul’s Cathedral with 112 meter built in 1710.


Approaching the end of the 19th century architects in New York reclaimed historical styles of the past. This way the innovative inner structure of high rise had been hidden behind a decorative cladding until the mid 20ies. One of the key examples is at that time the gigantic 235 meter high Woolworth Building. It was designed in the neo-gothic style by Cass Gilbert using the formal vocabulary of a medieval French cathedral - a building completed in 1913 decorated with arches, turrets, flying buttresses and gargoyles.

In the meantime and especially after the First World War modern architectural movements in Europe saw the opportunity to experiment with new designs. They felt that the new building types and materials should be met with an appropriate style to suit the machine age. But most of them did not manage to berecognized in America or had only minimal impact on the design of high rise buildings in the first quarter of the 19th century.

Chrysler Building Sketch By Heidi Mergl Architect

Over time presence through height became once again more important resulting in the 102 storey high Empire State Building by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. A 60m long dirigible terminal for airships installed at roof level

ensured that the building remained the highest building for as long as possible. The use of standardised steel elements that had been prefabricated in an industrial manner also improved another key aspect of construction - it only took a little bit more than one year to complete the whole construction.


Prefabrication developed even further during the increased building period after the Second World War. The use of modern materials like aluminium and the perfect quality of workmanship generated huge glass elevations without any decoration. A new style was born - the international style - showcasing the characteristic of modernism with the commitment to the technical advancement and functionality as well as clean shapes.


From now on the high rise building envelope was formed by a light and independent skin - the highly standardised curtain wall. Unfortunately by using the same system buildings also appeared similar so that some architects tried to break the pattern. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe did so successfully. He designed a brass profile fixed to the external face of the façade which gives the Seagram Building in New York its particular elegance. The profile gives a vertical emphasis and creates different visual effects pending light and viewing angle.



If you enjoyed this one maybe this post is a good read for you too - PART 2 'Movements of the 70ies'




One however spread across the Atlantic - art deco - named after the "exposition internationale des arts decoratifs et industriels modernes" in Paris 1925. It influenced not only fine arts but also everyday commodities like furniture, clothing and jewellery. Elegant cubic forms and the use of shiny materials quickly became the symbol of the roaring twenties and Walter P. Chrysler opted for exactly that when he employed William van Alen to create a landmark for his booming automobile company in 1930. The Chrysler Building is more than that - a world famous icon of art deco.

Empire State Building, sketched by Heidi Mergl Architect
Seagram Building Sketch By Heidi Mergl Architect

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Hello - my name is Heidi Mergl, I am a London based Architect and I am a guest blogger for Antje and I go way back and we share my passion for modern design and architecture. We often feel inspired by the same things and we hope to inspire you too. My articles can be found within the blogs inspirations section or by searching below by my name.  

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