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Summary Article: skyscraper
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

modern building of great height, constructed on a steel skeleton. The form originated in the United States.

Development of the Form

Many mechanical and structural developments in the last quarter of the 19th cent. contributed to its evolution. With the perfection of the high-speed elevator after 1887, skyscrapers were able to attain any desired height. The earliest tall buildings were of solid masonry construction, with the thick walls of the lower stories usurping a disproportionate amount of floor space. In order to permit thinner walls through the entire height of the building, architects began to use cast iron in conjunction with masonry. This was followed by cage construction, in which the iron frame supported the floors and the masonry walls bore their own weight.

The next step was the invention of a system in which the metal framework would support not only the floors but also the walls. This innovation appeared in the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, designed in 1883 by William Le Baron Jenney—the first building to employ steel skeleton construction and embody the general characteristics of a modern skyscraper. The subsequent erection in Chicago of a number of similar buildings made it the center of the early skyscraper architecture. In the 1890s the steel frame was formed into a completely riveted skeleton bearing all the structural loads, with the exterior or thin curtain walls serving merely as an enclosing screen.

Legal and Aesthetic Refinements

In 1892 the New York Building Law made its first provisions for skeleton constructions. There followed a period of experimentation to devise efficient floor plans and aesthetically satisfying forms. In New York City the Flatiron Building by D. H. Burnham was constructed in 1902, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower in 1909, and the Woolworth Building, 60 stories high, by Cass Gilbert, in 1913. The last, with Gothic ornamentation, exemplifies the general tendency at that time to adapt earlier architectural styles to modern construction. The radical innovator Louis Henry Sullivan gave impetus to a new, bold aesthetic for skyscrapers. An excellent example is his design for the Wainwright building in St. Louis (1890–91). Frank Lloyd Wright also contributed his unorthodox vision to such structures as the Price Tower (1953) in Bartlesville, Okla.

In 1916, New York City adopted the Building Zone Resolution, establishing legal control over the height and plan of buildings and over the factors relating to health, fire hazard, and assurance of adequate light and air to buildings and streets. Regulations regarding the setting back of exterior walls above a determined height, largely intended to allow light to reach the streets, gave rise to buildings whose stepped profiles characterize the American skyscraper of subsequent years.

With the complex structural and planning problems solved, architects still seek solutions to the difficulties of integrating skyscrapers with community requirements of hygiene, transportation, and commercial interest. In New York during the 1950s, public plazas were incorporated into the designs of the Lever House by Gordon Bunshaft and the Seagram Building of Mies van der Rohe. These International style buildings are also examples of the effective use of vast expanses of glass in skyscrapers. More recently, numerous skyscrapers have been constructed in a number of postmodern modes.

Outstanding Skyscrapers

By convention, a skyscraper is a building that is used primarily for human habitation with the greatest majority of its height divided into occupiable floors. Freestanding structures used primarily for broadcasting or sightseeing are classified as towers. The height of a building is measured from the sidewalk level of the main entrance to the structural top of the building. This includes spires but does not include television antennas, radio antennas, or flagpoles. By this definition the tallest building is the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which was completed in 2010; 2,717 ft (828 m) high, with 163 floors, it is also tallest structure in the world. Shanghai Tower, in Pudong, Shanghai, China, is the second tallest, at 2,073 ft (632 m) and 128 floors; it was completed in 2015. The Makkah Royal Clock Tower, Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is the world's third tallest building. Completed in 2012, it is 1,972 ft (601 m) high and has 120 floors. One World Trade Center, the primary building in the new World Trade Center complex, is the tallest building in the United States; it is 1,776 ft (541 m) high with 94 floors. The Willis Tower (opened 1974, formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago was the tallest building in the United States until One World Trade Center was completed in 2014; its 108 floors rise 1,451 ft (442 m) with an additional 278 ft (85 m) for the television antenna on top.

Among other tall or notable New York City skyscrapers are 432 Park Ave., with 85 floors, 1,396 ft (425 m) high; the Empire State Building, with 102 floors, 1,250 ft (381 m) high; the Bank of America Tower, with 55 floors, 1,200 ft (366 m); the Chrysler Building, with 77 floors, 1,046 ft (319 m) high; and the Comcast (formerly GE, and earlier the RCA) Building in Rockefeller Center, with 70 floors, 850 ft (259 m) high. The former World Trade Center, which was the tallest building in the city until it was destroyed (Sept., 2001) by a terrorist attack, had two unstepped, rectangular towers of 104 floors each, one 1,368 ft (417 m) and the other 1,362 ft (415 m) high.

Bibliography
  • See Sabbagh, K. , Skyscraper: The Making of a Building (repr. 1991);.
  • Willis, C. , Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago (1995);.
  • P. Johnson; J. Dupre, Skyscrapers (1996);.
  • Hoffmann, D. , Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and the Skyscraper (1999);.
  • S. B. Landau; C. W. Condit, The Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865-1913 (repr. 1999).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

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