Elevation to status symbol

Rise of the New York Skyscraper 1865-1913
July 18, 1997

This study of New York's skyscrapers starts with the infancy of the style's development, and finishes with the outbreak of the first world war.

After 1916, many changes occurred in citizens' and business people's attitudes to these buildings and, with the implementation of the first extensive zoning and setback legislation passed in New York, the possibilities to build in this manner became newly constricted.

The authors are both professors of art history, and they share their expertise well. Sarah Bradford Landau teaches at NYU and served on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Carl W. Condit, an emeritus professor of Illinois's Northwestern University, writes on the architecture and transportation of Chicago and New York. As the book was conceived, Landau was to contribute the architectural history, Condit was to provide the technological analysis, but both became fascinated by the engineering journals of the period, and the study concentrates on this new research.

The focus is on the era from 1870 to 1913, when the term "skyscraper" was formulated, and when the city of New York transformed itself from low rise to high rise. National economic factors, land prices and technology conspired to create this new built form. Yet, the authors want us to reconsider the importance of New York's buildings, which they openly state have been undervalued by the fraternity of architectural historians.

They wrote this book to correct the balance, and their point of view has merit. For, unlike Chicago, New York has been quite merciless in the removal of many of the building's documented here, and so what we know today of this period is an abbreviated picture of all that was accomplished in the city.

The early history of skyscrapers incorporates a narrative on the developments in the elevator, and in the understanding and employment of skeleton and cage construction techniques. Skeleton construction holds the weight of the building and carries the thin outer walls (which become infill or "curtain walls"). In cage construction the structure carries the floors only and not the exterior walls (thus the walls taper in thickness as they rise). Unlike the architects of Chicago, New York architects of this era preferred cage to skeleton framing. The convergence of refinements in skeleton construction coupled with developments in the digging of foundations lead to the "modern" skyscraper. Yet, it was only the elevator's development that made it possible to rent space above the fifth floor. As time passed, attitudes adjusted to focus on the fine views, light and air offered by these taller structures. Only then could the buildings be rented for more money, which would in turn justify and enable the extra expense of this new building approach. By 1913, the shifts described had occurred, and a tall headquarters building with a distinct architectural presence had become the status symbol it remains to this day.

The history behind these developments is a more complex chronicle than touched on here. But a quote from the preface broadly describes what the authors analyse in great depth: "The modern office building is a purely American type. It is not so much the development of an architectural style as it is an engineering accomplishment, and owes its existence, primarily, to engineering inventions. It is the product of many brains, and the architects' contribution has been mainly in connection with the exterior design."

The book is not all technology and science, it can at times be engrossing for the more amateur reader. Landau and Condit shed light on the tradition of the ball that drops from Times Square for New Year's, (it began with the Western Union Building in 1874), they explain that the twin-towered edifices of Central Park West have their antecedents in the Temple Court Building of 1881-83 and so on. But, the text, though well written and illustrated, is serious in tone, and not for the uninitiated to use for an initial exploration of New York.

Christopher W. London is an art andarchitectural historian specialising in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Rise of the New York Skyscraper 1865-1913

Author - Sarah Bradford Landau and Carl W. Condit
ISBN - 0 300 06444 6
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 478

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