The birth of the skyscraper


The birth of the skyscraper

Chicago's beautiful Reliance Building, sixteen storeys tall, was designed in 1890 by John Root and completed in 1895 by Charles B. Atwood. In its construction – metal frame, large areas of plate glass, fire-proof brick and terracotta cladding – it pioneers all the key elements of twentieth-century high-rise architecture, and many of the tenets of Modernism. 
In Skyscraper, Dan Cruickshank reflects on the extraordinary architectural, artistic and engineering world of the 1890s and tells the story of Gilded Age Chicago, which was burned to the ground in 1871. The city – corrupt, violent and fabulously wealthy – was ready to try anything, even revolutionary forms of architecture. 
Skyscraper is out now in hardback. Read below for an extract: 

This book is about buildings I’ve long known and admired, and explores the ways in which they are intimately connected. Some of the connections are obvious, others more subtle and obscure. Some are even speculative because the story the book tells is so extraordinary, so full of human drama, of soaring ambition, descents into despair and – especially – untimely deaths that it has proved impossible to avoid excursions into the seemingly fantastic. In essence, what the book deals with is the emergence, in the late nineteenth century in Chicago, of a distinct American architecture, one that took inspiration from history but which also grasped the technical potential of the age and had a huge influence on the evolution and identity of world architecture for the next hundred years.
This story starts about twenty years ago, when I first visited Chicago. I was there for a specific purpose. It has long been agreed that the epic building type of the early twentieth century – the commercial ‘skyscraper’ – first came to fruition in Chicago. By common consensus this miraculous event took place in the early 1880s – although this seemingly obvious fact depends on a series of judgements. These include the basic question: what exactly is a skyscraper? This question not only relates to height, but also to technical and artistic issues. If the term skyscraper is, at least in part, synonymous with the notion of pioneering, ‘cutting-edge’, avant-garde construction and design, and the application of ‘state-of-the-art’ technology, then the definition must include techniques of construction, methods of servicing and physical appearance. When all these things are part of the debate then the nomination of the world’s first skyscraper can be surprisingly difficult to agree. But what is universally agreed it that this birth took place in Chicago, even if the precise identity of the infant can be contested. And that is why I went first to Chicago: to look, to explore, to ponder and to decide – to my own satisfaction – which building is the prime contender. In a sense I’ve been pondering ever since and this book is, at one level, a record of my quest.
Two decades ago I took the view that the Reliance Building takes the prize. This is not a radical statement since many historians have taken a similar view, and this book reviews and ultimately reiterates the case. Virtually all the key elements of the Reliance Building – completed in early 1895 – are an echo of slightly earlier buildings – the steel-frame, ‘fire-proof’ construction and terracotta cladding, the use of Otis safety elevators.  Its originality has more to do with art and with ideology than with methods of construction, but it is these that give it the edge, and suggest that it is the epitome – the first and finest expression of what we now take to be the skyscraper of the modern age. The Reliance Building is more minimal and clearly functionalist than its fellows, it is far more liberated from the late-nineteenth-century obsession with history-based ornament, and far more than any earlier skyscraper it embraces the potential offered by modern technology. It is clad with a curtain wall made largely of glass, and most of the elevation that is not glass is formed by beautiful white-glazed terracotta that helps to imbue the building with something of an ethereal quality. This simplicity, the swathes of glass, the pristine white terracotta – the fact that the material and means of construction and the demands of function are the building’s most characteristic ornaments – make the Reliance appear astonishingly modern. It anticipates – indeed helps determine – buildings to come far more than most of its high-rise contemporaries. And who was responsible for this remarkable, epoch-making building? Strangely enough we are not quite sure. John Wellborn Root and Charles B. Atwood between them no doubt played key roles, with perhaps some input from Daniel Burnham. But – as so often happens in this tale – death intervened at crucial moments to baffle and obscure particular creative contributions. But of these three architects Root gripped and held my interest and imagination and it is his character and career that I examine in particular detail.
But the real star of this story is not a single building. It is Chicago, one of the world’s great cities. It is great for many reasons: because of its location beside the inland sea of the vast Lake Michigan and within the loop of the Chicago River that defines the ‘Downtown’ area; because of the vigorous life and short but sensational history of the city, based on trade, markets, staggeringly energetic entrepreneurship (both legal and illegal), and because its history includes the music of African-Americans – the Blues – that found its urban voice in Chicago. And, of course, there is the architecture.
I have returned to Chicago several times since my first visit, most recently in October 2017. Of course I needed to consult archives, organize photographs, meet people, revisit the Reliance and other key buildings but also – and especially – to look once more at the city.
Only when the buildings mentioned in this book are placed in the context of the city and in physical relation one to the other is it possible to see them fully for what they are – the remarkable and inter-related products of a thriving, thrusting and ambitious community with a hunger for culture, in which business aspired to be dressed in the raiment of art. The most dramatic expression of this infant city’s yearning for recognition and beauty was the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 that created the ephemeral ‘White City’, which had at its heart a collection of vast, classically detailed, white-painted palaces that embodied the hopes and pride not only of Chicago but of the whole nation.
The relationship between the functionalist ‘Chicago School’ architecture of the 1890s, with its pioneering steel-framed skyscrapers and the classical fairyland of the ‘White City’ is extraordinary. Together these two bodies of architecture represent a seemingly strange paradox – the skyscrapers rising in Downtown  Chicago were to become the emblematic architecture of the United States, yet in the early 1890s the vast, low-rise classical palaces of the ‘White City’ were hailed by many as defining the national style.  And what makes the relationship stranger still – as well as stronger – is that many of the same men were involved in the creation of Chicago’s skyscrapers and in the building of the ‘White City’. And many of the same people were involved – as clients, financiers, developers, engineers or architects – in the creation of the city’s early skyscrapers, for example W. E. Hale, the client for the Reliance Building, and his ex-business associate Lucius Fisher, the merchant Marshall Field, the real estate magnate Potter Palmer, and the architects John W. Root, Charles B. Atwood, William Le Baron Jenney, Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler and – of course – Root’s partner Daniel H. Burnham. All of which explains why it is essential to consider the skyscrapers in relation one to another and in the context of Chicago, and all in relation to the ‘White City’, to get a fuller understanding of this inspirational architectural legacy.


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Simply if the buildings pointed out in this book are located in the |situation of metropolis and in physical relation that you the other is it possible to see them.

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The skyscraper is not a story of artists’ self-esteem and the cases of grand construction schemes, which is a disgrace. A little more detail about the personalities included, and the scents and noises of a great city at the rise of the 20th century would have quickened its sides.

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Chicago is really a beautiful city with all its skyscrapers.

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