The thoughts that gave us skyscrapers


Skyscrapers were invented in Chicago. Historians argue that their development had at least two causes: the economic need for intense urban land use, and technological improvements such as iron-framed structures and elevators, which made their construction possible. I believe, more romantically, that Chicago gave birth to skyscrapers also because the land is flat flat flat, and people longed for the emotional exhilaration of vertical elements in landscapes. As soon as Chicagoans could, they started building habitable mountains.

To support my thesis that the skyline is architectural melodrama, I offer quotes from two men who played key roles in the development of the city’s skyscrapers.

Daniel Burnham was a founding partner of the architectural firm Burnham and Root, which in 1881 was commissioned to create the Montauk Building, the tallest structure in Chicago at the time. Because of its soaring height, the word “skyscraper” was coined to described it: an astonishing 10 stories tall.

Burnham, an ambitious man, also played key roles in the design of the 1893 World’s Fair: the Columbian Exposition and in the creation of the Plan of Chicago, which gave the city, among other gems, its lakefront parks. In 1910, in a speech at the Town Planning Conference in London,he said:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistancy. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

Louis Sullivan, another notable Chicago architect and a man of deep philosophical beliefs, did not have a favorable opinion of Burnham, calling him “a colossal merchandiser” obsessed with size and cost. He also thought the pseudo-classical style of the 1893 World’s Fair had set back modern American architecture by forty years.

Sullivan’s aesthetics inspired Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School of architecture. His skyscraper designs incorporated girders and led to taller, slender buildings, which he often adorned with cast-iron or terra cotta motifs. In the March 1896 issue of Lippincott’s Magazine, he wrote of an architect’s emotion in the article “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”:

“…what is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And 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 exitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it 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 — that it is the new, the unexpected, the eloquent peroration of the most bald, most sinister, most forbidding conditions.

“The man who designs in this spirit and with the sense of responsibility to the generation he lives in must be no coward, no denier, no bookworm, no dilettante. He must live of his life and for his life in the fullest, most consummate sense. He must realize at once and with the grasp of inspiration that the problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities that the Lord of Nature in His beneficence has ever offered to the proud spirit of man.”

The words of these two men aspire to lofty, staggering, magical exultation, and to mountain-making melodrama. They gave us the skyline that remains the boast and thrill of Chicago, a triumph of height over length and breadth. Can we equal that forward-looking ambition in our own time? What can we do that would remake lives a century from now? What spirit stirs us today?

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