Looking to define the first skyscraper

The ten-story Home Insurance Building constructed in Chicago in 1885 may or may not remain as the world’s first skyscraper:

New York’s proponents have long stressed that great height is the defining feature of skyscrapers. They point to the fact that lower Manhattan had tall office buildings on its Newspaper Row, like the clock tower-topped New York Tribune Building (a 260 footer), as early as 1875 — 10 years before the Home Insurance Building was completed.

But although the New York towers used commercial passenger elevators, which had been around since the 1850s, they were constructed of load-bearing masonry. Their thick exterior walls likely prevented ample amounts of natural light from entering offices. The walls also chewed up valuable interior space. The buildings were, in essence, dinosaurs — large and impressive, but, structurally at least, exemplars of a dying breed.

In contrast, Jenney’s Home Insurance Building did employ advanced structural technology, though the extent to which it did so is subject to debate. Jenney, who had earned the rank of major in the Civil War during his hitch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, appears to have improvised the structure, as he would have done when he designed fortifications at Shiloh and Vicksburg…

Highlighting a single building ignores the reality that American skyscrapers came into existence through evolution, not revolution. While there were decisive moments along the way, progress entailed steps and missteps, inspiration and improvisation, and an intense rivalry between Chicago and New York.

The rivalry between New York and Chicago continues, this time involving early tall buildings. Both cities are marked by iconic skylines and buildings: the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building versus the Sears Tower and Hancock Building, the view from the Upper Bay or Hudson River on Manhattan versus looking from Lake Michigan at the Loop. (And this just scratches the surface of the architecture in both urban regions.)

The final paragraph cited above is more interesting: at what point did a completely new type of building emerge? Earlier parts of the piece suggested it had to do with the shift from masonry walls to a steel frame structure. And perhaps it will be very difficult to find the first building that truly did this and to what leading heights it rose. At the least, it will be worth bragging and tourist rights. At its best, it might help historians, architects, and others better understand how the modern city that we are so used to just 135 years or so later truly came to be.

And I’m sure ink has already been spilled on this but the fact that the Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931 may factor into this. If the building was still standing, people would have a chance to see the structure. Though it lives on in books and memories, that it has been gone nearly ninety years probably does not help its cause in the court of public opinion.

Limiting cooling and heating emissions from the largest city buildings

New York City has plans to limit emissions from its skyscrapers:

Point is, 70 percent of NYC emissions come from heating and cooling a million buildings—and a third of that carbon comes from just 50,000 buildings of 25,000 square feet or more. Blame the skyscrapers. Trump Tower is apparently a representative of the 2 percent of very, very bad emitters, for what it’s worth. So one of the new bills tells the owners of those big buildings they have to cut their emissions by 40 percent in 2030, and 80 percent by 2050. That’s a lot. “We have to pay attention. The water is speaking to us. In the last century New York Harbor is up one foot,” says John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council, which helped design the bill. “There’s no question that this bill sets tough, tough carbon limits. It’s not going to be easy. That’s a reflection of the fact that climate change is a tough issue.”

As to how those buildings get there, their owners have a few paths. They can buy green power, which is really more hopeful than realistic at this point; 70 percent of New York City’s power comes from carbon-emitting fossil fuels. But ideally this option will incentivize a market for wind turbines and hydro power, and in fact another bill in the omnibus aims to pave the way for green rooftops with solar panels. Also the building can work with the city to figure out what kinds of improvements would get emissions down—new boilers, better insulation, new windows, all kinds of new investments that would, not coincidentally, translate to thousands of construction and building-trade jobs in the city. Ey, these boilers ain’t gonna install themselves, knowwutImean?

And in an approach out of Kim Stanley Robinson’s post-climate-flood novel New York 2140 (or maybe the Crimson Permanent Assurance) individual buildings would be able to trade carbon credits. “That’s a real breakthrough policy tool. It’s never been done at this scale at a city level,” Mandyck says. “It’s a flexible tool especially for building owners that own portfolios.” So those folks could trade credits among their own buildings, or form alliances and breakaway archipelagos of skyscraping carbon trade routes.

I would guess that few residents would think about buildings as large sources of carbon. This could be for a variety of reasons: building occupants may rarely notice when the heating or cooling is on (though they may be aware of the temperature); carbon reduction efforts have targeted other sources, such as vehicles; and the percent of carbon emissions in New York in buildings may reflect both the number of large buildings and a region unusually dependent on mass transit.

All that said, it will be interesting to watch how these efforts to alter buildings go. The article says little about how building owners have responded. For many, New York will still be a desirable enough market that leaving over these changes i unlikely. Would it make any property owner or potential owner refocus their attention elsewhere? And buying green power or buying and trading credits could prove popular compared to actually making significant changes to buildings which could be costly and require a lot of time and effort. Finally, could alterations remake or restyle some large buildings and introduce a different aesthetic to one of the most important skylines in the world? Images of future cities tend to show more curvy skyscrapers covered in greenery instead of the glass and steel that dominate New York and other American cities. I’m sure there would be ways to make changes that would not just reduce emissions but also push a new look.

Building a 1,000+ foot skyscraper in a rural town of 7,000 residents

Skyscrapers and cities are tightly linked. Can one be built in a small town in the countryside?

Until a local company announced plans to send a 320-metre skyscraper soaring over the surrounding countryside, most people in Denmark had only the haziest idea where Brande, a town of 7,000 people in rural Jutland, even was.

The Bestseller Tower, designed by star architectural studio Dorte Mandrup, will not only be the tallest building in Denmark, but the tallest in western Europe, besting the Shard in London by a crucial 10.4 metres…

It won’t be the first rural skyscraper. At the height of Japan’s property bubble back in 1991, a 41-story residential tower, Sky Tower 41, was erected among fields.

But in Jutland, the surrounding landscape is so flat that the tower will be visible from 60km away. Visitors to Jelling, the royal seat of Harald Bluetooth, the Viking king who united Denmark, will see its slender form jutting up from the horizon, as will visitors to Legoland 30km away.

While the article suggests it will not be the only rural skyscraper in the world, they are certainly rare. They are rare enough outside of sizable central business districts that numerous tall buildings in the Chicago suburbs – probably in the 20 to 30 stories in height – attract attention as unusual and sticking out in the landscape in a metropolitan region that takes pride in its tall buildings and architecture.

It is certainly possible to build such a structure almost anywhere but I wonder how this will all work out in day-to-day life in this community. Small towns and rural areas have a particular scale that people are used to and that is human scaled or even dominated by nature and landscapes rather than human creations. Constructing a building over a 1,000 square feet disrupts all of this: it will be visible for miles, it will dwarf anything nearby, and it will cast shadows and block the sun from certain angles. It is not slightly out of scale for this community; it is a massive change. It could be beautiful, modern, and efficient and still have negative consequences for the community.

 

See the new skyscrapers soon to be added to Chicago’s skyline

Curbed Chicago takes a quick look at eleven skyscrapers, seven proposed or approved and four under construction, that could alter the iconic skyline of Chicago:

Vista Tower.
Studio Gang

Vista Tower

Status: Under Construction

Currently rising along the south bank of the Chicago River’s main branch, the 1,198-foot Vista Tower is posed to become the city’s third tallest building. It’s angular design from Chicago architect firm Studio Gang is made up of three stacks of undulating geometric frustums wrapped in alternating bands of shaded of glass.

Work progressed quickly after Vista broke ground in 2016 and recently reached the halfway mark. Delivery of its 406 luxury condos, a 192-room five-star hotel, and impressive amenities is expected in 2020…

Golub & Co./CIM Group

Tribune Tower East

Status: Proposed

At 1,422 feet, this proposed addition to Chicago’s neo-gothic Tribune Tower is gunning for the title of Chicago’s second tallest building. Slated to replace a parking lot just east of its historic neighbor, the yet-to-be-named skyscraper will contain a 200-key luxury hotel, 439 rental apartments, 125 condominiums, and 430 parking spaces.

The design from hometown architecture firm of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill is quite slender by Chicago standards—partly due to a protected view corridor requiring Tribune Tower to remain visible from the Ogden Slip to the east.

A skyline is important to the status of a city, particularly for one like Chicago that takes pride in a history of important architectural works (particularly in the Loop as it transformed from a commodity based economy to a finance center) and consistently works to assert its importance as a global city. These new buildings will add more glass as well as more height to the skyline. It will take some time for all of them to become accepted and recognized parts of the a skyline for a long time that was fairly set (roughly from the early 1970s to the early 2000s with the three tallest buildings).

It would be interesting to consider how Chicago compares to other cities in the approval and construction rate of skyscrapers. Even on this list, the majority of the tall structures are not yet under construction. Chicago always seems to have some supertall buildings in the works (see this earlier post) but many do not come to fruition. Is this common in all major cities? Does Chicago have more proposals than normal or a lower ratio of completed buildings?

The difficulty of changing corporate names on significant urban buildings

The Hancock may soon officially be no more in Chicago but that does not mean the name will disappear from use, including by architecture critics like Blair Kamin:

But names still matter. “Willis Tower” has never felt right. It’s foreign — literally. At the height of the Great Recession, with Sears Tower’s owners desperate to lure tenants, a British reinsurance company swept in and cut an office lease deal that gave it naming rights. Lots of people, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, would rather that the modernist high-rise continue to be called Sears…

The eclectic Wrigley Building, thank goodness, is still the Wrigley Building, even though its namesake company no longer occupies it. The building’s whiteness was meant to symbolize the freshness of chewing gum. The architecture and the name were part of a single, organic package, just as they were in New York’s Art Deco Chrysler Building, where eagle gargoyles adorned the building like Chrysler hood ornaments…

But as I’ve written in recent weeks, pondering the Chicago Tribune’s impending move from Tribune Tower to the old Prudential Building (now One Prudential Plaza), buildings are commodities subject to the dictates of the marketplace; expecting them to stay frozen in time is unrealistic. The same goes for their names.

That’s why Boston’s John Hancock Tower, a 62-story glass-sheathed high-rise that is as elegant as Chicago’s Hancock is brawny, became known in 2015 by its street address — 200 Clarendon. When the lease of the John Hancock company expired, the tower’s owner no longer was allowed to use the Hancock name. The new name hasn’t exactly caught on with the locals.

Three things strike me here:

  1. Iconic structures are more likely to retain their original names even when later changes dictate the official name is something else. What makes those buildings iconic can differ: it may have been occupied by an important local company or it may have unique architectural features. The buildings cited above in Chicago have both things going for them.
  2. It is a little strange for locals to cling so strongly to corporate identities in the names of buildings. Would it be better to instead name major structures after something other than the company behind it? An address may be rather bland but perhaps the name could be connected to the particular architecture and design or tied to a famous figure, moment in history, or feature of the location.
  3. Perhaps the deeper issue is connecting buildings to history. If naming rights are simply up for grabs, prominent locations can change their identity regularly. Not only might this be disorienting to locals, it can remove the structure from its creation and its place within a city. The issue may not be naming rights but rather making sure that buildings are defined by locals rather than by out-of-towners or global interest.

I suspect residents of Chicago will be calling the structure the Hancock for years to come.

New record set by the number of skyscrapers built in 2017

Skyscrapers have truly spread around the globe in recent years:

The current global boom in tall buildings shows no signs of slowing. In its annual Tall Building Year in Review, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) found that more buildings 200 meters tall or greater were finished last year than any other year on record.

A total of 144 such structures were completed in 69 cities spread across 23 countries, part of a wave of tall towers, the fourth-straight record-setting year in terms of completions. Last year’s new tall towers set records across the globe as well: new tallest buildings took shape in 28 cities and 8 countries…

The U.S. completed 10 such structures, including four in New York, two in Chicago, and the record-setting Wilshire Grand Center in Los Angeles. This new class of skyscrapers forms the bulk of North America’s 17 new towers, representing 10.4 percent of the worldwide total.

But as has been the case for years, Asia, specifically China, was the center of the action. Chinese construction projects added 76 new skyscrapers, representing 53 percent of the global total. The city of Shenzhen, which added 12 new buildings, accounted for 8.3 percent of the worldwide total, more than any country outside of China.

While these buildings may be constructed in some places because of high densities and a need for interior space, I suspect the status factor is big here. Being able to project an impressive skyline is a nice feature for today’s big city to have. To be a major city in the eyes of the world, skyscrapers help. Buildings alone cannot catapult a city to the top of the global city rankings but they can certainly make an impression on residents and visitors as well as provide space for new bustling activity.

Urban high-rises can be “vertical suburbs”

Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin suggests again that some new urban high-rises are dull by comparing them to suburbs:

The most forward-looking of the bunch comes from the studio of Mexico City architect Tatiana Bilbao, who designed a model low-cost house for the first biennial. Her tower, done in cooperation with 14 other designers, would house apartments, a market, a workplace and other uses in a plug-in matrix enlivened by cantilevered parts. The design offers a persuasive alternative to the lifeless (and mindless) high-rises that are turning cities from Shanghai to Chicago into vertical suburbs.

Taking aim at the never-ending quest to erect the world’s tallest building, Bilbao asks a far more important question: “How do we create truly vertical communities?”

This comparison does two interesting things. First, it continues the suburban critique of blandness and conformity. While it was often applied to tract homes built on a mass scale, here it is applied to high-rises that are indistinguishable from others. Suburbs and their residents don’t take risks, nor do these new buildings.

Second, the architectural form of suburbs – single-family homes, strip malls and shopping malls, automobile-centric – may be a less important trait compared to its culture. The suggestion here is that a high-rise in the heart of the city can still be a suburb. Spatially, this makes little sense but if the suburbs are more about a particular community life and set of values – an emphasis on privacy, getting ahead, property values, family life – then it may not matter where this lifestyle is found.

It may be worth thinking more about this idea of a “vertical suburb.” Architects and others have spent decades thinking about how to create vertical communities but it often does not work as intended.