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The Beginning and the End of the Skyscraper

I’m willing to bet that almost everyone on earth can name at least a few skyscrapers. I am also willing to bet that all but a few architectural historians are able to name the first building to receive that moniker. 

It all started when a wealthy silk merchant bought an empty lot in downtown Manhattan. This was to be the first of three purchases, the ultimate plan was to buy up the surrounding properties and connect the lots in order to create the footprint for one of the hulking five- to eight-story structures that were popular at the turn of the 19th century. But this plan, as plans often do, didn’t pan out. Without the adjacent lots to provide a suitable foundation for a large building, the owner was stuck with a 25-foot wide lot that, after subtracting the 6 and a half foot walls that were needed to support the weight of a large building, would only leave enough room for a small room on each floor—hardly worth the effort and cost of construction. 

The story could have ended here but lucky for the silk merchant, and you could argue all of us that live in and enjoy cities, he hired a part-time architect named Bradford Gilbert to design a building for the space. Gilbert started his career as a railroad engineer and railroads at the time were crisscrossing the country over larger and deeper canyons, rivers, and ravines thanks to advances in metal trestle bridges. He reported that an idea came to him “in a flash.” What if he turned a metal trestle bridge on its side? Doing so would allow the strength to weight ratio of iron beams connected by diagonal struts not to get heavy trains across spans but to support a building high into the air.

It was this design that eventually allowed Gilbert to build an 11-story building, called The Tower Building, on the 25 foot lot. Many at the time did not think that the metal skeleton would hold, scale models were built just to convince the city’s permit office that the new technique was safe. Even still, when the first winds of an incoming hurricane started to push through the city, spectators gathered in front of the partially built Tower Building in order to see what many thought would be the demolition of the structure. Legend has it that Gilbert pushed through the crowd that day and climbed to the top floor of the building in order to hang a large lead weight off the top truss. The result: the weight hardly moved at all, the tower was not leaning even with the force of the gale pushing on it with all its might. 

Even after this alleged display, Gilbert defied the naysayers by putting his office at the top floor of the newly constructed Tower Building in 1889. His bragging rights didn’t last, though. Gilbert died in 1911 and The Tower Building, no longer profitable, was demolished a few short years later. Even the designation of the Tower Building as the first skyscraper is still up for debate. Buildings in Chicago had already been built with a steel girder design, albeit that they didn’t fully support the weight of the structure. But no matter what you think (or don’t think) about The Tower Building being the first skyscraper, its legacy can be seen in every city in the world as its design was used to push buildings higher than ever thought possible.

Skyscrapers are one of the most identifiable, most permanent testaments to humankind’s ingenuity. They have been a symbol of wealth, power, and engineering prowess for over a century. Magnates and magistrates have pushed these structures to new heights, hoping to capture some of the clout that goes with the awe-inspiring superlative “the tallest building in the world.” But for as embedded as skyscrapers have become in our collective psyche, their prestige might be fading. Currently, the tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa. Unlike the previous tallest buildings in the world, the Burj Khalifa seems to be built solely for the purpose of being the tallest. It looks out of place in the middle of a city with no land constraints requiring taller construction. It also lacks many of the features of a building of its stature, most notably a functioning sewage system. The waste created in the massive building is trucked to treatment facilities every day

Under construction is an even bigger building, the Jeddah Towers, built by an even more oppressive ruler of a nation lucky enough to have cheap oil underneath it. Intended to be the one-kilometer tall jewel in Saudi Arabia’s master-planned Jeddah Economic City, construction was stalled when a number of the contractors involved with the project were arrested in the 2017 Saudi Arabian purge. Now as construction starts up again, it appears that, upon completion, the Jeddah Tower might be the tallest building for quite some time. There are no taller skyscrapers planned at the moment. 

There are plenty of good reasons for the end of the race for the tallest. Buildings of this height are not efficient, cost-effective, or user-friendly. The amount of foundation needed to support the forces applied to such a large fulcrum are prohibitive both from a cost and a sustainability perspective. The buildings stretch higher than the tallest elevators can reach, meaning multiple elevator rides are needed to get to the top floors. But more than anything I think we have all reached a point where we look at buildings on a more holistic level. It isn’t just about how many feet a building can stand above the ground, but what it stands for that is becoming increasingly important. A great example of this is a plan submitted for what would be the largest skyscraper in the Western hemisphere. The building would be located on the West Side of Manhattan and would house the headquarters of the civil rights group, the NAACP. The building was the first of its size to be designed by an all African-American team and will be built by a majority Black-owned development firm. These are the kinds of superlatives that resonate with today’s consciousness. 

The race for the tallest building made our cities what they are today. Innovations of Bradford Gilbert and countless others have allowed us to build as tall as our imaginations and our budgets can take us. But we are now realizing that just because we can build higher, doesn’t mean that we should. Now, rather than using buildings to showcase humanity’s industrialization, we are starting to use them to erase some of the ills that the same industrialization has brought with it.

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