150 years of reaching for the sky: the evolution of tall buildings

Landmark

Tall buildings represent one of the greatest marvels and characteristic features of our modern times, but they didn’t appear overnight. Their existence is the result of continuous innovation, discovery and experimentation.

There have been so many innovations and game-changing moments throughout the evolution of skyscrapers that it’s hard to pick out the most important ones. URBAN HUB sat down with Dario Trabucco, Research Manager of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), to hear what he considers some of the most important milestones of skyscraper development.

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1852 – Elevators make higher rising possible

In 1852, Elisha Otis invented the world’s first “safety elevator” with a catch mechanism that could protect passengers if a cable broke. Only a short time later, in 1857, the first passenger elevator was opened to the public in the E.V. Haughwout Building, in New York City.

Now that stairs no longer rendered the upper floors less attractive, buildings were free to grow. According to Dario Trabucco, “The top floors used to be for the poor, but the elevator flipped everything around. The upper floors quickly became the most attractive as they boasted better natural light, cleaner air and less traffic noise.

The seven-story Equitable Life Building (1870) is considered by some to be the first skyscraper. In 1871, artist Alfred Emslie immortalized a newly-arrived German immigrant who gazed up at the building and said, “Das muss der Palast sein!” (That must be the palace!).

E. V. Haughwout Building

completed: 1857
Location: New York City, USA
Architectural style: Renaissance Revival (Italianate)
Structure: Cast iron façade, masonry
Stories: 5
Height: 79 feet / 24 meters
Distinction: First building with an elevator

Equitable Life Building

Completed: 1870
Location: New York City, USA
Architectural style: Renaissance Revival (French Baroque)
Structure: Masonry
Stories: 7
Height: 130 feet / 40 meters
Distinction: First office building with an elevator

"The invention of the elevator is what started ‘Tall’. Everything that came after that was affected."

Dario Trabucco

Research Manager, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

 

 

Short bio: Dario Trabucco

Dario Trabucco is a tenured researcher in Building Technology at the IUAV University of Venice, Italy. His research includes the LCA analysis of tall buildings, service core design and the renovation of tall buildings.

Trabucco serves as CTBUH’s Research Manager, and he established the CTBUH Research Office in Venice, Italy. He was Principal Investigator for CTBUH studies on composite megacolumns and tall building damping technologies.

1916 – New York zoning law

Trabucco went on to explain the next important milestone in tall building construction, “The 1916 Zoning Resolution changed the shape of buildings in downtown New York, and gradually the buildings of other cities started to look very similar.

The resolution was meant to prevent buildings from blocking out the sun at street level. It did so by restricting towers to fit within a certain percentage of the lot size. Architects interpreted this by designing towers with a series of “setbacks”” where the building gets narrower the taller it grows.

According to the Skyscraper Museum founder, Carol Willis, this zoning law “became the principal inspiration behind a new style in skyscraper design and a new vision of the modern metropolis.[1] Ultimately, the resolution resulted in many beautiful Art Deco skyscrapers of the twenties and thirties, and marked the point at which architects stopped imitating classic European models.

 

[1] Willis, C. (1986). Zoning and Zeitgeist: The Skyscraper City in the 1920s. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 45(1), 47–59.

Chrysler Building

Completed: 1930
Location: New York City, USA
Architectural style: Art Deco
Structure: Steel
Stories: 77
Height: 1,046 feet / 318.9 meters
Distinction: World’s tallest building from 1930-1931

Empire State Building

Completed: 1931
Location: New York City, USA
Architectural style: Art Deco
Structure: steel
Stories: 102
Height: 1,454 feet / 443.2 meters
Distinction: World’s tallest building from 1931 to 1971

1950s – Rise of curtain wall skyscrapers

In 1952, the Lever House was built with a fully glazed curtain wall. It wasn’t the first example of this technique, but its style inspired innumerable buildings in New York and around the world. Trabucco explained, “Floor-to-ceiling glass, coupled with better lighting and ventilation, meant individual floors could be much bulkier.”

This architectural style of rectangular towers of glass became the standard of International Style skyscrapers. The non-load bearing, glass curtain walls maximized usable floor space by improving external light penetration.

Lever House

Completed: 1952
Location: New York City, USA
Architectural style: International Style
Structure: Glass shell, steel frame
Stories: 21
Height: 307 feet / 93.6 meters
Distinction: First office building with fully-glazed curtain wall

Willis Tower (formerly: Sears Tower)

Completed: 1974
Location: Chicago, USA
Architectural style: International Style
Structure: Glass shell, steel frame
Stories: 108
Height: 1,729 feet / 527 meters
Distinction: World’s tallest building from 1974 to 1998

1973 – Oil Crisis

The 1973 oil crisis is what started the sustainability movement in architecture,” explains Trabucco. “Prior to this, buildings that looked like black boxes had become popular. Their black glazing blocked a lot of natural light and, since the windows could not be opened, they also required much more energy for cooling.

Trabucco explains that the change is best visualized by comparing the Tour Areva building (completed in 1974 as Tour Fiat) to the Tour Total (completed in 1985). The towers were originally planned as twin towers, but after the first tower was complete, the crisis intervened and Tour Total was completed under a much more sustainable design ethos.

Black monolith, Tour Areva, and its shiny cousin Tour Total

2001 – The 9/11 attacks as a turning point

9/11 can be seen as the turning point in a revolution that was already happening,” said Trabucco. Of course, the tragedy did have a direct impact on buildings, such as in the areas of fire safety and escape route design, but it ultimately marked the transition from one tall building typology to another.

Trabucco continued, “In the early 1990s, people would have predicted the next ‘tallest building’ to be an office tower in an American city with a steel structure. Since 9/11, we would predict a building in Asia or the Middle East, and it would be a mixed-use tower made of concrete.”

But North America didn’t stop building skyscrapers. One World Trade Center became the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere when it opened in 2015, rising like a phoenix from its ashes.

One World Trade Center
Completed: 2014
Location: New York City, USA
Architectural style: Post-modern
Construction: Steel and concrete
Stories: 94
Height: 1,776 feet / 541.3 meters
Distinction: Tallest building in the western hemisphere (as of May 2016)

Shanghai Tower

Completed: 2015
Location: Shanghai, China
Architectural style: Post-modern futurism/Chinese
Construction: Concrete core and composite megacolumns
Stories: 128
Height: 2,073 feet / 632 meters
Distinction: 2nd tallest building in the world (as of May 2016)

Burj Khalifa

Completed: 2010
Location: Dubai, UAE
Architectural style: Post-modern futurism/Islamic
Construction: Reinforced concrete
Stories: 163
Height: 2,723 feet / 829.8 meters
Distinction: Tallest building in the world (as of May 2016)

"Behind every tall building there is a strong personality trying to make a very bold statement. To create a very tall building is, in essence, to create a new world capital. Cities like Dubai, Taipei, Shenzen and Guangzhou were not that well-known until they built skyscrapers that caught the world’s attention."

Dario Trabucco

Research Manager, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

20?? – The future of tall

When asked what kind of buildings he expected to see in the future, Trabucco said, “I’m convinced that buildings do not have to be designed as stand-alone structures anymore. If buildings become more interconnected at the upper floors, you have much more redundancy in terms of energy and water supply, as well as secondary escape and rescue routes.

Now that the street levels are becoming more crowded,” Trabucco continued, “inter-building connection and communal high-rise spaces would help relieve ground-level congestion, and make high-rise living more socially sustainable.

An environment with connected buildings would also need to find solutions for inter-building travel. This could take the form of elevators and separate moving walkways, but a more logical solution would be elevators, like the MULTI elevator, that can also move horizontally and travel in a circuit from building to building.

"I tend to avoid the word ‘history’ when I talk about buildings: it’s more of an evolution. ‘History’ is in the past, but the development of tall buildings is still ongoing."

Dario Trabucco

Research Manager, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

Jeddah Tower (Kingdom Tower)

Completed (planned): 2018
Location: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Architectural style: Post-modern futurism/Islamic
Construction: Reinforced concrete
Stories (planned): 167
Height (planned): 3,281 feet / 1,000+ meters

Stage Image 1: New York City Skyscrapers by Kevin Jarrett, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stage Image 2: The Chrysler Building by Howard Yang Photography, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stage Image 3: Empire State building, New York | USA by Pablo Pola Damonte, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stage Image 4: Lever House by Rafael Chamorro, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stage Image 5: Willis Tower, Chicago by Rob Young, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stage Image 6: Tours Areva Total by Vincent XXXXXX, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stage Image 7: Shanghai Tower by Chinainfocenter, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stage Image 8: Burj Khalifa by Zoemies …, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stage Image 9: One World Trade Center by Dirk Steingäßer, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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