Skyscrapers, as we know them today, have only been possible for around 200 years. Large buildings are nothing new – the Egyptian pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Tower of Babel are all amazing, tall structures that show how creative mankind can be and how, throughout history, we have been able to fight against the forces of nature and physics.
Skyscrapers, however, are special because they are so tall and yet so narrow. The ancient Egyptians were able to build tall pyramids because they made the bases of the pyramids so broad, and the tips of the buildings were narrower, allowing the weight to spread out across the base.
When American architects attempted to build tall structures in the late 19th century, they soon discovered that the masonry of the day simply wasn’t strong enough to support buildings that were more than seven stories tall. That all changed when Henry Bessemer came up with a technique for mass-producing steel which could be used to support bigger structures.
Early Tall Buildings
The man credited with “inventing” the idea of skyscrapers (if not the actual name), is George Fuller. In 1889, he built the Tacoma Building, which was the first building ever to use steel cages to support the weight of the building, instead of making the outside walls load-bearing. Fuller went on to build several skyscrapers, including the Flatiron Building in New York.
Once it became clear that the cage construction style made extremely tall buildings possible, architects began a race for the sky. Bigger, taller and grander buildings were constructed. Some of the biggest early skyscrapers included the Woolworth Building (792 feet, 60 stories), the Bank of Manhattan (927 feet, 71 stories) and the Chrysler Building (1046feet, 77 stories).
The rush to create taller and taller buildings was short-lived. During the first half of the 20th century there were several prominent fires in tall buildings in the United States. The Equitable Life Building, a relatively modest “skyscraper” at just 142 feet tall, was destroyed by a fire in 1912. A fire in the Asch building in Manhattan in 1911 claimed 146 lives. In 1945, a plane crashed into the Empire State building, causing 14 deaths and more than one million dollar’s worth of structural damage.
These fires highlighted the difficulty of responding to fires in taller structures, evacuating densely populated buildings, and ensuring that buildings were relatively fireproof and likely to remain structurally sound even after being damaged.
Both Australia and the UK introduced height limits and fire restrictions during the early part of the skyscraper boom. The United States soon followed, introducing strict building codes to ensure that both tall structures and general office buildings were safe for their occupants.
Even with the new building regulations, architects still pushed the envelope, building taller and more unusual structures and experimenting with new structural systems. As skyscrapers became more common in other parts of the world, new challenges were discovered and architects had to learn how to cope with high winds, earthquakes, and other difficult conditions. Modern trussed tubes and x-bracing designs, such as those seen in the Citigroup Center, are lighter and more efficient than the designs of the first half of the 20th century.