It isn't often that we think of buildings as works of art. We have a word to describe the art of designing buildings and structures – architecture – but to most of us, buildings are things of purpose, not things to be admired. We pass in and out of them, conducting our business, and never give a thought to the structures themselves. This is especially true of the skyscraper. These massive objects are imposing, dominating and at times, almost oppressive. Their size, especially in larger cities, is often overwhelming. Skyscrapers have come to represent the artificial nature of the city, confining and cutting us off from the natural world by taking up large areas of the city with their footprints and blocking out the sky with their scale.
[...] The post-war boom of the 1920s saw an increase in the construction of skyscrapers. As more and more buildings went up, designers started to look at ways to dress the exterior more. Nothing touched off this change more than the Chicago Tribune tower contest. City-goers were no longer excited by the simple, utilitarian buildings of what had become known as the Chicago School. (Solomonson 154) Americans began to turn to Europe, taking back home what they had seen while at war and reinvigorating the aesthetics of architecture. [...]
[...] These towers, imbued with an idealized vision of the Middle Ages as an era of community and social unity, were meant as a model post-war America. (Solomonson 184) It is this vision that influenced the decision of the newspaper's leaders in selecting a winner: the new tower was to be a symbol of the triumph of the modern west, of a masculine heroism that would restore what enemy' had destroyed and remake the world in its image. The resulting building, designed by John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood, looks as much like a fortress as it does a cathedral tower. [...]
[...] The Depression brought skyscraper design back to the cost-cutting simplicity of the Chicago School, and a modernism that demanded that art become an agent of social change as opposed to a feast of decoration and extravagance. (Huxtable 44) Howe and Lescaze's Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building, built in 1930-31, was one of these modern buildings that were supposed to be ‘beyond style'. The PSFS building, as well as others, were experimental in their day, a try at representing this optimistic vision in steel and stone. [...]
[...] The skyscraper is, and has long been, an art form that is uniquely American. It has constantly evolved, changing as we have. And even now, it reflects the society that creates it. We have become transfixed with nostalgia and so obsessed with our past that we fail to face the realities of the present and their future consequences. Similarly, the skyscraper has become obsessed with its past identity, while its designers, and financial powers backing them, seem content with reinventing what has gone before ad nauseum. [...]
[...] One of the most prominent explorations is the glass-walled tower of the mid-century, an idea pioneered thirty years earlier by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mies's buildings were studies of structure, enclosing the skeleton of the building in a skin of glass, wrapping around curves and taking on forms that seem graceful compared to the blocky, massive towers that dominated the early 20th century. (Huxtable 49) Designers began to experiment with Mies' ideas when technology advanced far enough to allow his conceptual aesthetic to become a reality. [...]
Online readingwith our online reader
Content validatedby our reading committee