Skip links

Where Do Skyscrapers Come From?

The World Building on Park Row.

The Skyscraper Museum has put up the videos of the symposium three weeks ago. In layman’s terms, my mug is all over them…I mean to say that there’s some good stuff here.

In video one, Carol Willis explains the context and all of the speakers throw in a few ideas.

in video three, a series of distinguished speakers – Lee Gray, Kathryn Holliday, and Andrew Alpern – present papers on the history of skyscrapers.

In video four, more distinguished speakers – Tom Mellins, Michelle Young, Carol Willis, and Fran Leadon – present more papers on the history of skyscrapers.

I saved the best – or depending on your taste, the worst – for last. In video two, Tom Leslie and I “debate” the question of what was the first skyscraper. Since we both agree that it’s an almost meaningless question – What’s a skyscraper? What does first mean when the various buildings overlapped in their design and construction timing? – we focus instead on the origins of skyscrapers (me) and the origins of modern skyscrapers (Tom). My favorite irony of the debate is that my argument, as an engineer, depends largely on social and architectural criteria, while Tom’s argument, as an architect, depends largely on technology. In the Q&A after we both spoke, I very briefly touch on one of the few places we truly disagree: Tom’s argument that skyscrapers should have notably thin curtain walls and a self-supporting frame excludes from the “skyscraper club” a host of buildings that I believe belong there: the Tower, World, Western Union, and Tribune Buildings in New York and the Rookery, Home Insurance, Monadnock Buildings in Chicago, to name just a  few. Any definition that excludes those buildings is, in my opinion based at least partially on emotion, wrong.