What Makes a Skyscraper?

What Makes a Skyscraper?

Posted: Nov 08 2017

A skyscraper was originally a nautical term for the topmost sail on a ship that scraped the sky and was taller than almost anything else around it. When ships docked in 17th and 18th century harbors, the top masts could be seen from miles around. The only competition reaching towards the sky were church steeples and occasional bell tower. Over time, the word could be used to describe anything that stood out because it was tall ~ a tall person, a high standing horse, or the tallest thing around.

When we think of skyscrapers today, the iconic image of King Kong scaling the Empire State Building might come to mind. Or perhaps we think of James Bond parachuting off the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, or the latest record breaker, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

But how did the term “skyscraper” become a term for the buildings we now know as skyscrapers?

Throughout history, people have tried reaching for the skies. Some of the oldest structures in the world represent humanity’s desire to communicate with divine power such as the ancient Egyptian pyramids. Others were monuments to express love, loss, and sorrow like the Taj Mahal or an obelisk in your local cemetery.

Cathedrals, churches, mosques, and synagogues puncture the sky so that all can see where to gather in worship. Monuments, like the Eiffel Tower, celebrate human achievement while lighthouses send warning beacons across miles of ocean. The Golden Arches and Bob’s Big Boy reach up into the sky to call you from far away.

Modern skyscrapers are no different. Like many of these old buildings, the designers can be sending a message, celebrating technological advancement, or signaling global power.

Did you know that the Chrysler building is adorned with car parts? Hubcaps become medallions, and hood ornaments recall ancient gargoyles. Every aspect of this onetime tallest building is telling the viewer about the company’s strength, power, and success. So you might not be surprised to learn the General Electric building is full of lightning bolts and heavenly creatures wearing crowns of electricity.

In the mid-nineteenth century, everything started to change…

Modern technology enabled buildings to rise above a walkable flight of stairs. Chicago’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, was only 12 stories tall. But in 1885, this was amazing.

More importantly, it would not have been possible without two key inventions ~ the elevator and structural steel. Today, skyscrapers still rise above other structures and change the skyline. But in order to be considered a modern skyscraper, a building must have:

  • a structural grid
  • an elevator
  • more than ten stories

Soon after Chicago’s first, the race for cities and companies to build the tallest structure was on…

Former leaders were dwarfed by the “new normal” while new buildings shot past the once glorious records.

The Chrysler Building took the lead in 1930 but was soon eclipsed by the Empire State Building in 1931. For almost 40 years, the Empire State Building and New York City held the record. It withstood a plane crash and King Kong. Then in 1973, the World Trade Center was completed and set new records.

Since then, cities and countries across the globe have competed for the bragging rights of having the tallest skyscraper. Of course, it isn’t always about size. Sometimes it is about overcoming a lack of available building space but imagery, message, and power never completely left the equation.

By learning about skyscrapers, Salvadori students are able to identify the characteristics that make urban buildings unique. They learn how columns and beams work together to support tall structures; they explore and identify different materials, designs, and architectural elements present in urban buildings; and they apply concepts such as proportion, scale, and ergonomics as they design and construct a modular unit building.

Think about all the buildings in your city; can you recognize the skyscrapers?

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