Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Building to Extremes Human Body Shop SpyCatchers Hi-Tech War Crash Site Secrets Miracle Cell Light Speed Brain Fingerprinting Innovation - Life, Inspired
Special Report

Skyscrapers Then and Now

By Jim Stallard

A Thoroughly Modern Structure

The skyscraper, icon of modernity and engineering prowess, came to dominate all major urban landscapes in the 20th century. Every city intent on asserting its presence as a cultural center and participant in world affairs threw its resources into constructing a tall building to anchor the downtown area and make the skyline instantly recognizable around the world. A skyscraper rising alone above the crowd has always held a special allure -- even King Kong couldn't resist the tallest building around.

Although humans have always strived to erect awe-inspiring structures -- the pyramids, the Coliseum, or the Taj Mahal -- it was not, until recently, feasible to construct buildings that were very tall. As floors were added to a building, the walls of the base had to be thickened to sustain the huge amounts of weight exerted downward by multiple stories stacked atop one another. This left little room on the ground floor and made such buildings impractical.

In the 19th century, however, advances in manufacturing iron and steel made it possible to support great amounts of weight without taking up much space. In addition, the invention of elevators allowed tenants to work on upper floors without having to walk up an inordinate amount of stairs. Other improvements and refinements such as plumbing and electricity made occupancy tolerable, so that working in a location far removed from the ground was not uncomfortable or inconvenient. Economic factors drove the construction of buildings that went up instead of out; as precious downtown space became more expensive the only way for buildings to expand was skyward.

Skyscraper construction truly emerged in the 20th century, and the United States dominated the discipline for most of that period. The field took off in the late 1920s, when three New York City builders entered into a feverish competition to erect the world's tallest structure. Those connected with the buildings eagerly sought the cachet that came with that distinction, and they were not above using trickery to outwit their competitors. Two buildings begun in 1929, the Chrysler Building and the Bank of Manhattan Tower, were designed for identical heights of 925 feet. After construction started, H. Craig Severance, architect of the Bank of Manhattan Tower, added two feet to his building's height and claimed it as the world's tallest. But William Van Alen, the Chrysler architect, had secretly secured permission to add a seven-story spire to his building. The spire was furtively assembled inside the upper floors of the building and quickly hoisted to the top one day in November 1929, reaching to a height of 1,046 feet. The Chrysler building's triumph was short-lived, however, as the 1,250-foot Empire State Building -- erected in a mere 410 days -- surpassed it by a wide margin just six months later. With the completion of the World Trade Center in 1972, the "world's tallest" crown moved to downtown Manhattan, where it remained for only two years before leaving town altogether: In 1974, construction of Chicago's 1,450-foot Sears Tower signalled an at least temporary end to New York's skyscraping domination.

Continue to next page

the world's tallest buildings

Year: 1890
Building: World Building
City: New York
Height: 309 feet

Year: 1908
Building: Singer Building
City: New York
Height: 612 feet

Year: 1913
Building: Woolworth Building
City: New York
Height: 792 feet

Year: 1930
Building: Chrysler Building
City: New York
Height: 1,046 feet

Year: 1931
Building: Empire State Building
City: New York
Height: 1,250 feet

Year: 1972
Building: World Trade Center
City: New York
Height: 1,368 feet

Year: 1974
Building: Sears Tower
City: Chicago
Height: 1,450 feet

Year: 1998
Building: Petronas Towers
City: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Height: 1,483 feet

Year: 2004
Building: Taipei 101 Tower
City: Taipei, Taiwan
Height: 1,667 feet

Be more inspired. Help bring programs like INNOVATION to your PBS station ... pledge online!
Email this page
Print this page

ask the experts for teachers resources about the series sitemap
INNOVATION Online is a production of Thirteen WNET New York. Copyright 2004 Educational Broadcasting Corporation.

return to building to extremes main page