Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Skyscraper Race: A New Frontier

“The Great Skyscraper Race”: Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote that “architecture is the alphabet of giants; it is the largest set of symbols ever made to meet the eyes of men. A tower stands up like a sort of simplified statue, of much more than heroic size.” From 1903, seven skyscrapers in New York fought and won the title of the world’s tallest building, a battle that boasted the fast pace of industrialisation, modernity and the enormous wealth of the United States. Louis Sullivan, often nicknamed the “father of skyscrapers”, remarked that a building must be “every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exaltation…” surely, elements which these skyscrapers incorporate. By 1929, there were 188 skyscrapers in the Big Apple, many of them in the Art Deco style that was popular in the late 1920’s and beyond. Skyscrapers had to combat a number of problems, height and shape being two of them. The invention of the elevator was critical for skyscrapers to reach even higher, and by 1924, it had become semi-automatic, removing the need for an operator.

The Chrysler Building

The Chrysler is one of the most recognisable buildings in the world, and is a perfect example of the Art Deco style. Originally, the building was conceived by Senator William Reynolds who worked with architect William Van Alen, but soon backed out after Alen’s plans were too costly. This paved the way for Walter P. Chrysler to take up the task. It had not escaped Chrysler’s attention that the area on 42nd Street was cheap, and he wanted a skyscraper that would bring financial rejuvenation to the area as well as being visually impressive. Chrysler also wanted to claim he owned the tallest building in the world. Van Alen, who was born in Brooklyn and spent several years in Paris studying architecture, devised new plans that were dismissed by Chrysler – he wanted a bigger and more striking building. He wanted his office to look out across the New York skyline; he also asked Alen to place a toilet on the top floor so he could “shit on Henry Ford and the rest of the world.” Begun in 1928, it took two years for the building to be constructed, at roughly four stories a week. And, amazingly, no construction workers died during its completion. Before the building was finished, Van Alen had a trick up his sleeve to ensure the Chrysler was the tallest building in New York, fighting off competition in Wall Street from his former partner Craig Severance. Van Alen designed a 186ft spire in secret that could be assembled in just 90 minutes. After the spire had been placed, embarrassingly, Wall Street announced they had the tallest building, but Alen’s genius had won out. Unfortunately for Alen, the Empire State Building robbed the Chrysler of the title a few months later. Ironically, the Chrysler was to be Van Alen’s downfall. After its construction, Chrysler argued that Alen had stolen ideas from other architects and did not pay him – it is still a mystery whether Alen ever received a dollar for this stunning design. This, together with the onset of the Depression meant that Alen never worked on a similar grand design ever again. The Chrysler is now the second tallest in New York, after the attacks on 9/11 destroyed the World Trade Center. In 1976, it was named a national landmark.

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