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The Nietzschean Origins of Skyscrapers
Thus spoke Louis Sullivan
The skyscraper, once regarded as the archetypal American building, now belongs to Asia and the Arabian Gulf. Tall buildings still appear in western cities – London has only become a high-rise city in the last thirty years – but not on a scale that compares with Shenzen, Dubai or Kuala Lumpur.
At the heart of the 21st century skyscraper boom is, unsurprisingly, China. Though it has now placed limits on super-tall construction, China is already home to half of the world’s twenty highest buildings, and almost half of the fifty highest. If we rank cities by the number of structures above 150 metres, only seven of the top fifty are outside Asia and the Middle East.
How people feel about skyscrapers in these various places is a mystery to me; but it seems safe to assume there is a wide array of impressions and associations here. In this way, the unfolding of modernity in different contexts invites us to reflect on what our own surroundings communicate to us.
Skyscrapers are a revealing case because they are so boldly mythological. On some basic level, they are clearly monuments to big business, bureaucracy and technological rationality. And yet, in the American imaginary that gradually infused the western world in the 20th century, skylines of soaring glass came to represent the glamour and exhilarating possibility of the metropolis. They were part of the romantic tapestry of designed products that linked capitalism with ideals of aspiration and freedom.
In this sense, the original prophet of the American skyscraper was Louis Sullivan, an architect whose career was as brief and tragic as it was brilliant. Whether or not Sullivan was the father of modern architecture, as is sometimes claimed, he was the individual whose fevered imagination sensed its mythic dimension most fully.
Sullivan’s greatest works, completed in partnership with Dankmar Adler during the 1890s, are not instantly recognisable as the precursors to our own skyscrapers. They are not especially high by today’s standards, while their ornament and formal details make them more beautiful than most of their descendants. But what Sullivan called “the tall office building” really was a new kind of structure, rising much higher thanks to its steel frame, and allowing him to develop an influential design language.
Sullivan understood his role in almost millenarian terms. He was haunted by a sense that the United States, the torchbearer of democracy and a land of incredible abundance, still lacked its own distinct culture and artistic achievements. Around the turn of the 20th century, Sullivan felt this was about to change. Observing “the momentous sway and drift of modern life,” he declared that “the curtain has arisen on a drama the most intense and passionate in all history.” The moment of American self-actualisation had arrived, and it was the architect’s task to articulate “the national life of his time,” ushering in “a coming era of spiritual splendour.”
Sullivan’s worldview rested on an idiosyncratic reading of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas he blended with the romantic poetry of Walt Whitman and the naturalism of Darwin. For Sullivan, human cultures were historically unfolding manifestations of Nietzsche’s “will to power,” which he imagined as a self-affirming life force flowing through all living things.
Whereas Nietzsche is not normally considered a fan of democracy, Sullivan identified the will to power with the American democratic spirit, a current of thought and feeling that stemmed from nature and bound the nation together. The architect, with his combination of poetic and practical abilities (“the dreamer of dreams, the creator of realities, the greatest of artificers”), was uniquely placed to understand and give form to this spirit.
The first phase of skyscraper construction peaked in New York between the 1910s-1930s, when iconic buildings such as the Woolworth and Empire State were erected. Yet the skyscraper was born in Chicago, following the total destruction of that city in the Great Fire of October 1871. For mythologizers like Sullivan, this Midwestern genesis was not incidental; it linked the skyscraper to the youthful, pioneering spirit of the frontier, in contrast to the exhausted Old World culture of the east coast.
But as Sullivan himself acknowledged, the skyscraper was essentially an economic phenomenon. The demand to build upwards came, as it does today, from the high land values that occur when a large number of people or businesses want to occupy a given area. This, in turn, was the result of the consolidation of American capitalism into large firms with significant bureaucratic workforces. The financial sector was expanding too: many of the earliest skyscrapers housed insurance companies. The pressure on urban space was especially acute in Chicago, where the business district was physically confined by surrounding industrial areas.
Skyscrapers depended on various new technologies, including elevators, electric lighting and modern plumbing. And they needed labour of course. George H. Douglas notes that New York’s classic skyscrapers were built by a relatively small group of skilled workers, who moved from one project to the next. These were often the same men constructing the numerous bridges and train tunnels that appeared in the city at this time. Among them were the “high steel” workers we know from those famous stomach-turning photographs. They spent their days balancing on narrow beams hundreds of feet in the air, and occasionally plunged to their deaths.
But the crucial breakthrough for high-rise buildings, and for modern architecture in general, was steel-frame construction. Load-bearing masonry can only reach a certain height before the walls become so thick they start eating into the floorspace. The innovative architects of the Chicago School, among whom Sullivan cut his teeth, realised that materials and techniques could be adapted from bridge builders. Loading the entire structural weight of a building onto a steel skeleton allowed them to be raised much higher, with the walls now serving as just an external skin.
The first tall structure to fully embrace this approach was the Home Life Insurance Building, designed by William Le Baron Jenney in 1883. Adler and Sullivan adopted it for their superb Wainwright Building in St Louis, Missouri, in 1891. Four years later, this provided the model for their even more impressive Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York.
These works, along with the Schiller Building in Chicago and Bayard-Condict Building in Manhattan, show Sullivan’s style at its finest. Narrow arcaded piers create a rhythmic, vertical emphasis, framed by a pronounced base and cornices. What appealed to later architects was Sullivan’s search for a formal language reflecting the inner structure of the steel frame. Yet his esoteric philosophy was most clearly expressed in another, sadly less influential element: the exquisite motifs that swarm over the terracotta facades of buildings like the Guaranty.
These organic and geometric patterns, intricately woven together, invoke the natural life force animating American civilisation. They recall the concept of the germ – the generative potential of a plant seed – that Sullivan would later use as a metaphor for creative power:
The Germ is the real thing; the seat of identity. Within its delicate mechanism lies the will to power: the function of which is to seek and eventually to find its full expression in form.
For man is power, and this power is native in nature with the power of the germ and the seed.
Sullivan’s famous motto “form follows function,” later associated with a much more minimalist brand of Modernism, was actually another call for architects to observe how nature expresses its life force.
Sullivan’s career never recovered from the economic depression that afflicted the United States in the mid-1890s, prompting a long decline into alcoholism and emotional turmoil. Nor did his vision of national awakening attract a following; for the time being, American taste clung to the Beaux Arts style of 19th century Europe. Skyscrapers were recognised as distinctively American, but that was generally because of their “vastness, swiftness, utility, and economy,” as one historian put it in 1928.
Nonetheless, Sullivan’s idealism anticipated the mythology of the skyscraper. In his imagination, the forces unleashed by capitalism in the Gilded Age became a cosmic spirit enchanting the modern city. The charisma of the skyscraper seems to rest on a similar formula to this day, as architecture translates the power of large organisations into an aura of urban vitality.
It may be that visionary designers are especially prone to become agents of myth. When a designer wishes to imbue his or her role inside a system with a wider historical significance, the result is often a product that romanticises the system in question. Some remarks Sullivan made in 1896 are revealing in this respect:
It is not my purpose to discuss the social conditions; I accept them as the fact, and say at once that the design of the tall office building must be recognised and confronted at the outset as a problem to be solved.
This practical, objective attitude is strangely compatible with an epic sense of destiny: both accept conditions as they are. Something similar can be seen, for instance, in the case of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, influential in the later development of the glass high-rise. Mies echoed Sullivan with his belief that “architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms.”
But these temptations are present to all of us in some form. How do we understand the radically new phenomena that appear in modern societies, when these same changes often make our existing ideas seem redundant? Modernity creates a demand for new myths that give coherence to the world, a demand that is presumably now as widespread as the skyscraper.
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