In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Skyscrapers

  • Introduction
  • The Skyscraper in Social History
  • The Skyscraper in Economic History
  • The Skyscraper in the History of Art, Photography, Film, and Literature

Architecture Planning and Preservation Skyscrapers
Gail Fenske
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0044


Our knowledge of the skyscraper as a building type is based on research exploring the type’s many facets, among them architectural, technological, and urban. In history, the question of a single definitive “first skyscraper” was debated throughout the 20th century. More recently, historians have asked: Is the type’s defining feature the technology of metal skeleton construction? If so, that places its origins in Chicago in the 1880s with the Home Insurance Building, Tacoma Building, Masonic Temple, and Reliance Building. Or is it simply “height”? That would place its origins in New York City during the late 1860s to mid-1870s with the Equitable, Western Union, and Tribune Buildings, both of which utilized elevator technology to attain height. A complete definition of the skyscraper, however, encompasses several key technologies. Making structures habitable for work or living, for example, required mechanical and electrical systems—initially plumbing, heating, and illumination, and later air conditioning. Within the city, a vast transportation infrastructure by rail facilitated movement to and from the skyscrapers of the central business district. Throughout history, the architecture of the skyscraper has illustrated aspects of American economic, political, and cultural change. The earliest skyscrapers in New York, the nation’s corporate headquarters, for example, recalled the towers of preindustrial Europe, and thus served as memorable landmarks, as demonstrated by the Woolworth Building, whereas those of Chicago, an entrepôt with an entrepreneurial business culture, exemplified the organic-functionalist theories of John Wellborn Root and Louis Sullivan, as realized in the Monadnock and Wainwright Buildings. During the 1920s, the skyscrapers of New York and Chicago inflected forms prescribed by zoning legislation, creating an urban vernacular specific to each city. New York’s 1916 ordinance engendered the setback skyscraper and its associated urbanism, with the Empire State Building as classic example, whereas Chicago’s comparable but unique 1923 code led to a “city of towers,” as illustrated by the Carbide and Carbon and Mather towers. The “Art Deco” and “skyscraper Gothic” idioms, best represented in the Chrysler Building and Chicago’s Tribune Tower, inspired exterior and interior ornamental schemes. The skyscrapers of the 1950s, by contrast, crystallized the “international style” in a society economically prosperous, consumer-oriented, and dominated by corporate enterprise, as superbly represented in the Lever House, New York. During the late 1960s and 1970s, technological optimism and ambition spurred the innovative and supertall Sears (Willis) Tower and the World Trade Center, which redefined the skylines of Chicago and New York, respectively, utilizing the structurally unprecedented braced tube technology to achieve new heights. The World Trade Center’s large-scale reconfiguration of the city’s fabric exemplified the day’s urban renewal schemes. Recent skyscrapers, including the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, now vigorously compete for height while participating in a global system of signification, in which they gesture toward sustainability, but above all else advertise modernity and economic vitality.

General Overviews of the Skyscraper

General overviews of the skyscraper are mostly chronological surveys that examine the building type as an American phenomenon, with a strong emphasis on New York and Chicago. Mujica 1929 is the first and still an excellent survey of the skyscraper in American cities through the 1920s; it illustrates the building type throughout North America and includes short histories of individual skyscrapers. Goldberger 1981 is an accessible overview that shows in many illustrations the full breadth of architectural solutions for the skyscraper. Van Leeuwen 1986 is unique in its thematic emphasis on the skyscraper as a phenomenon; it explores the archetypal origins of the skyscraper, and draws on examples from ancient history to the Middle Ages, as well as the 1870s through the 1920s. Douglas 1996 is intended for the general reader, and documents the skyscraper through the 1980s, highlighting human themes and relating the building type to popular culture. An important study of New York and Chicago is Willis 1995, which analyzes the skyscraper as a vernacular particular to each city, along with its role in shaping the skylines of each city, although the focus is on the 1920s. Useful anthologies include Moudry 2005 (cited under Anthologies), a valuable collection of essays on all aspects of the skyscraper as a cultural phenomenon that is recommended for advanced students, and Shepherd 2003 (cited under Anthologies), a selection of articles from the professional journal Architectural Record, 1891-1941. Reference Works, including Nash 2010 and Saliga and Zukowsky 1990, documentindividual skyscrapers in New York and Chicago. Digital Resources that focus on contemporary skyscrapers are useful complements to the book-length surveys.

  • Douglas, George H. Skyscrapers: A Social History of the Very Tall Building in America. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    A historical overview of landmark skyscrapers and their relation to cities, especially their impact on skyline views, oriented toward the general reader. Highlights the process of construction; technologies such as the elevator, plumbing, and electricity; and the human experience of the skyscraper, from observation decks to daredevil acrobatics.

  • Fenske, Gail. “A Brief History of the Twentieth-Century Skyscraper.” In The Tall Buildings Reference Book. Edited by Dave Parker and Antony Wood, 13–32. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    A short, concise overview of the most influential designs for tall buildings, dating from the mid-19th century to the early 21st, emphasizing at the outset Chicago and New York, and from the 1990s, structures around the world. Illustrates the recent shift from the singular focus on height to a new set of competitive criteria: enhancing the spatial, environmental, and aesthetic experience of the skyscraper in the city.

  • Goldberger, Paul. The Skyscraper. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

    E-mail Citation »

    A lavishly illustrated overview of designs for major landmark skyscrapers from the origins of the skyscraper through the postmodern period, highlighting architectural thought, technology, materials, and style in the context of changing cities. Accessible to the general reader.

  • Mujica, Francisco. History of the Skyscraper. Paris: Archaeology and Architecture Press, 1929.

    E-mail Citation »

    First history of the modern skyscraper and a classic work. Defines the invention and evolution of the skyscraper with great clarity, emphasizing the elevator, steel skeleton construction, and electricity, and noting the Masonic Temple, Chicago (1890–1891) as the first true skyscraper. Emphasizes New York and Chicago, but also includes skyscrapers in Cleveland, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, among other cities. Highlights the relationship between the ancient architecture of Mesoamerica and New York’s 1920s skyline, and thusadvocates a neo-American architecture of the skyscraper.

  • van Leeuwen, Thomas A. P. The Skyward Trend of Thought: The Metaphysics of the American Skyscraper. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    An assessment of the American skyscraper as an architectural and urban phenomenon, from its origins through the 1920s, linking the human impulse to build tall with a deeper mythological past, highlighting the Tower of Babel as the paradigmatic tower. Written from a European perspective, views the skyscraper in relation to characteristic American cultural tendencies, among them “Manifest Destiny,” democracy, grid planning, and the paradoxical relationship between capitalistic and spiritual values.

  • Willis, Carol. Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995.

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    An incisive architectural and urban history of the skyscraper in New York and Chicago, from the type’s origins through the postwar period, noting prominent landmarks but emphasizing vernacular structures. Notes the differences in urban topography between the two cities, particularly in patterns of commercial land use, and argues for the determining influence of real estate finance as well as zoning and height restrictions in shaping their distinctive skylines.

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