Monday 18 Jul 2011

From megalomania to an aircraft collision-proof skyscraper: Powerful buildings

In a book called ‘Visions of Architecture’ (Bloomsbury A&C Black 2011 ISBN 978-1-4081-2881-7, £16-99) the author Stephen Lees examines various buildings and the fascinating facts that caused their creation due to what might be termed the ‘Construction Process’ involving seven disciplines: Architecture, Religion, Engineering, Arts, Psychology, Economics and Politics, the influences of which have eluded people even though they may be familiar with the structures. Stephen shares his findings with WAN readers in an exclusive seven-part series...

Fairies and religion were the motivating forces behind the Victorian Neo-Gothic steel frame designs for powerful railroad stations, as seen at the St. Pancras Hotel and especially at Bombay’s huge Victoria Station. The steel frame spread to public buildings and eventually via the Gothic Water Tower in Chicago, to the construction of the colossal Art Deco skyscrapers we have today. The origin of the skyscraper began in Chicago during the 1880s based on the innovative method of girder fabrication that originated with the construction of the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. The Chicago School and WB Jenney developed this technique using steel girders to create a cage frame forming the infrastructure to which is bolted the superstructure - the exterior fabric of the skyscraper. The amount of steel involved in constructing the 1,350 foot high frame of the Empire State Building was 58,000 tons or the equivalent of 500 miles of railroad track. This method of construction reduced construction costs and speeded up significantly the time it took to build a skyscraper. The Empire State Building at 1,350 foot high took only eighteen months to construct.

Some skyscrapers were built as a result of speculation bordering on madness which contributed to the stock market collapse of 1929. Typical of this speculation and recklessness was the titanic battle between two megalomaniacs, Walter Chrysler, President of Chrysler Automobiles and John Jacob Raskob, President of General Motors. It spilled over from their boardrooms into the street and later expressed in dramatic powerful iconic structures. One of the skyscrapers in question, the Empire State Building, built due to insanity to reflect commercial pride, won the battle despite deceptions at the Chrysler Building. As did the St. Pancras Hotel, so the Empire State Building developed architecture in terms of iconic symbolism, design and speed of erection based on the steel frame which saved it from collapse when struck by an aircraft in 1945. The building’s design has been copied at the Palmolive Building, Chicago, at the First National Center in Oklahoma City and throughout the world including on the towers of Battersea Power Station in London.

Commercial pride can still be a motivating factor behind the design of powerful buildings as expressed in one of four monolithic towers of the Rockefeller Center. The megalithic RCA Building, that incorporates the famous iconic Radio City Music Hall, is one of soaring monumentality. Relieved by the bronze statues of Atlas located in the square and Prometheus addressing the front of the tower like his erstwhile co-God Mercury clinging to the front of iconic Beaux-Arts designed Grand Central Terminal nearby. Clearly the Olympian gods were co-opted to lend even more grandeur to these buildings!

Stephen Lees
Visions of Architecture

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Urban design

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