Architectural Notes: Empire State Building still astonishes

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THE SKYSCRAPER Museum, housed in a landmark Art Deco skyscraper at the corner of Wall and Nassau Streets in New York, has recently mounted a new exhibition entitled "Building the Empire State". This 5,000 sq ft installation celebrates the design and construction of New York's signature skyscraper and includes photographs and film of the construction, architectural and engineering drawings, contracts, builders' records, financial reports, and many other artefacts which chronicle the rapid progress of the project from the decision to erect the tower, which was taken in August 1929, through to the opening ceremonies on 1 May 1931. The entire process didn't even take two years, thanks to an astonishing feat of organisation by the general contractors.

In the summer and fall of 1930, five new restaurants opened in New York. They were lunch counters with food described as "substantial" and "economical" and because Prohibition was still in force drinks were limited to milk, coffee, soft drinks, and near-beer. As is often the case, location compensated for menu limitations: the restaurants were located on the 3rd, 9th, 24th, 47th, and 64th floors of the construction site that was becoming the Empire State Building.

Feeding the labour force was only one part of the impressive on-site organisation synchronised by the project's brilliant general contractors, Starrett Brothers and Eken. Then and now, construction sites generally operate without food service, and, although projects in isolated locations may have a basic cafeteria, these are hardly known for good cooking or bargain prices. Why, then, did the builders arrange for a "high-class restaurant operator" to provide concessions at lower-than-average prices at the upper-level lunch counters? Because, in skyscraper construction, the maxim "time is money" translates into major cash.

The Empire State was a vertical construction site. Men and materials had to be raised to upper floors by hoists, themselves under construction, moving up with the building. The zoned lunch counters were designed to reduce the number of elevator trips by the labourers.

The builders recorded that "not more than 15 per cent of the men left the building during the lunch hour". This gave the men more time for lunch and the contractors a far more productive work force.

Starrett Brothers and Eken approached the logistics of construction of the Empire State with a level of organisation and detail that was unequalled in its time and still inspires awe today. Six months after the first structural columns were set in April 1930, the steel frame topped out on the 86th floor. The fully enclosed building, including the mooring mast that stretched its height to the equivalent of 102 storeys, was finished within an astonishing 11 months, in March 1931.

The scale of the operations allowed the builders to introduce factory- like methods of efficiency. These included a sophisticated system of timekeeping, daily checking of unit costs of work performed, and an early system of "just-in-time" delivery that ensured that materials were ready for workers at that day's point of production. Concrete mixing was done on site in the newly constructed basement, and, most strikingly, the use of a small- gauge railroad on each floor during construction to allow materials to be moved from the hoists to where they were needed. The Empire State was completed ahead of schedule and under budget, for a mere $25m (about $245m in 1998 dollars).

As the world's tallest building for more than 40 years (until the World Trade Center twin towers were erected in the early 1970s), the Empire State Building is justly famous. Far less known is its stature as the paragon of efficient building construction and a record for speed of construction that remains unmatched even to this day.

Carol Willis and Donald Friedman are the authors of `Building the Empire State' (Norton, pounds 19.95)