Reach for the sky

They were born in the search for maximum profit from limited space. Today, Manhattan's skyscrapers form an extraordinary architectural heritage, a tribute to 100 years of striving for bigger, better, higher things. Words by Eric P Nash. Photographs by Norman McGrath
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Manhattan may no longer boast the world's tallest skyscraper, but it does possess the most distinctive collection of has-beens (Park Row, Woolworth, 40 Wall Street, Chrysler, Empire State, World Trade Center) for that title. Twenty of the 100 tallest buildings in the world are in Manhattan - a record still unsurpassed. No other city can claim such a rich skyscraper history. Chicago may be the birthplace of the skyscraper, but it is on the streets of Manhattan that this century-long evolution of the skyscraper can be traced.

Manhattan island's restrictive land mass and high land prices forced owners to develop lots to their highest potential in the 19th century. A confluence of technologies in the later half of that century helped to bring about the skyscraper building type which architect Cass Gilbert so aptly defined as "a machine that makes the land pay". The development of steel-frame construction, the safety elevator, electric power, advances in fireproofing and foundation technologies had a direct effect on allowing buildings to rise higher. The typewriter created an avalanche of paperwork and a need to bring armies of clerical workers together in one location.

The Manhattan skyscraper's evolution begins in the last decades of the 19th century, but these pioneers are lost to us today, a result of what Walt Whitman defined as the city's "tear-it-down-and-build-it-up-again spirit". New York's first skyscraper, Bradford Gilbert's Tower Building, disappeared long ago. And the title of "the world's tallest building" could not save Ernest Flagg's innovative 1908 Singer Building from the wreckers. In 1967 it became the tallest building in the world to be demolished.

Some of the survivors, chronicling 100 years of skyscraper development in the city, are shown here.

`Manhattan Skyscrapers' by Eric P Nash is published by Princeton Architectural Press, pounds 30, and can be ordered from Biblios (01403 710971)

Captions: American Tract Society Building

150 Nassau Street Architect RH Robertson, 1896

Robertson's 23-storey building is a pre-modern skyscraper in that it was mainly organised horizontally. The arcaded, rock-faced granite ashlar base takes its inspiration from Florentine palazzi, an appropriate image for the expanding mercantile empire of the US. The building was commissioned by the American Tract Society, which published Bibles in the interest of promoting a universal, nondenominational Protestantism, the culture of the emerging business class. Robertson was an ecclesiastical architect familiar with the then popular Romanesque style, so it was natural for him to design a Romanesque skyscraper.

At 291ft tall, the building was skyscraper height for its day (the world's record was still held by the 302ft Masonic Temple of 1892 by Burnham & Root in Chicago). The three-storey crown at the corner of Nassau and Spruce streets adds visual interest by breaking up the roofline against the sky, an early, eclectic forebear of the fanciful art-deco crowns. At the time there was no consensus on how to treat the top of a tall building and all kinds of variations on historical styles were attempted, from Gothic spires to Greek temples. These richly detailed sculptural cornices became obsolete when buildings were regularly 30 and 40 stories tall.

Flatiron Building

175 Fifth Avenue Architect Daniel H Burnham, 1902

Well past the First World War, the steamship continued to be the most powerful metaphor for the 20th century. Nautical design demanded that no space be wasted, no gesture be superfluous, and that an object's form be subordinated to its use. It is no coincidence that the Flatiron Building so much resembles a steamship fashioned out of stone. Alfred Stieglitz, who took one of the best known images of the sheer, thin wall of the Flatiron floating weightlessly above the snow of Madison Square Park, wrote that the building "appeared to be moving toward me like the bow of a monster ocean steamer - a picture of new America still in the making". With its undulating French Renaissance terracotta cladding, the Flatiron seems to swim out of a dream of a classical past toward the future of the steel skyscraper.

Originally built as the headquarters of the George A Fuller construction company, the building was only briefly called the Fuller Building and soon became known as the Flatiron because of its distinctive shape. The company built some of the most important buildings in the city, including the original Pennsylvania Station, the Plaza Hotel, Lever House and the Seagram Building in the post-Second World War era. The 21-storey, 307ft building was the tallest skyscraper north of Wall Street when it was built.

Woolworth Building

233 Broadway

Architect Cass Gilbert, 1913

At 55 storeys, the Woolworth (also pictured, page 10) was the tallest and most recognisable skyscraper in the world for 16 years until it was topped by the Chrysler Building. Many heights are given for the building, but its highest point is 793.5ft on the Barclay Street side.

The building soon became known as the "Cathedral of Commerce", a designation that Gilbert bristled at, because the sources of his inspiration had all been secular northern Gothic structures. The Gothic style influenced early skyscraper architects because it was the only historical style that emphasised height and verticality. The Woolworth Building rises from a 29-storey platform to become a tower which is inset on all four sides at the 42nd storey. Like a medieval spire, the tower metamorphoses from a square to an octagon at the 48th storey, and culminates in a three-storey, 125ft-tall, copper- clad roof.

The Woolworth was the era's most prominent example of the confluence of advertising and ego that went into skyscraper development. Frank Winfield Woolworth, the founder of the Woolworth retail chain, specifically instructed his architect to "make it 50ft taller than the Metropolitan Tower", so that his new building would beat the record. Woolworth recognised the symbolic and advertising function of the world's tallest building.

Empire State Building

350 Fifth Avenue Architects Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 1931

The Empire State Building is the archetypal skyscraper, the one to which all others must inevitably be compared. Its silhouette of a broad, 197ft- by-425ft platform; low, massed setbacks; free-standing tower; and romantic, winged spire is instantly recognisable. It is perhaps the ultimate example of the skyscraper as stadtkrone, the crown of the city in the tradition of the Gothic cathedral.

The building rose at an average of four and a half floors a week. Lunch stands serving hot food, sandwiches, "near beer" and ice cream were installed at five different levels to save workers the considerable time of descending to the streets. Part of the Empire State Building's allure is that it reigned for so long unchallenged - 42 years - as the world's tallest building, into the age of jet travel and moon landings. Improbably, the spire was planned as a mooring mast for Zeppelins: high winds made the idea unfeasible. The illustration shows what happened when a misguided bomber struck the building on 28 July 1945, killing 14.

Chrysler Building

405 Lexington Avenue Architect William Van Alen, 1930

The Chrysler Building illustrates the influence of German Expressionism on skyscraper design and the frenzied push for height that consumed architects. One of New York's most entertaining buildings, the silver-hooded Chrysler Building had its origins in the amusement parks of Coney Island. A real- estate developer named William H Reynolds, who conceived Coney Island's Dreamland, commissioned the architect William Van Alen to design what would have otherwise been known as the Reynolds Building.

The 77-storey Chrysler was part of a madcap, three-way dash to become the tallest building in the world. Its rivals were the now largely neglected Bank of the Manhattan Company at 40 Wall Street, designed by Van Alen's ex-partner and arch rival H Craig Severance, and the Empire State Building. When Severance got wind that the Chrysler was going to top out at 925ft, he added a 50ft flagpole that made his building 2ft taller, at 927ft. Then, in August 1930, Van Alen unveiled his secret weapon, the "vertex", a spire made of chrome nickel steel that was secretly assembled inside the Chrysler's dome and raised from within to bring the building's height to 1,048ft. Van Alen's vertex had the distinction of being the first man-made structure to top the 1,024.5ft-tall Eiffel Tower. The Chrysler's reign as the world's tallest lasted only 11 months, when it was topped by the Empire State Building, which opened in May 1931.

Equitable Building

120 Broadway

Architect Ernest R Graham, 1915

Though frequently singled out as the behemoth that brought about changes in city development laws (the 1916 Zoning Code), the Equitable Building was still on the drawing board when planners were looking for ways to increase the amount of sunlight and air circulation on the streets. You need only stand on Pine Street to understand the problem: the sky is reduced to a narrow ribbon between the cornice of the 41-storey Equitable and the 19-storey 100 Broadway, less than 35ft apart.

Before the advent of fluorescent office lighting, what most determined the value of office space (after location) was the amount of natural light it received. When the Equitable went up, it cast a shadow for four blocks, causing surrounding real-estate values to plummet. Falling values meant falling tax assessments, and the city required a remedy, so that market logic as much as environmental concerns led to the zoning reform. The timing of the 1916 code was also fortuitous, because architects were running out of ideas about how to treat the tall building and this forced them to think about skyscrapers in fresh ways.

The Equitable was unpopular because of its banality as well as its bulk. The building packs in an astonishing 1.2 million sq ft of rental space, or 30 times the area of its site, which is slightly less than an acre.

Lever House

390 Park Avenue

Architect Gordon Bunshaft, 1952

The delicate, glass-walled Lever House stands on Park Avenue like an outpost of a rarefied, more suburban civilisation. At 21 storeys and 302ft, it qualifies more as a mini-skyscraper, but it had an extraordinary influence on skyscraper design as one of the earliest and best glass-curtain-wall office buildings.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - oddly enough the son of a stonemason - proposed the first glass-walled skyscraper in 1921, before it was quite technically feasible. Charles Luckman, the head of Lever House, who had been trained as an architect, told Bunshaft only that he wanted something new, clean (befitting of a soap company), spectacular, and American.

Lever House was the first sealed, fully climate-controlled building. With a 63-car underground garage, it was designed so that an executive could drive from the suburbs, park, have lunch in the third-floor cafeteria, even play a round of shuffleboard on the landscaped second-floor terrace, and go home - all without ever setting foot in the dirty, chaotic city.

Marine Midland Bank Building

Now 140 Broadway

Architect Gordon Bunshaft, 1967

Gordon Bunshaft's designs have been widely imitated for all the wrong reasons. After Marine Midland, everybody raced to build in black and flush glass, but few understood Bunshaft's underlying minimalist sculptural aesthetic.

Marine Midland was not the first flush-glass curtain-wall building; Pietro Belluschi had done it with his extraordinarily far-sighted Equitable Life Building (1944-47) in Portland, Oregon. Bunshaft further explored minimalist questions such as the relation of surface to volume. The entire composition of the white travertine plaza, Isamu Noguchi's vermilion sculpture Cube (1973), and the trapezoidal, 51-storey black tower form brilliant variations on the relationship between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space.

The Marine Midland is transcendent architecture because it presents an office building frankly, as a container of commercial space (we can see through its reflective and transparent skin). Arthur Drexler, the director of New York's Museum of Modern Art architecture and design department, wrote about Marine Midland: "The `function' of the building is recognized as analogous to that of a package; what is offered is a commodity: portions of space."

Minimalism was the final expression of the unified aesthetic of modernism. After architecture had been reduced to such a purely visible form, the question became where to go from there. In retrospect, the return to symbolism, fragmentation, and post-modern discontinuity seem inevitable.

World Trade Center

Church to West streets and Liberty to Vesey streets

Architects Minoru Yamasaki and Emery Roth & Sons, 1973 and 1974

Yamasaki was an unlikely choice for lead architect of the World Trade Centre. He was not one of the main Internationalist corporate architects, but was best known for modestly scaled, sculptural buildings and he was morbidly afraid of heights. The design he delivered was even more unusual - not a glass slab at all, but in towers, supported by external columns, that function as minimalist sculpture.

Like the Empire State Building, which it superseded by a calculated 100ft, the World Trade Center is a marvel of logistics and engineering. Its scale is difficult to take in: two sheer, flat-topped, 110-storey, 1,362ft and 1,368ft-tall towers which together contain an unheard-of 10 million sq ft of office space. However, Yamasaki was so used to small-scale projects that when he won the commission for the $280m project, he thought it was simply a typing mistake and that they meant $28m.

The most idiosyncratic aspect of the design is that the windows cover only 30 per cent of the building's surface instead of the virtually all-glass facades of the International Style. The windows are only 18in wide, set between 18in-wide columns sheathed in aluminium alloy that project 12in from the surface of the glass. The spacing had as much to do with Yamasaki's fear of heights as with structural and design considerations. Apparently, the architect did not feel comfortable unless the floor-to-ceiling windows were narrower than his own shoulder span.

Citicorp Center

Lexington Avenue between East 53rd and East 54th streets

Architect Hugh Stubbins, 1978

The 59-storey, 915ft Citicorp Center, containing 1.3 million sq ft, is sheathed in space-age aluminium and mirrored glass and floats on 114ft supercolumns. This is the city's first postmodern skyscraper, and it changed the playing field forever.

The Boston-based architect Hugh Stubbins violated various axioms of the Internationalist aesthetic in the construction of this building, such as the absolute ban on applied symbolic decoration. The Citicorp's distinctive triangular top was the first purely decorative crown on a skyscraper since the art deco era. The crown ostensibly had a function - it was intended to be a solar panel in the energy-conscious Seventies - but it was never used as such and became a design feature.

The Citicorp was one of the first buildings to use a "tuned mass damper", a 400-ton block of concrete in the crown resting on a thin layer of oil. In high winds, it slides around in order to convey its inertia to the building's structure, reducing the motion by almost half.

Lipstick Building

885 Third Avenue

Architect John Burgee with Philip Johnson, 1986

Philip Johnson put forth the heretical proposition that architecture was a game of passing styles, more akin to fashion than a search for perfect forms. Johnson began to refer to a building's exterior cladding as "heavy dress", implying that it had no more significance than hemline length. Such talk made architects who were looking to add their designs to the canon of 20th-century architecture nervous.

The 36-storey elliptical, dusty-rose glass and granite facade evokes the glamour of art deco. Immediately dubbed "the Lipstick", the whole building has a nervous, unstable energy, a faster-motion version of the Flatiron's forward-looking modernism (page 11). The brushed- steel bands of the wobbly facade catch the light like bangles moving on a woman's arm.