A brief history of the skyscraper

“Beauty or beast, the modern skyscraper is a major force with a strong magnetic field. It draws into its physical being all of the factors that propel and characterize modern civilization. The skyscraper is the point where art and the city meet.” These are the words of Ada Louise Huxtable, a Pulitzer prize winning architecture critic and writer who perfectly summed up the place that the skyscraper has come to play in the world of modern architecture. Today, designs are bigger, better and more innovative by the year but where did this obsession with building up towards the heavens come from?

The early years

Although they bear little resemblance to what we might envision from the word today, the Pyramids of Giza could easily be considered the world’s first skyscrapers. Standing tall at 146 metres they were the highest structures on earth for thousands of years after they were first built in 2600 BCE. Castles, churches and other religious structures could also come under this umbrella term, thanks to the spires and turrets that helped them to reach great heights.

However, for all of these earlier versions of the skyscraper the use of stone and brick tended to limit just how high the buildings could actually reach. Perhaps the only very early example of similar structures would be the residential buildings in the city of Shibam, which dated back to the 16th century and could reach up to seven storeys.

The Industrial Revolution

With the Industrial Revolution came a whole wealth of new materials that removed the limitations for architects and builders who had previously only been able to work with heavy stone and brick. Lift technology also become widely available, which meant that buildings could have more floors without human occupants having to physically climb to reach them.

Liverpool in the UK saw an early example of what would later become classic skyscraper technology – the Oriel Chambers building, which used a frame of iron and glass “curtain” walls. By 1895 the American Surety Building in New York was the highest skyscraper in the world at 21 storeys.

Structural evolutions

In the 1960s, skyscraper technology began to change once again when engineer Fazlur Khan started to use columns of tubes in the centre of his designs – with beams expanding outward – to achieve better structural stability. The World Trade Center was one of the first examples of this method. The Burj Khalifa also uses this approach and is currently the tallest building in the world.  At 95 storeys, the Shard is the tallest building in the British capital and was the tallest habitable building in Europe when it was first constructed. In fact, London is a good local example of the skyscraper boom with 21 structures in the Greater London area, making it the location of the most skyscrapers in the EU.

Skyscrapers are an inspiring feat of engineering and one that continues to drive talented architects and engineers to do more and go further. At RG Group we take a keen interest in the trends and developments in the construction sector and work across the retail, living space and commercial sectors.

Contact The RG Group today to find out more about what we do.

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