I’ll be at the CTBUHFirst Skyscrapers/Skyscraper Firsts” Symposium on Thursday, which is part of the CTBUH’s Tenth World Congress. I will not be presenting a paper, but will be on a panel discussing the papers that are presented. The idea of the symposium is that, since no one has ever been able to agree on which building is the “first skyscraper,” we can discuss different criteria that can be used in the search.

I’ve spent a fair amount of the last 28 years researching the history of built structure in the US and I am still scratching away at the topic both with on-site examples and documents. So I feel like I have seen the contenders and heard the arguments, although, of course, I may well hear something new four days from now.

I am more of a student of the history of technology than the history of architecture, although obviously I know something about the latter. This perspective doesn’t mean I can’t talk about buildings, it means that I view them as technological objects first and as aesthetic objects second. That may sound like the stereotype of an engineer’s view, but a lot of architectural design is functional design, and functional design is part of technology.

In both architectural and technological history, the idea of a clear first anything is suspect. Yes, people have creative ideas, but no one lives in a vacuum and creative ideas reflect designers’ contexts. Even when people consciously try to break with the past – for example, the early international-style modernists – their context influences them. A lot of modernist planning ideas have echoes of beaux-arts planning buried in them. Decades ago, I heard Morris Lapidus give a talk at an APT conference describing how he developed his signature style, which is forever associated with the 1950s: it started with his training in the beaux arts in the 1920s.

Similarly, new technologies build on existing ones. The introduction of steel framing into buildings, which is part of the early-skyscraper story, is bound up with the earlier development of steel-truss bridges. The use of “fireproof” floors grew rapidly in buildings of all types after the Chicago fire of 1871 and the Boston fire of 1872; those lightweight and fire-resistant floors were a necessary component in building tall. And technology is to some degree fractal: each technology is built of sub-technologies that are built of still smaller pieces. Skyscrapers were developed with steel frames, which required advanced steel-rolling and riveting, which required modern metallurgy and mill design, and so on.

In both the architectural and technological cases, you can find predecessors and successors to just about any building, because there is always a context. We’ll see what arguments people present on Thursday, but the argument about the “first skyscraper” is about 120 years old at this point, and it’s hard to image the stalemate of positions changing much.

The picture above is the St. Paul building in New York, which is no one’s idea of the first skyscraper. But it had some innovative technology – including a well-designed masonry curtain wall that protected its steel frame from weathering – and is part of the main stream of structural technology of the late 1890s.

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