Telling A Story

The Structures of Skyscrapers was just reviewed by Ray Bert for Civil Engineering magazine: here. It’s a good review, which is obviously gratifying, but it also brought up two issues. The first is credit: reading about decisions I made in writing the book, leads to an immediate response that the editorial, design, and production staff at Mt. Ida Press, and the board, publications committee, and reviewers at the Association for Preservation Technology all contributed and all made the book better. Extending credit goes beyond the living: the architects, engineers, builders, and developers who were responsible for creating the skyscraper as we know it deserve credit as well. I’ve said here before that preservation matters because buildings are important to people; the history of the built environment matters for the same reason, only not all of the people are around today. In order to describe the technological changes that led to, and were embodied by, the creation of skyscrapers, I had to discuss the concerns and outlook of the people involved.

That leads to the second issue, which is what writing a history is. There’s a misconception that the process of researching and writing about historical events is a search for facts, a kind of easter-egg hunt. It’s really not. Facts are easy to come by, or at least, what look like facts. During work on the book, I spent the third-most time trawling through old journals for “facts,” the second-most time comparing two or more “facts” on the same subject to try to confirm what I thought they were telling me, and the most time constructing a narrative. Facts without a story are a grocery shopping list, or a dictionary: a document containing useful information, but not one that people are likely to sit down and read through. A story without facts is fiction. But combining a story and facts gets you a history.

The picture above is from The Engineering Magazine in 1898, and shows the Carnegie Building in Pittsburgh under construction. That’s a fact that I got by literally flipping though the bound volumes of that journal looking for buildings that met the criteria for inclusion, as part of the “trawling.” By going page by page through a dozen or so architectural, engineering, and real estate journals, I compiled a list of about 750 buildings of interest. At this point, if you’ve read Mr. Bert’s review, you’re wondering what happened, since he mentions that the book discusses about 500 buildings. The answer is that a lot of the buildings I dutifully recorded were never built. The journals had a habit of reporting announced plans as if they were fact; since drawings were far more common as illustrations that photographs, there was not necessarily any difference between the illustrated appearance of a real building and a fictitious one. Getting rid of more than 250 non-existent buildings was the result of the comparison process. And finally, the photo above was attached to a short article that mentioned that the diagonal bracing shown was temporary, used only to keep the structure plumb until all of the rivets were installed in the moment connections of this portal-braced frame. And a large portion of the story that I was trying to tell involved wind bracing as a necessary part of moving from masonry-based tall-building structure to steel-based tall-building structure, or in a larger sense the transfer of steel technology developed for bridges to the world of buildings, or in a still-larger sense the entry of structural engineers into the world of buildings in the US. Those three interlocking stories are part of my overall narrative, and (in my opinion) far more interesting than simply saying “Here’s a good example of a steel-frame building.”

In short – and if you’ve read the mini-histories that make up a fair amount of this blog, this should seem familiar – the story allows the facts to make sense.

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