Book Review: Skyscraper Gothic

Book Review: Skyscraper Gothic

In 2014 we organized a tournament in which we lined up sixteen architectural skyscraper styles in order to find out which one is the most popular of all. The options included familiar choices, such as (post)modernism and art deco, but also more recent styles such as eco-architecture, sculptural design, and blobitecture. My money was on the likes of the Empire State and Chrysler Building, but the one that took the cake was Neo-Gothic.

Up until Louis Sullivan famously suggested in 1896 that skyscrapers really ought to look like skyscrapers, architects would happily borrow from the vast pool of historic design elements. This defined the gilded age of skyscraper design, as documented in this book. Eventually, the skyscraper followed freedom because of new design theories, new construction techniques, and the optimism of the 1920s. The book Skyscraper Gothic is about the period in between.

skyscraper, cathedral or both? Chicago’s Tribune Tower by Robin at Flickr.

Skyscrapers not only allow to create space where there is little, but their visibility also makes them very suitable to make a statement. In the early 20th century, the exterior of the skyscraper started to look less ambiguous, and some were based on a historic vertical design language. When you think of Gothic architecture, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the image of medieval churches and cathedrals which still define some of the older European cityscapes. To Americans in the late 19th century, pinnacles, arches, buttresses, and turrets symbolized prominence, longevity, power, and history. Often, this was the design of choice for banks, insurance companies and other businesses which rely on trust.

Skyscraper Gothic focusses on this underexposed piece of skyscraper history. Edited by Kevin Murphy and Lisa Reiley, the book presents eight chapters written by different scholars, all experienced authors of skyscraper books and articles. Five chapters focus on a specific skyscraper, being the Woolworth Building aka the ‘Cathedral of Commerce’ and the ‘glow in the dark’ Radiator Building in New York City, the ‘world’s most beautiful’ Tribune Tower in Chicago, the ‘New York style’ Atlanta City Hall and the ‘nomen est omen’ Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh. These five examples strengthen the theory that through skyscraper design, one can make a statement, ranging from representing a corporate trademark, showing off the progressive spirit of an ambitious city, to expressing the divine purpose of higher education.

Woolworth Building under construction. source: Wikipedia

But there is also the bigger picture. Much of the popularity of the Gothic style in the first decades of the 20th century relates to World War I. While Europe was in shambles, America was recreating the towers which had embodied the old continent for centuries, but it did so faster, cheaper and more efficient than ever before. Or as the book puts it on page 122, “The implication, throughout, was that the United States had inherited the best of European civilization and that it would soon outdo it.”

As suggested by its subtitle, Skyscraper Gothic bridges the gap between medieval and modernist buildings, and as such it sits perfectly in between topics which have already been extensively covered. Even though the Gothic phase was a relatively short one, it is an important piece of the history of skyscraper design. The Gothic Skyscraper was about a historic vertical design language which was recreated by the latest techniques. By doing so, it shows one was able to improve history, which in itself is an important step to create the future.

If this topic remotely interests you, Skyscraper Gothic is a must-read. It’s very well written and edited, thoroughly researched and noted, and last but not least, I very much like that cover!

page spread of Skyscraper Gothic

For the occasion, we created a little Gothic Cup for the members of SkyscraperCity to decide which one they like best!

Skyscraper Gothic
Medieval Style and Modernist Buildings
editors: Kevin Murphy and Lisa Reiley
publisher: University of Virginia Press (book page)
June 2017 | hardcover | 228 pages | ISBN-13: 978-0813939728

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  • Emily Grandstaff

    Thank you for the great review. A request from the publisher: could you please correct the spelling of Lisa’s last name to “Reilly”?

    Thanks again,