Skyscrapers: The Wonder Years

Skyscrapers: The Wonder Years

Architect Louis Sullivan is often referred to as ‘the father of the skyscraper’. This is not because he invented skyscrapers, or designed many of them, but because in 1896 he wrote an article that proved to be a pivotal moment in skyscraper design. The article, named ‘The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered’ (PDF) basically called upon other architects to grow up and start taking skyscraper design more serious.

The skyscraper was coined during an age in which many men who had arrived penniless became millionaires, which some of them sure were not shy to show. Because a skyscraper style had not been developed yet, architects would freely and enthusiastically borrow elements from different classic European styles, celebrating both their commissioners and the emerging nation through their victorious and lavishly decorated look. Sullivan disliked this to say the least, and reasoned that the vertical element deserved a fitting style of its own. This is the same article in which the famous phrase Form Follows Function was coined.

But never mind Sullivan, at least not for this review. The book ‘Skyscraper Façades of the Gilded Age’ is about that glorious time when self made men were still eager to show off their success in the only way they knew how to: the old way of classic design, rich decorations and height. Basically the way they did in Europe for centuries.

Joseph Korom, a retired architect, Chicago historian, photographer and artist, describes the infant years of the skyscrapers, a time that is being called The Gilded Age. This was an era from the 1870s to 1900’s, which was characterised by rapid economic growth and increase of industrialisation and immigration, but also by poverty and political upheavals. It was shaped by the rags to riches, the New World tycoons and architects who considered an education from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris as the Ivy League diploma of Architecture.

Through 51 examples (yes: 51, sadly most of them demolished) a keen and knowledgeable Mr. Korom discusses the classic styles, facades, follies, crowns, ornaments and decorations that defined the skyscrapers of the Gilded Age. As much as the early skyscrapers were built to make a profit, they were designed for celebration. This book deals with the latter.

korom_01Happy Skyscrapers: the castle like Pabst Building (Milwaukee), the dome topped World Building (New York) en eclectic Manhattan Building (Chicago)

The book is chock full of insights, little biographies and especially fun facts which in all make this book a very pleasant ride. Even if you’re a ‘less is more’ kinda guy, or even someone who hates eclectic fiddling, you’ll appreciate the understanding you’ll gain from this book as to why those buildings looked the way they do.

My only complaint is about the quality of the book itself. The layout looks dense, and next to more space, the many great images deserved better printing and scanning quality. Even though I’m very careful with my books, a couple of pages almost fell out after one reading.

Having said that, in all this is mandatory reading for every skyscraperist or skyshaper!

Skyscraper Facades of the Gilded Age
Fifty-One Extravagant Designs, 1875-1910

author  Joseph J. Korom Jr.
year  2013
pages  244
availability  new
publsiher  McFarland

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