Firsts is a regular series looking at groundbreaking feats of endeavour and innovation, and the pioneers who made them possible.
Skyscrapers have come to shape our idea of the metropolis. They stand as monuments to power, wealth and progress: the Chrysler Building in New York, Taipei 101 in Taïwan or – at a height of 830 metres currently the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. And yet, despite being the home to the world’s tallest buildings for over a century, the first skyscraper did not appear in New York, or any other of these cities, but in 19th century Chicago.
By 1880, Chicago was a world leading modern city and had established itself as a primary trading hub. The New York Home Insurance Company – eager to build a new and exciting headquarters in the city’s booming financial district – invited architects to submit designs, stipulating that it should be “able to accommodate a maximum number of offices”.
William Le Baron Jenney – a prominent American architect living in Chicago, and former student of the Ecole Centrale Paris – was a step ahead of the other entrants. While in France he had witnessed his wife placing a heavy book on a metal birdcage, and was surprised that it didn’t break. It was a watershed moment – along with his classmate Gustave Eiffel, he became one of the main proponents of a movement to explore the architectural possibilities of metal.
At the time, all buildings relied primarily on brickwork and masonry, but Jenney came to the conclusion that a steel skeleton, unencumbered by the weight of its supporting materials, would offer two considerable advantages: the ability to build taller and lighter. Thus Jenney’s proposal to the the New York Home Insurance Company was for a elegant 10-storey edifice, innovatively supported by a metal frame.
Despite initial reluctance by the committee members who were skeptical of the building’s structural integrity, Jenney’s idea was approved. Erected in 1884 at the junction between LaSalle and Adam streets, the Home Insurance Building weighed only a third of what it would have weighed in brick. The new, metal structure was also fireproof, equipped with an elevator (a now essential element of tall buildings) and electric lighting.
Similar constructions followed in Chicago and New York. Capturing the public’s awe at the towering structures appearing around them, the press borrowed a term used colloquially to describe things sticking into the air – a tall ship’s mast, horse or penny farthing rider – and these buildings have been known as skyscrapers ever since.
Although the Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931, Jenney profoundly transformed the way cities are designed. Skyscrapers have become ubiquitous around the world and are seen as a symbol of a country’s prosperity. Yet, as new technologies, such as carbon fiber elevator rope and 3D printing, become available, architects, like Jenney, will always be looking for new, innovative approaches to the buildings in which we live and work.