2.6. THE SKYSCRAPER’S VITRUVIAN OBJECTIVES: COMMODITY, FIRMNESS, AND DELIGHT

The skyscraper was a new type of building without any precedent in the history of architecture.  Nobody appreciated the profundity of this fact better than Root: 

“the vast edifices which have lifted themselves in New York, Boston, Chicago and other cities, until they tower heavenward nine, ten, twelve and sixteen stories, containing sometimes three or four thousand people upon whom depend the support of eight or ten thousand souls.  These buildings, the result of commercial conditions without precedent, are new in every essential element.”

The fact that the skyscraper was ‘new in every element,’ however, did not release the design of one or its architect from having to respond to the universal requirements that good architecture has always had to aspire.  Thus, we are initially confronted with one of the primary themes of this period: tradition vs. innovation.  Throughout the nineteenth century, and especially during the early history of the skyscraper, the conflict between new ways of thinking and doing, that is, innovation, and tradition, the way things had “always” been done or thought of, will have an impact on every facet of human thought, action, and existence.  The evolution of the skyscraper will not be able to escape this conflict, in fact as we will see, it was born out of this conflict.

No one throughout the history of architecture has defined the traditional requirements of good architecture more succinctly than Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman architect/engineer who lived during the first century BC.  He was the author of the only complete treatise on ancient classical architecture, de Architectura, that had survived intact following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, (a copy was discovered in 1414 in the library of Switzerland’s St. Gall Abbey) in which he stated: 

“All (architecture) should possess strength, utility, and beauty.  Strength arises from carrying down the foundations to a good solid bottom, and from making a proper choice of materials without parsimony.  Utility arises from a judicious distribution of the parts, so that their purposes be duly answered, and that each have its proper situation.  Beauty is produced by the pleasing appearance and good taste of the whole, and by the dimensions of all the parts being duly proportional to each other.”

This famous quote was initially translated rather “freely” into English by Henry Wotton in 1624 as: “Well building hath three conditions:  firmness, commodity, and delight.”  These three words, commodity, firmness and delight, and all their variations, have been used by architectural theorists ever since as the prime objectives of good architecture.  As an example, all we need to do is to return to Van Brunt’s quote at the start of this chapter: “no part of [the skyscraper] complex being overlooked, all the details of its manifold functions being provided for in the laying of the first foundation stone, and the whole satisfying the eye as a work of art as well as a work of convenience and strength.”

The skyscraper was not an exclusively American phenomenon, but it was a new type of building that evolved during the second half of the nineteenth century in which America played a leading role.  Three of the most important ideas that impacted Western society and culture in this period, would also play a central role in the development of the skyscraper. These were, in no particular order of importance or chronology:

1. Technological innovation: iron, steam power (the elevator), electricity (electric light and power), the telephone, and improvements in indoor plumbing

2. Economic growth: fueled by many factors, including the technological growth above, the size of business companies increased, as did the opportunity for real estate investment

3. Nationalism: the period of 1865-1900 was beset with rampant nationalism.  In 1859, Italy was unified; in 1871, German unification was completed, and America was fast approaching the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  By 1876, not every European-American (let alone African- and Asian-Americans) was an immigrant.  First, second, and even third generation Americans had been born in America, and had never visited Europe nor spoke the language of their immigrant forbearers.  For them, the vexing question was “What did it mean to be an American?”  Was there anything unique that made them different from a person who was born and lived in Great Britain, France, Spain, or Germany?  Could there, or should there be an American style of architecture that was different from the European styles that had been adopted by antebellum American architects? 

These three issues can be readily mapped onto the Vitruvian ideas of good architecture:

            economic growth: commodity

            technological innovation: firmness

            nationalism: delight

When one reviews the past histories of the skyscraper, the two central issues that historians have focused on are the development of the structural technology needed to support taller and taller buildings (firmness) and the corresponding evolution of the architectural expression of the skyscraper (delight).  Commodity has been the poor cousin, as most historians have usually just assumed it occurred.  This was not the case, however, for those who had to actually design an early skyscraper, as Root clearly stated over and over in his many talks on the subject, “Art in architecture is merely the expression in solid material that someone has thought about our comfort and delight.”  At a very basic level, these three issues as they pertained to the design of a nineteenth century skyscraper are one in the same: that is, a skyscraper’s exterior expression (delight) at this time was dependent upon its underlying structural system (firmness), that was influenced by the need to provide a maximum of daylight for the interior (commodity).  And this is where I want to begin this chapter, how these three factors, especially in terms of invention vs. tradition, influenced the design of a nineteenth century skyscraper.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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