Understanding Skyscrapers

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Skyscrapers are very tall buildings that find place in most urban planning schemes in modern times. They are an excellent solution to the issue of providing optimum living and working places for growing urban populations in increasingly limited urban spaces. Very common in First World Cities, skyscrapers have become a visible symbol, not just of efficient urban planning, but of the economic clout and technological advancement of the countries that build them.

The skyscraper building first made its appearance in Chicago. Multistory buildings had become common in US cities by 1854, made convenient as they were by the invention of the elevator by Elisha Otis and improved plumbing and lighting facilities, but generally they rose no higher than ten stories. Constructing higher levels would have required stronger, thicker structural walls and the very thickness of these walls would have given rise to another issue, that of drastically diminished interior spaces that would have taken all joy out of living and working in skyscrapers.

Then along came William Le Baron Jenney, a military engineer, who had the idea of digging deeper foundations and furnishing the building with supportive iron beams and columns that would negate the necessity of thick supportive walls. He built the Home Insurance Building in Chicago on these lines in 1883-1885. Other architects like Louis Sullivan added further innovations and skyscrapers began dotting the American urban landscape and soon lands abroad as well.

The things that made skyscrapers possible were -

  • A quickly developing economy that made widespread construction activities financially possible.
  • A growing urban population that needed residential, office, and commercial premises.
  • Technological advancements in the construction industry - the use of iron and steel, reinforced concrete, glass and fire resistant materials.
  • Improved construction equipment like drills, bulldozers, cranes, etc.
  • As already mentioned, the invention of the elevator, and improvements in lighting, plumbing, and heating. The elevators have now become faster, and there are central temperature control arrangements.

Let’s look at some of the characteristics of skyscrapers -

  • They are tall buildings that are taller than they are wider. The height of a skyscraper always exceeds its width.
  • Skyscrapers have very deep foundations that reach down to the bedrock.
  • Skyscrapers have an iron and steel building skeleton made up of beams and columns.
  • The iron and steel building skeleton is usually reinforced with concrete.
  • Skyscrapers have curtain walls of brick, stone, concrete,metal or glass. These walls do not bear structural loads.
  • Skyscrapers have elevators. In fact, without elevators, living and working in a skyscraper would have been impossible. Can you imagine regularly trudging up the stairs to the top floors of the 1483 feet tall Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia?

Some famous skyscrapers -

  • The 525 feet tall Woolworth Building, New York, 1913, by Cass Gilbert (1859-1934)
  • The 1250 feet tall Empire State Building, New York, 1932
  • The 1483 feet tall Petronas Towers , Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1998