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History Of Skyscrapers Essay

Skyscraper, very tall, multistoried building. The name first came into use during the 1880s, shortly after the first skyscrapers were built, in the United States. The development of skyscrapers came as a result of the coincidence of several technological and social developments. The termskyscraper originally applied to buildings of 10 to 20 stories, but by the late 20th century the term was used to describe high-rise buildings of unusual height, generally greater than 40 or 50 stories.

The increase in urban commerce in the United States in the second half of the 19th century augmented the need for city business space, and the installation of the first safe passenger elevator (in the Haughwout Department Store, New York City) in 1857 made practical the erection of buildings more than four or five stories tall. Although the earliest skyscrapers rested on extremely thick masonry walls at the ground level, architects soon turned to the use of a cast-iron and wrought-iron framework to support the weight of the upper floors, allowing for more floor space on the lower stories. James Bogardus built the Cast Iron Building (1848, New York City) with a rigid frame of iron providing the main support for upper-floor and roof loads.

It was, however, the refinement of the Bessemer process, first used in the United States in the 1860s, that allowed for the major advance in skyscraper construction. As steel is stronger and lighter in weight than iron, the use of a steel frame made possible the construction of truly tall buildings. William Le Baron Jenney’s 10-story Home Insurance Company Building (1884–85) in Chicago was the first to use steel-girder construction. Jenney’s skyscrapers also first employed the curtain wall, an outer covering of masonry or other material that bears only its own weight and is affixed to and supported by the steel skeleton. Structurally, skyscrapers consist of a substructure of piers beneath the ground, a superstructure of columns and girders above the ground, and a curtain wall hung on the girders.

As the population density of urban areas has increased, so has the need for buildings that rise rather than spread. The skyscraper, which was originally a form of commercial architecture, has increasingly been used for residential purposes as well.

The design and decoration of skyscrapers have passed through several stages. Jenney and his protégé Louis Sullivan styled their buildings to accentuate verticality, with delineated columns rising from base to cornice. There was, however, some retention of, and regression to, earlier styles as well. As part of the Neoclassical revival, for instance, skyscrapers such as those designed by the firm of McKim, Mead, and White were modeled after Classical Greek columns. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Building in New York City (1909) was modeled by Napoleon Le Brun after the Campanile of St. Mark’s in Venice, and the Woolworth Building (1913), by Cass Gilbert, is a prime example of neo-Gothic decoration. Even the Art Deco carvings on such towers as the Chrysler Building (1930), the Empire State Building (1931), and the RCA Building (1931) in New York City, which were then considered as modern as the new technology, are now viewed as more related to the old ornate decorations than to truly modern lines.

The International Style with its total simplicity seemed ideally suited to skyscraper design, and, during the decades following World War II, it dominated the field, notable early examples being the Seagram Building (1958) in New York City and the Lake Shore Drive Apartments (1951) in Chicago. The stark verticality and glass curtain walls of this style became a hallmark of ultramodern urban life in many countries. During the 1970s, however, attempts were made to redefine the human element in urban architecture. Zoning ordinances encouraged the incorporation of plazas and parks into and around the bases of even the tallest skyscrapers, just as zoning laws in the first decades of the 20th century were passed to prevent city streets from becoming sunless canyons and led to the shorter, stepped skyscraper. Office towers, such as those of the World Trade Center (1972) in New York City and the Sears Tower (1973; now called Willis Tower) in Chicago, continued to be built, but most of them, such as the Citicorp Center (1978) in New York City, featured lively and innovative space for shopping and entertainment at street level.

Another factor influencing skyscraper design and construction in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was the need for energy conservation. Earlier, sealed windows that made necessary continuous forced-air circulation or cooling, for instance, gave way in mid-rise buildings to operable windows and glass walls that were tinted to reflect the sun’s rays. Also, perhaps in reaction to the austerity of the International Style, the 1980s saw the beginnings of a return to more classical ornamentation, such as that of Philip Johnson’sAT&T Building (1984) in New York City. See alsohigh-rise building.

A listing of the world’s tallest buildings is provided in the table.

Tallest buildings in the world
1Burj KhalifaDubai, United Arab Emirates20108282,717163
2Shanghai TowerShanghai, China20156322,073128
3Makkah Royal Clock Tower HotelMecca, Saudi Arabia20126011,972120
4One World Trade CenterNew York City, U.S.20145411,77694
5Taipei 101Taipei, Taiwan20045081,667101
6Shanghai World Financial CenterShanghai, China20084921,614101
7International Commerce CentreHong Kong, China20104841,588108
8Petronas Tower 1Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia19984521,48388
Petronas Tower 2Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia19984521,48388
10Zifeng TowerNanjing, China20104501,47666
11Willis TowerChicago, U.S.19744421,451108
12KK100Shenzhen, China20114421,449100
13Guangzhou International Finance CenterGuangzhou, China20104401,444103
 14432 Park AvenueNew York City, U.S.20154261,39696
 15Trump International Hotel & TowerChicago, U.S.20094231,38998
 16Jin Mao TowerShanghai, China19994211,38088
 17Princess TowerDubai, United Arab Emirates20124131,356101
 18Al Hamra TowerKuwait City, Kuwait20114131,35480
 19Two International Finance CentreHong Kong, China20034121,35288
 2023 MarinaDubai, United Arab Emirates20123931,28990
 21CITIC PlazaGuangzhou, China19963901,28080
 22Shun Hing SquareShenzhen, China19963841,26069
 23World Trade Center Abu Dhabi - The ResidencesAbu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates20143811,25188
 24Empire State BuildingNew York City, U.S.19313811,250102
 25Elite ResidenceDubai, United Arab Emirates20123811,24887


Grades 7-12/Social Studies/US & World History

Time Required for completed lesson

Dependent on the amount of lesson plan materials used/1 – 5 periods of 45 minute length



Common Core State Standards

R.H.6-8.7. Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, video or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

R.H.9-10.2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

R.H.11-12.5 Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured including how key sentences, paragraphs and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

Materials Required

White board or smart board, readings, maps,

Power Point presentation with pictures of buildings

Anticipatory Set

Students will be divided into groups.

Each group will be challenged to build the tallest skyscraper, which will withstand the breeze from a fan.

Students will use toothpicks, gumdrops, licorice and other candy to build the skyscraper.

Students will report back about their buildings’ strength and what they learned from this experience.


Students will debrief to determine why their skyscraper stood or did not stand.

Students will be asked to determine what is needed for a skyscraper to be built and why.

Class will be divided into groups and each group will be given a reading. Using the carousel, gallery walk or another method they will share information.

Class discussion of factors needed to build today. Why do people live in high rise building? What is the need?

Why are skyscrapers used as a measure of wealth and power today?

Students will continue to read about skyscrapers to understand the interdependence of many inventions and the fields of study which allowed for the evolution of the modern skyscraper.

Groups can report about the elevator, air conditioning, improvements in glass etc. and how these work.

A study of the World Trade Center, its history and changes being made to the new structure can also be included.


1. Student made collage of the skyscraper and its history, including a timeline.

2. Essay: Why are the tallest skyscrapers being constructed in Asia today?

3. Discuss improvements you believe should constitute skyscraper construction today.


Collaboration with science teachers or a pre engineering program would enhance this topic.

Students should understand the need for engineering knowledge to make this possible.

Blue prints can be read and the need for mathematical skills explained in order to translate plans to reality.

These plans are computer generated and should lead to a discussion of computer technology and construction in the modern age.


Readings are offered at various reading levels.

The collage can be adequately accomplished by students who are troubled by written exercises.

The integration piece is offered for higher level thinking skills.


1. Students will rebuild their skyscrapers with materials of their own choosing. These skyscrapers will be tested in the same fashion as those constructed initially.

2. Students will be asked to create an alternative to the skyscraper which would accommodate large numbers of residents/offices, e.g., underground housing, individual small pods, etc.



Bessemer Process

Henry Bessemer

History of Elevator 1

History of Skyscrapers III

Importance of Steel

Picture timeline

The Great Chicago Fire

Empire State Building construction

Skyscrapers: The New Millennium by John Zukowsky, Prestel Publishers, May 2000

Skyscrapers by Judith Dupre, Black Dog and Lowenthal Publishers, 1996



architecture.about.com (Building Big)




Activities for Picture Timeline

Questions for Bessemer Process

Questions for Henry Bessemer

Questions for History of Elevator 1

Questions for History of Skyscrapers III

Questions for Importance of Steel

Questions for Skyscrapers


Timeline for the Importance of Steel

Guided notes for skyscraper presentation

Questions for the Great Chicago Fire

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