"The skyscraper establishes the block, the block creates the street, the street offers itself to man."
Roland Barthes, literary and social theorist
Before the advent of the skyscraper, tall buildings were built to showcase great wealth, power, or religious beliefs. For the architect and civil engineer William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907), the urge to build great edifices was born from a necessity to solve commercial (and later residential) needs in his native Chicago, where ground space was at a premium.
Two obstacles to the construction of highrise buildings were overcome in the mid-nineteenth century, paving the way for the skyscraper. In 1853 Elisha Graves Otis devised a mechanism to prevent elevators from falling if their cable broke, enabling passengers to be transported upward safely. The second breakthrough came with a steel-framed structure that could support the entire weight of its walls, instead of the traditional load-bearing walls that carry the building's weight.
Jenney's ten-story Home Insurance Company Building, built in Chicago in 1884 and 1885, was the first to use an internal framework, or skeleton, made from steel columns and girders as well as a curtain wall that was fixed to the steel structure. Architects were soon racing to design bigger skyscrapers, especially in New York where there were no laws restricting height.
Since Jenney's design, skyscrapers built with glass have been able to withstand severe weather, including earthquakes. Buildings have incorporated plazas and parks alongside numerous entertainment and consumer venues at street level. Energy conservation is paramount to all future design in the twenty-first century. Today the skyscraper is an increasingly familiar sight, springing forth in growing numbers in cities all across the world.—especially Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Dubai, as well as Chicago once again—shaping the way we live within urban centers.