The Turning Point In Frame Technology

by Don Friedman on July 5, 2017

Ben Evans has a very nice piece on the evolution of technology here: Not Even Wrong. It’s not a completely new idea, but he states it well: there is evolution of a given technology within a type, and there’s development of new types that require new ways of design and analysis. These two kinds of technology evolution are directly related to (and, as a theories, based on) Thomas Kuhn‘s analysis of the way science works in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn divided scientists’ work into “ordinary science” where experiments and theorizing provide incremental improvements to existing theories and “revolutions” where entirely new theories are created using the same data that backs up existing theories. His showcase example is the heliocentric universe displacing the geocentric universe, despite the fact that the available data actually fit the geocentric model better. Kuhn’s work, for better or worse, also gave us the now-overworked phrase “paradigm shift” to describe the moment (which might be years long) in which people stop using the old theory and switch to the new.

Discussion of the introduction of steel skeleton framing into buildings – and specifically, the part that the technology played in the creation of the skyscraper form – always runs into an objection that skeleton framing is nothing new. Wood houses (and bigger buildings) have always had a frame of structural members covered with a non-structural weather skin, often wood plank. Trees have heavy branches supporting leaves, and the bodies of vertebrates are where the phrase “skeleton frame” originated. So how can the steel skeleton frame be seen as something new in the 1890s? The picture above is the Park Row Building under construction. The use of a frame in what was the tallest building in the world for eight years is obvious, but is it so very different from the older examples?

The paradigm shift with skeleton framing was not that the exterior skin was carried on an interior frame, it was that an exterior masonry wall was carried on a frame. Masonry construction for thousands of years was based on the idea that masonry was a load-carrying material that was stronger than anything (usually wood) used as a beam and therefore supported beams rather than the other way around. The idea that the solid masonry walls of tall buildings were supported and not supporting was, for 1890, mind-bending when it was understood. It wasn’t really visible in the Park Row Building, but just a little later, in 1902, it was clear as day at the Flatiron Building:

There’s no facade at the fifth and sixth floors even though the facade is already in place at the seventh through fourteenth floors. This is frame technology’s Copernican moment: an undeniable demonstration of the meaning of skeleton framing.

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