Skyscrapers, Society, and Time

by Don Friedman on June 9, 2016

The New York Times recently devoted the full article space of its Sunday magazine to skyscrapers in the city. This is a topic near to my heart, the spectacular introductory photograph shows a half-dozen projects of mine as well as my living-room windows, and the stories are in my opinion pretty good. But in addition to reading these stories and looking at the pictures as a representation of current skyscrapers, we can also look at these articles as the most recent example of the cultural phenomenon of people reacting to the construction of very tall buildings in the city.

OneWorldTradeCenter Attribution: Joe Mabel

How do these articles compare to those published, say, 50, 80, or 110 years ago?

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The topics of the Times’s articles:

  1. The social effect of building very tall buildings. in 1921, it was an English novelist describing his reaction to New York.
  2. Descriptions of the latest and tallest. In 1893, it was Perpendicular New York.
  3. Who lives at the top? In 1890, a visitor wondered.
  4. Life in the sky. In 1920, it was birds at the Biltmore Hotel.
  5. Tall-building construction workers. In 1949, it was the Mohawks in High Steel.
  6. The technical issues involved in design. In 1894, it was the longevity of steel.
  7. Society up top. In 1901, it was hotels and apartment hotels.
  8. Photography from up high. In 1932, it was Lewis Hine and some construction workers.
  9. How a photographer gets a great picture from the top. In 1934, it was the Margaret Bourke-White on a gargoyle at the Chrysler Building.
  10. Observation decks at the top. in 1912, it was the Woolworth Building.

A fellow I knew in college used to say “The more things stay the same, the more things stay the same.” It appears he may have been right.

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