The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The title of this book alludes to an article written by the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan in 1896, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” Sullivan asked a question that Ada Louise Huxtable thinks worth repeating: What type of decoration should cover the steel skeleton of a multi-storied office tower? Huxtable offers both a retrospect and a prospect for an answer to this question in a book graced with excellent black-and-white photographs.

Her history shows that architects have been unable to agree on a single approach to the skyscraper. Instead, American architects have approached the office building in four successively different ways. Sullivan’s emphasis on function characterized the first wave of skyscrapers, followed after World War I by the “eclectic” skyscrapers that combined height with facades from Gothic and Italianate architecture. The great expression of this style remains Chicago’s Tribune Tower.

The late 1920’s and after saw the beginnings of what contemporaries called the modern skyscraper, and what one now thinks of as streamlined or Art Deco buildings. Here, New York’s Chrysler building is the preeminent representation. Modernism, also encompassing the “international style,” inevitably gave way in recent decades to postmodernism, the latter style characterized by a playful fascination with angles and geometry against a skyline. The Pennzoil building in Houston, Texas, nicely exemplifies the current, postmodern approach to skyscraper design.

Huxtable closes with a warning that the crowding of more skyscrapers into central cities threatens to overwhelm the humans who work and live there. This prospect is something of a jarring note in a book that is otherwise filled with praise for the grand office tower.