Here is an essay I wrote last year about Italian Futurism and the correlations to the development of skyscrapers. Enjoy my sloppy seconds post…
In every major city there exists at least one structure whose body extends far into the sky, domineers over pedestrians on the streets, and supports multiple stories filled with constant human activity. The skyscraper, defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as a very tall modern building usually in a city, was one of the most transformative figures of architecture in the history of humanity. It was a notable bastion of the Modern art movement and still continues to be an economic and social driver of industrialized cities around the world. The mass replication of these towers occurred throughout the early half of 20th century and was a response to society’s changing industrial environment. Around the same time, the artistic and political Italian Futurism movement came to origin, with boisterous focus on booming and evolving industry, the triumph of mankind, and a rebellion against the past. While the first skyscraper was made a few decades before the rise of the movement, Futurism was one of the most politically and socially influential movements of the time and several similarities can be traced between the mass production of these towers and the Italian Futurism ethos. I will examine this relationship between the mass development of skyscrapers over the 19th century and the Italian Futurism movement through conception, aesthetic, and meaning, and look further into the lasting effects felt by society today.
Skyscrapers would not exist without the inventions affording their elaborate construction. The most notable technology is that of the elevator, invented by Elisha Otis in 1854 as a platform suspension. The elevator and its further evolution acted as a method of travelling between floors and enabled buildings to become taller without the concern of having to take the stairs up more than a few flights. To follow, Sidney Gilchrist Thomas invented a sturdy and secure type of steel that allowed the construction of fireproof steel skeletons to support industrial towers of new heights, in contrast to the previous material of bricks. The first skyscraper to be built was Chicago’s Home Insurance Building in 1884 following a fire that had burned down many of the city’s structures. It was a modest ten stories which was extraordinary at this time and was the pioneer to have started the skyscraper craze. The use of steel frames is a technique still fundamental to skyscrapers built today, acting as a base for most buildings despite their various contemporary exteriors.
Yet, the legacy of skyscrapers outlasted and outreached the singularity of the Chicago building. At the turn of the century, society was undergoing pivotal changes following the Industrial Revolution and the first skyscraper acted as a type of response. Following the increase of factories, newly developed manufacturing processes, and the evolution of materials, bureaucratic industries, otherwise known as “office industries” began evolving with rapid momentum. As a result, the need for office spaces came about for clerical work, filing documents, holding meetings, and overall productivity. The Chicago tower, for the purpose of occupying the home insurance business, led by example with several towers being built in the rest of Chicago, New York City to follow, and eventually in cities all over the world. Cities that had skyscrapers became notable as the tall heights of buildings began contributing to the sight of a powerful skyline. Cities harboured towers as status symbols, demanding their appearance just to add an economic appeal. As Donald McNeill writes in Skyscraper Geography:
In this sense, the skyscraper has always played a role in the representational strategies of financial and political elites to endow their city or nation with a projected self-consciousness. The contemporary race for the tallest building in the world is evidence of this.
He alludes to the phenomenon that began in the 20th century in which towers were being built left and right for two reasons: first, a city must have a skyline decorated with tall buildings in order to have a status of financial power and economic success, and second, the city with the tallest building will therefore hold the title of being the most triumphant. This symbolism of the skyscraper still translates into today’s society much like the global competition that still continues to see which city can match the height of the monstrous 1 km tall Jeddah Tower expected to be finished in 2019. An interesting observation made by Jean Gottmann about architectural symbolism is that when considering the architectural marvels of a century, they each were connected to social circumstances of the time: “Cathedrals were built because at that time a great church was the symbol of the community in the hands of God.” This same theory could be applied to the symbolism of skyscrapers in which, instead of God being worshipped, the success of industry and mankind was the prevalent societal theme.
As the skyscraper continued to endure a level of mass production, it began to change in its appearance both externally and in its interplay with the surrounding urban environment. As Stuart Cohen describes, “the tower was stripped of its eclectic ornament, the latter replaced by ‘moderne’ geometric patterns...by the mid 30’s the ‘streamlined’ skyscraper had emerged as a new symbol of the future utopian metropolis”. The visual appearance of skyscrapers were less decorated and more minimalist. Bearing a somewhat dull, industrial exterior and becoming an increasingly more repetitive, modular entity in the city landscape, the skyscraper lost any sense of artistic expression influenced by previous architectural movements of Art Nouveau or even Art Deco.
Once skyscrapers began to appear in mass replication and conquered urban landscapes, the resemblance of their qualities to that of works in the Italian Futurism movement became most noticeable. The movement was largely associated with the Futurism Manifesto written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1908 as a rebellion against the past, in a similar way that Modernism and skyscrapers were positioned against previous art forms or architectural styles. Futurism emphasizes human advancement in the ever-changing environment through the motifs of speed, dynamism, cars, violence, youth, industry, technology, and mankind’s dominance over nature. Italian Futurism was perhaps an extremist view on human and societal development, being fairly anarchist and fascist, but its principles are closely tied to the character development of skyscrapers. For example, one of the fundamental pillars of the manifesto is the motif of speed, and while the buildings themselves are static structures, one can argue that skyscrapers are excellent examples of dynamic architecture. This is illustrated by the elongation of the building which, by appearance, reach towards the sky, as well as the mechanical enhancement of the elevator that is the source for introducing rapid movement and efficiency into the structure. Another acknowledgment of speed would be the publicized race for creating the world’s tallest building, as mentioned earlier. Similarly, Italian Futurism encourages the rise of industry, economy, and all kinds of labour. The skyscraper’s origin is embedded into history’s rise of industry, making it a profound symbol for the modern day economy.
The Italian Futurist movement was also devoted to masculine empowerment, being conceived and celebrated by a group of male artists. Part of the manifesto declares that it will fight feminism and the skyscraper, as a simple shape, could be interpreted as homage to that. The tower is “often associated with the phallic and/or egotistic associations of the form” and when strictly regarding its form, it indirectly resembles an erect penis. From this perspective, a skyscraper can be argued to be a sculpture to represent a world ruled by men.
Although the beginnings of the skyscraper were merely modest solutions to an evolving society and civic attempts to create impressive landmarks, their rapid development and, as a result, exploitation of the environment have caused major dilemmas so complicated that they are irreversible. The manifesto emphasizes mankind’s triumph over nature and its abolition of the past using new technologies and inventions. Futurism rebels against a previous society and vocalizes the need to move forward, become better, and become bigger, with only success of mankind in mind. Ultimately, this was the track that was kept in the ongoing surplus construction of these towers. Today, cities face problems of rapid urbanization, urban growth, urban sprawl, deforestation, traffic, gentrification, increasingly high costs of rent, and lower qualities of life. The UN projects that by 2050 the world’s population will see a demographic shift of 68% of the population living in urban areas. This will only lead to the construction of more towers to accommodate the needs of a larger population and the density of white-collar job activities, and as a ripple effect, the weight of all these urban issues will only become more perilous. Whether the influence of Italian Futurism was intentionally there or not upon the conception of the skyscraper, the link between the mass construction of towers and the motivation of the movement is evident.
The skyscraper was an architectural figure that dominated the 20th century and continues to be replicated in cities all over the world. Society has witnessed a tremendous transformation with the result of the economic power that came out of the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of skyscrapers allowed for society to overcome many obstacles and today they are not solely used as a household for office work but are also used for apartment complexes, multipurpose venues, hotels, recreational spaces, landmarks, and public housing. The skyscraper is notable for its imperial heights, its remarkable capacity for a higher density, and its visually geometric minimalism. However, in the passionate pursuit for advancing mankind and its built environment quickly under the principles of Italian Futurism, society is now faced with the ramifications of having too many skyscrapers. The problems do not only affect an individual sector but have influence over an entire city’s population. Cities now are tangled into this complex web of a skyscraper-dominant infrastructure and it will take the sustainable planning, teamwork, and creative problem solving of urban designers, municipal leaders, economists, stakeholders, and the community to detangle this problematic web.
Oxlade, Chris. Skyscrapers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Oxford Academic (Oxford University Press), YouTube. August 28, 2015. Accessed December 08, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJXhWSKqegE.
Gottmann, Jean. "'Why the Skyscraper?" Geographical Review56, no. 2 (1966): 190-212. doi:10.2307/212878.
McNeill, Donald. 2005. "Skyscraper Geography." Progress in Human Geography 29 (1): 41-55. doi:10.1191/0309132505ph527oa. http://resolver.scholarsportal.info/resolve/03091325/v29i0001/41_sg.
Routley, Nick. "There Is a Global Race to Build Even Taller Skyscrapers." World Economic Forum. Accessed December 08, 2018. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/theres-a-global-rush-to-build-ever- higher-skyscrapers/.
Cohen, Stuart. "The Skyscraper as Symbolic Form." Design Quarterly, no. 118/119 (1982): 12-17. doi:10.2307/4091092.
"Manifesto of Futurism." The British Library. October 29, 2015. Accessed December 08, 2018. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/manifesto-of-futurism.
"68% of the World Population Projected to Live in Urban Areas by 2050, Says UN | UN DESA Department of Economic and Social Affairs." United Nations. Accessed December 09, 2018. https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of- world-urbanization-prospects.html.