Today, the skycity. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Charles Jencks' book on Skyscrapers
offers a typology of tall buildings. He suggests three
basic forms: skyprickers, skyscrapers, and
skycities. The Empire State building, with its
pointed spire, is a classic skypricker. His
skyscrapers are the tall slablike buildings we see
all around us, rendered in steel and glass.
But Jencks sees the skycity as where all this upward
building is headed. A skycity is a cluster of
interrelated tall buildings. That idea began drawing in
architects, designers, and planners soon after the first
steel-frame skyscraper, in 1885.
Twenty years later pictures of such cities began
appearing. They were copied, circulated, and made into
postcards. The idea had struck a nerve. You saw flocks of
primitive airships moving among the spires. Ribbons of
highway, high above the ground, were traveled by trains,
since the automobile had yet to catch up with the dream.
But we had to feel unsure as to just what lay below all
King Camp Gillette published one
of the first books to describe such a city in 1894 -- the
year before he invented the safety razor and became a
wealthy capitalist. Gillette described a Utopian
socialist society. He wrote,
"Selfishness would be unknown, and war would be a barbarism of the past." The
most bizarre feature of his Utopia was that all sixty
million Americans would live in one great city.
Here, perhaps for the first time, the word
Metropolis appears as a proper noun. Metropolis
was to be a great complex of 25-story buildings, arranged
in a honey-comb of hexagonal blocks. It was to occupy a
thirty-mile-wide strip running 120 miles along the
southern border of Lake Ontario, and including Niagara
Falls as its power source. It was Jenck's skycity, a
century before Jencks.
Although Gillette's Metropolis is itself almost
forgotten, the skycity idea gained momentum. It was a
Gothic vision, right down to the gargoyles and ornate
towers of the old cathedrals. Only upper ribbons of
highways now replaced the flying buttresses.
Wanamaker's department store made a formal assembly of
this idea in an art exhibition called,
"The Titan City, A Pictorial Prophesy of New York, 1926-2026."
A year later, Fritz Lang's movie
came out of Germany. Lang knew that such a city would
have lower depths we hadn't yet seen. He showed a
pampered upper class, living in luxury far above the
ground, served by an army of slave laborers in the
hellish underground below.
After that, the idea crumbled. Skyscraper-building itself
almost ended. The Depression brought growth to a halt and
automobiles began dispersing cities. But
Metropolis was another stake in the heart of the
skycity. It's taken until now for skywalks and
underground tunnel systems to begin knitting the great
buildings of our cities into single complexes. Only now,
as that movie fades in our memory, has the skycity idea
finally begun its comeback.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Jencks, C., Skyscrapers-Skyprickers-Skycities. (New
York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. 1980).
Gillette, K.C., The Human Drift. (Boston: New Era
Publishing Co., 1894). (This was the first of several
books in which Gillette set down his ideas. The
"The thoughts herein contained are dedicated to all mankind; for to all the hope of escape from an environment of injustice, poverty, and crime, is equally desirable.")
Gillette, K.C., The People's Corporation. (New York: Boni
and Liveright Publishers, 1924). (This was Gillette's
last book, thirty years after the first. Here, the
dedication says simply: "To MANKIND.")
Mansfield, J., The Razor King. American Heritage of
Invention and Technology, Spring 1992, pp. 40-46.
C. Mierop, Skyscrapers: Higher and Higher.
(Brussels: Norma Editions, 1995).
C. Willis, The Titan City. American Heritage of
Invention and Technology, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 1986,
N. Messler, The Art Deco Skyscraper in New York.
(New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. 1986).
(photo by John Lienhard)
Perhaps New York City is already closer to being a
skycity than we think.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-2000 by John H. Lienhard.