The Emergence of Modern Architecture – How It All Began!

Architecture – the Beginning

Egyptian Pyramids
The only way to build tall buildings in antiquity was the use of the pyramids method

It wasn’t until the 1800s when new advances in engineering allowed the construction of buildings to reach heights higher then 10 stories. Previous to that time, the ‘pyramid’ approach to building tall structures was utilized.  The  Egyptian pyramids are a perfect example of this method.  It involved creating strong foundations, namely, wide areas of brick and mortar at the bottom to support the upper floors, which diminished in size for each upper floor, so that the dead weight was managed by the lower floors that had more concrete to withstand the pressure.

Greek and Roman Architecture

Maison Carrée Roman Temple - France
Maison Carrée Roman Temple – France

Also, during the times of antiquity, a different technique for building structures had materialized. These were the Roman Architectural Revolution, also known as the Concrete Revolution.  Initially a copy of the ingenious ancient Greek style of using columns, arches and vaults for their buildings, the Romans took it to new heights with the use of arches and vaults, using the invention of Roman concrete, which allowed the design of shapes to take form for their structures.

Columns and arches were the main concept to keep buildings strong, but these structures never reached levels higher than about 100 feet.

The Gothic Style

Reims Cathedral of Notre Dame
The Reims Cathedral is a beautiful representation of Gothic architecture

Gothic (5th – 15th centuries) architecture proceeded the Roman Architectural Revolution. It was during this time of the middle ages that new styles emerged, which maintained characteristics of the pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress, which was used to sustain much of the weight of the building. Gothic architecture has had and still does have a pronounced impression on many represents many of the great cathedrals churches of Europe to this day.

Human ingenuity also brought us the load bearing concept. In order to sustain the weight of a building, the outside walls were still designed to carry its load. This method consisted of a strong foundation and walls that would be able to withstand the weight on top of it. Many  buildings were constructed during using this technique until the late 19th century and often didn’t reach more than 10 floors, due to the reluctance of people to walk up higher than 10 flights of stairs.

The Renaissance Period

San Lorenzo Florenz Church
The San Lorenzo Florenz is a perfect example of Renaissance architecture

The Renaissance period brought on a wholly new style of architecture. Some of this architecture was brought from the Romans and Greeks; such as the dome concept, but in general, materialized into beautiful works of art, both inside and out.

Enter breakthroughs in civil engineering. One of the most effective technological advances of the late 1900s was the process of using steel as the supporting framework for buildings. Steel is a form of iron that had certain impurities removed, namely silica, phosphorous and sulfur, which can weaken the steel. With these elements gone, the steel maintains enough strength to support extremely heavy loads.

But to create steel on-site was not practical, so there was a need for a streamlined process to automate the creation of steel, such as an assembly line approach. Sir Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) was a pioneer in steel research and had invented an inexpensive technique for mass producing it. Called the Bessemer Process, it provided mass production of steel from molten pig iron, while still maintaining the removal of the impurities. Later, the invention of the open hearth furnace accelerated this process even further.

At this point, in theory, structures could be built high or higher than 100 floors, without having to worry about load bearing on each floor, but what good is a 100 story building if no one would walk up that high? Enter the elevator. Elisha Graves Otis designed a breaking mechanism that acted as a safety value, should there be a fault with the mechanism that raised and lowers the elevators.

Although credit of the actual invention of the elevator goes to earlier inventors like Burton and Hormer, who used ‘lifts’ to raise people to the top of buildings, Otis, in 1857, became famous for manufacturing his elevator safety design (previously there were no safety catches should the elevator cable break). The Otis Elevator Company became popular as building developers saw an opportunity to build practical buildings higher than ever imagined; hence the skyscraper was to become a reality.

The Industrial Revolution

Singer Building
The Singer Building was the tallest building in the world at the time

Some of the first buildings to take advantage of the Otis Elevator safety feature and the automated steel construction process was the 1902 – 22 story Flatiron Building in New York City (still standing), the 47 story Beaux-Arts Singer Building, which was constructed in 1908, but demolished 60 years later to make way for the 1 Liberty Plaza, which currently stands on this location. The Singer Building was the tallest building in the world when completed. The Gothic style Woolworth Building, built in 1913 (still standing) and the 31 story Chicago Wrigley Building completed in 1931 (still standing) are also early monuments to the ingenious harmony of steel construction and the elevator.

These buildings were not only symbols of the beginning of the industrial revolution, but were also beautiful works of art, as Gothic and Beaux-Arts architecture was among the most aesthetic structures to have been built.

During the period of 1929 – 1939, the art deco building boom of giants was materializing in Chicago and New York City, including the construction New York’s Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. Skyscrapers that changed the city’s skyline forever.

The use of steel continues to this day, with the World Trade Center’s Freedom Tower, as a prime example of its utilization.