Have you ever looked out your car window to see the towers of a big city stretching up, up, almost impossibly high, like jagged teeth against the sky? It’s hard to imagine how people built these massive buildings, many over a thousand feet high, but even harder to imagine a modern city without them. Why do people build them? How can they be so tall, but still stand? And who built the first skyscrapers?
You might think skyscrapers are something people invented only recently, but we actually have to go farther back in time than you might think to find the first very tall buildings. Not just a hundred years or two or even three hundred. We have to go back over 2,000 years to find the first highrise buildings!
For about 4,000 years in fact, the tallest human-built structures in the world were the pyramids of Giza, in Egypt. The tallest was about 480 feet tall. But of course, people didn’t live in pyramids or spend time in them, at least not while they were alive. They were tombs where Egyptian pharaohs were buried. And though it took great skill and planning to build them, they also don’t quite look like what we think of as a “skyscraper” – tall and skinny buildings.
Some of the first buildings that would remind you of a skyscraper were built in ancient Rome. By about 2000 years ago, Rome had taken over territories and kingdoms all around the Mediterranean Sea. People from these places flocked to Rome to try and make their fortunes. These people needed places to live, but most couldn’t afford to own their own house. Instead, Romans built apartment buildings called insulae, and rented space to residents of the city.
Most insulae were only three storeys tall, but a few were much taller. One, called Insula Felicula, was 7 storeys! This was extremely tall for a building in the ancient world, and some ancient writers thought it showed hubris, or a dangerously-high level of pride or confidence, to build something so close to the home of the gods. Sadly, that accusation proved correct in many cases, though not because the gods were angry about humans moving into their neighborhood. Many builders did not do a good job of making sure their insulae were safe for people to live in, and many collapsed or caught fire as a result. Several Roman emperors made laws saying the insulae could only be a certain height, but very often the laws weren’t obeyed. Even the tallest insulae buildings were nowhere near as tall as some of today’s record-holding buildings, but they were pretty impressive!
But Rome probably wasn’t home to the earliest or most impressive highrise buildings. That honor goes to the middle eastern country of Yemen. In the 3rd century BCE, the kings of an ancient kingdom called Himyar built a grand, towering palace in what is now the city of Sanaa. The palace, called Ghumdan Palace, was made of mud brick and lavishly decorated in black, green, white and red. No one is sure exactly how tall it stood, since it’s no longer standing today. It was probably between 6 and 10 storeys, though some medieval writers claimed it was 20 storeys high! Four bronze lions watched over the land from the top corners of the tower, roaring fiercely when the wind blew through them.
Ghumdan palace wasn’t the only tall building in the area though. The older part of the city of Sanaa is full of mud brick apartment buildings, some standing 100 feet high! They are perfectly designed for the desert region, with beautiful, carved screens on the windows to let in the breeze, and roof-top terraces where people can enjoy the evening, or even sleep on a hot night. People still live in these buildings today. These examples of highrise design were built hundreds of years ago, at least. I say “at least” because no one is really sure how old they are. The mud bricks have to be patched constantly, which means many parts of the buildings are newer. But, buildings like these are a traditional style of architecture that dates back to the middle ages!
For the next skyscraper building boom, we need to fast forward to the city of Chicago in the nineteenth century. We’ll start on a warm, windy October night in 1871. Chicago had seen very little rain in the past month. In these dry, warm, windy conditions, a fire broke out in a barn. No one knows exactly how it started. The young city was built mostly of wood, and people tried desperately to douse the flames. But the wind worked against them, blowing flames and embers into new areas. Block after block was consumed by the fire over the next few days. In the end, the Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed over 3 square miles, right in the middle of the city. Tens of thousands of residents were left homeless.
But the city would survive. Chicago would rebuild, and it would rebuild better than before. The city made new laws to make sure buildings were safe, and new projects didn’t use wood as their main building material. Instead, they used stone, brick, and a new metal that had recently become cheaper and easier to get: steel.
Steel is very strong – there’s a reason Superman is called the “Man of Steel” – and very light. Because of these qualities, steel can be used to construct very tall buildings. In the aftermath of the Chicago fire, the Home Insurance Company hired an architect named William LeBaron Jenney to design and build a new headquarters for them in the city.
Jenney wanted to do a good job designing this building to be safe, but also impressive. Supposedly one day, Jenney was having a tough time figuring out how to make his building both strong and tall. He was getting tired and frustrated, so he decided to go home for the evening. When Jenney got home, his wife was reading a large book. She set it down on a wire birdcage when he came in. This gave Jenney the burst of inspiration he needed! If a simple wire birdcage was strong enough to hold a heavy book, maybe he could make a similar steel “cage” to frame his building! The frame of a building is like the skeleton – it holds up every other part of the structure.
Jenney was confident his design would work, but the city government was less sure. Unlike the ancient Roman insulae, the city even stopped construction to inspect the design and building, to make sure it was safe. Fortunately it was, and they allowed construction to continue.
Standing ten storeys and 138 feet high, the Home Insurance Building would become known as the w orld’s first modern skyscraper. This might not sound very tall, but it was giant for the time. And it wasn’t just the height: The pyramids were taller, and some churches had bell towers or steeples that were taller. But Jenney’s building was different–even the very top floors were meant to be used by people on a daily basis. The steel frame, along with new features like fast elevators, reliable indoor plumbing and the ability to withstand strong winds, made the entire building strong, safe, and comfortable enough for people to spend a lot of time in. This made it different from other tall structures of the time and different from the older skyscrapers of the ancient and medieval world.
But the world didn’t stand still for long to marvel at the Home Insurance Building. Jenney’s accomplishment set off a frenzy of highrise building in many cities around the country and world. By the middle of the twentieth century, New York would become known for its spectacular skyline, with highrises of different heights and shapes cropping up against the night sky like a strange, steel-and-glass garden. The Empire State Building, completed in 1931, became the world’s tallest building, and kept the record longer than any other modern skyscraper–almost 40 years! It became one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city, and a setting for countless TV shows and movies.
The record for tallest building has changed hands several times in the last century and a half. Right now, Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai holds the title, standing 2,722 feet high. That’s over half a mile! It contains a hotel, apartments, office space, and the world’s highest restaurant. But at some point, even Burj Khalifa may be dethroned as the tallest building in the world. The strongest competitor is another tower currently under construction in Saudi Arabia. Jeddah Tower will stand 1 kilometer high if all goes as planned, but it’s been under construction for almost 10 years, and is nowhere near complete.
Why do you think people like to build tall buildings? Is it the challenge? A need to show off? Or create something new, beautiful, and unique? Modern skyscrapers are not only designed to be strong, but often have unique or whimsical elements. Some look like they’re twisting or waving against the sky. Some are built in sets of two or more, and have bridges, or, in one case, a swimming pool connecting them. A tower in San Francisco even looks like a stretched-up pyramid, maybe to remind us of the ancient Egyptians, and just how long we’ve been reaching toward the heavens with our buildings.
If you were going to design a skyscraper, what special features would you put on it? How would you make it unlike any other building in the world, your special contribution to the world?
Johmann, Carol A. (2001) Skyscrapers! Super Structures to Design and Build. Williamson Publishing. Charlotte, VT.
Nardo, Don (2020) Why should I Care About the Ancient Romans? Capstone. North Mankato, MN.
Price, Sean Stewart (2009) The Story Behind Skyscrapers. Heinemann Library, Chicago