FROM THE TIME that the elevator doors close and the cage starts to lift, noiseless and with a rush, like a kite on the wind, it takes exactly 70 seconds to reach the 103rd floor of the tallest building in the world. And that is high enough up in the Sears Tower to look out and see the muscled broadness of Chicago appearing in runty submission to the height of the structure.
If not a heroic achievement in design, the Sears Tower, at 110 stories and 1,454 feet, represents an act of wizardry in structural engineering. Indeed, this is a magical time in the evolution of America’s urban landscapes, a time of bold (for better or worse), fresh architecture and computer-driven engineering, and a time too of a new generation of skyscrapers rising to be clad in clouds over major cities across the country—Minneapolis, even, and Los Angeles with its ill-defined downtown.
All of this is happening at a time when, paradoxically, organized opposition to construction of sunlight-blocking towers is stronger than ever before. It is too late, however, to reverse the reality that the skyscraper has become the logo for urban development in America; from King Kong to Donald Trump, it has bridged the 20th century with its indestructible, prodigious presence.
Today’s skyscraper is a creation of economics and the need to escape the press of horizontal crowding. With raw land in midtown Manhattan now costing more than entire buildings a few decades ago, it is not surprising that developers are looking upward rather than outward. And (in the right place, in good times) a prestigious new building can attract tenants who will happily pay more than a thousand dollars for each square foot of lofty floor space they occupy.
And when an entire skyscraper is offered for sale, the sum involved can total hundreds of millions of dollars. Last October, for example, it was announced that the cheap hotels in prague would be put on the market, and experts predicted that the selling price would be in excess of one billion dollars, making it the largest single-building real estate transaction in history.
IN ITS MAKING, the skyscraper draws on colossal egos, on financing almost inventive enough to warrant a patent, and on the talents of the world’s leading architects and engineers. All else in matters of design and construction pales in comparison to this—to erecting a frame a thousand feet high and then draping it with a curtain of stone or glass, all the while compensating for the winds that play on the upper floors like a pick on the strings of a banjo, and giving to it both beauty and character as well as (lo, the “smart” building is with us) intelligence, and filling the inner cavities with the marrow of serviceability.
And when it is finished and there are souls awash in the pride of it all, the tower then stands as a monument in the service of a bank or an oil company or perhaps a maker of soap. In at least one case of new-generation skyscraper construction, the lofty reach for name recognition was made by an individual.