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Book review: ‘Skyscraper’ by Dan Cruickshank

Image credit: Dreamstime

A fluent and fact-filled look at the world’s tallest buildings.

Perhaps the one thing lacking from ‘Skyscraper’ (Head of Zeus, £20, ISBN 9781786691187) is a subtitle, for a single word in itself does little to prepare the reader for a comprehensive, well-written foray into the history of the 20th century architecture, richly illustrated with over 200 photos.

Dan Cruickshank’s fluent and fact-ridden narrative covers dozens of iconic structures in Europe and the USA, but is cleverly centred around just one. The 16-storey Chicago ‘skyscraper’ (definitely regarded as such in 1895 – the year of its completion) known as the Reliance Building was designed by John Root and Charles B Atwood and is the construction which, the author argues, laid the foundations for the main trends of 20th-century urban architecture and structural engineering.

Using just one significant building to make a far-reaching point about architecture in general is not new. In his famous pronouncement that “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”, Winston Churchill specifically referred to just one edifice – the House of Commons. The choice of the Reliance Building as a focal point works very well, for in the early 20th century there was no better urban testing ground for new revolutionary styles of architecture than downtown Chicago, with its ostentatious wealth and a passion for innovation that thrived after the devastating fire of 1871, when nothing much was left of the great city.

Just as London experienced a huge architectural boost after the Great Fire of 1666, culminating in Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent creations, and like Moscow after it was burned by Napoleon in 1812, Chicago in 1871 signified the start of a radical and long-lasting architectural revival that went on during the whole of the 20th century.

That indestructible creative spirit can be felt in Chicago’s breathtaking cityscape even now, but ‘Skyscraper’ is not just the story of the Windy City. Talking about the Reliance Building’s architectural foundations and legacy, Cruickshank examines a number of ancient monuments as well as such relatively recent structures as Liverpool’s Oriel Chambers and the Narkomfin Apartment Building in Moscow. The latter inspired Le Corbusier to design his famous Ville Radieuse or ‘Radiant City’ in Marseille, also known as ‘the Vertical City’, which I wrote about in E&T in 2015 – https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2015/09/le-corbusiers-vertical-city-in-marseille/

So what’s the importance of the history of a cityscape, or even of just one particular building? Cruickshank, a renowned architectural historian, writer and TV personality, offers the following answer: “The people and the buildings they created did much to determine the... world we now inhabit. Once you know the tale they have to tell you will never see the modern city in quite the same way again.”

‘Skyscraper’ tells you the tale.

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