The late 1800s saw much activity in the faster developing nations.. Towns were turning into cities, city centres were being identified as the “places to be”, and a gigantic revolution of the industry was at play, which would lead us towards mass production, innovation, and incredible progress. One of the resultants of this industrial revolution was the manufacture of Steel. Steel, now a major component in building construction, was being manufactured like there was no tomorrow. With the invention of the mechanical passenger elevators, the Bessemer’s process of turning raw Iron into structural steel, coupled with the ambitions of engineers and architects of the time, the world was introduced to a magnificent invention; the Skyscraper.

3rd of September every year, on Louis Sullivan’s birth anniversary, is an unofficial holiday celebrated as the National Skyscraper Day. It is celebrated to acknowledge the architectural and engineering feats that have made tall buildings possible today. It may also be worthwhile to note, that without the industrial revolution and the passenger elevators, or the mass production of steel, such skyscrapers may not have become the reality that they are today.

The oldest form of migration that started with the search for employment and better opportunities, took men from the smaller settlements into larger centres of development. The cities of London, Chicago, New York and such, were developing at a rapid pace with innovations and inventions fuelling growth and infrastructure. These were the destinations of young ambitious youth from all over the world. Architects, engineers and visionary policy-makers were on their toes trying to find solutions to house the large inflow of people into the cities. One by one the structures started to rise from the ground and took on 2-4 storeys in their limited means of load-bearing structural strength.

The pyramids of ancient Egypt had always loomed tall as the tallest manmade structures in the world with the Pyramid at Giza running up to 146 metres and the pyramid at Khafre at 137 metres tall; reminding the architects of the sweat and toil of human labour that it took to build them. In 1889, the Eiffel Tower came into existence. At 324 metres, the Eiffel Tower, which was built entirely in steel, became a wonder of the world. The Eiffel being uninhabitable; a smart, economical, and structurally sound system for habitable towers was yet to be determined.

Egyptian Pyramids

Egyptian Pyramids -Tallest manmade structures

© les-Anderson on Unsplash

Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower

© Anthony Delanoix on Unsplash

Sir Henry Bessemer, widely accepted as the inventor of the Bessemer’s process, came up with a way to convert tons of iron into steel in the shortest time possible. During the industrial revolution, an era characterized by the introduction of machinery, use of steam power, the growth of factories, and the mass production of manufactured goods, Bessemer’s process of heating, stirring, reheating, and oxidation of the molten pig iron that would then be poured into moulds with other alloys to create commercial steel took off on a large scale. A Bessemer converter could treat a batch of 5 to 30 tons of hot metal at a time. This made steel inexpensive and accessible and it flooded the market at an opportune time when structural solutions to tall buildings were being developed.

Bessemers process

Bessemers process


19th Century Chicago was a new town that broke away from the larger Cook County. Yankee real estate developers famously created a city overnight in the 1830s, attracting settlers to the rich farmlands of Northern Illinois. As it grew, Chicago became the birthplace of the “sky-scraper”. Early skyscrapers are tiny nothings compared to present-day skyscrapers, but they house the heavy history and innovation in their stride. The Home Insurance Company building in Chicago was the first building to be christened as a skyscraper. Built-in 1885 by William Le Baron Jenney, it stood at 42 metres tall and was the first building to use the steel-girder construction. It was the first building to incorporate steel as a structural material and the first large-scale use of steel in a building altogether. The building was demolished in 1931 and replaced with an even taller Field Building with 45 storeys. Jenney pioneered the steel frame or the “Chicago Skeleton” form of construction rather than the load-bearing walls, which led to lighter buildings with multiple storeys with the exterior walls being replaced with stone, glass, metal or other materials. Jenney came to be known as the “father of skyscrapers” and his protege, Louis Sullivan, came to be known as the “spiritual father of skyscrapers”. Even though what Jenney pioneered in-terms of the structural technology led to the advent of tall skyscrapers, he couldn’t quite handle the aesthetic demand of a tall building expressing verticality. However, Louis Sullivan, advancing Jenney’s steel frame construction through his glorious years with Dankmar Adler, took the aesthetic problem at hand and ingeniously designed ornamentation to express the verticality of the buildings with a strong heavily ornamented base and a subdued top floor. Sullivan’s Wainwright building is considered as one of his exemplary contributions to the skyscrapers of tomorrow and the evolution of the Prairie style of Architecture; the one that his apprentice, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright continued in his career.

steel skeleton

The Fair Store (1892-1986) under construction showing the steel skeleton

© Industrial Chicago

As buildings started scaling new heights, such as the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Seagram building, etc., a new force was to be encountered; lateral load. In the 1960s, an architect from the far east, Fazlur Rahman Khan and J. Rankine introduced a tubular structural system that behaved like a hollow cylinder; perpendicular to the ground which can resist lateral loads. Built using steel, concrete, and other composite materials, the framed tube structure is defined as a three-dimensional space structure composed of three, four, or possibly more frames, braced frames, or shear walls, joined at their edges to form a vertical tube-like structural system. This system is capable of resisting lateral forces in any direction by cantilevering from the foundation. Khan, employed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), revolutionised the way high-rise buildings were made. DeWitt Chestnut Apartments was the first tube structure building designed by Khan in 1966.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, standing tall at 828 metres, is the tallest building in the world designed by SOM using Khan’s tubular structural design which led to the reduction of steel used in the construction to almost 50%. The spine of the structure is composed of more than 4000 tons of structural steel and the central pinnacle pipe weighs about 350 tons, making it one of the fastest built super skyscrapers in the world. In modern times, the skyscraper and its identity are in constant evolution. Kingdom tower, also known as the Jeddah Tower being built by Architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill (AS+GG) is set to be the tallest super skyscraper in the world on its completion; topping off at over 1000 metres in height. The structure is estimated to consume high amounts of steel, in the range of 80,000 tons, for construction.

Empire State Building

Empire State Building, New York

© Capd Frawy on Unsplash

The Chrysler Building

The Chrysler Building, New York

© Nicole Padin on Unsplash

The Burj Khalifa

The Burj Khalifa, Dubai

© Gunjan Patel on Unsplash

Kingdom tower

Kingdom tower, Dubai

© Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill (AS+GG)

One of the first skyscrapers in India was the LIC building completed in 1959 in Chennai. The building is the current southern regional headquarters of the Life Insurance Corporation of India with 15 storeys designed by L M Chitale, a local architect. It remained the tallest building in India until the 25-storeyed, 80 metres tall, Usha Kiran building was built in Mumbai by Dilawar Noorani. India’s love with the skyscrapers started to emerge as migration to the commercial capital increased drastically over the 60’s and land-use laws opened up to the population density that increased in startling numbers in Mumbai. Asia, South-East Asia including India is said to have the largest number of skyscrapers in the world.

The Petronas towers in Malaysia, Shanghai Tower, Taipei 101 are a few of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. World One, Lodha The Park, and Nathani Heights are the tallest skyscrapers in India, all of them located in Mumbai. One of the differences between skyscrapers of the world and in India is that, in India, almost all the skyscrapers are residential; making you wonder about the ratio of land to person available in the biggest cities of the country.

LIC building

LIC building, Chennai, India

Source: Wikimedia commons

The Petronas Towers

The Petronas Towers, Malaysia

©Alexa Zabache on Unsplash

World one

World one, Mumbai

© Lodha Developers

A portrait of Louis Sullivan

A portrait of Louis Sullivan

© The Richard Nickel Committee and Archive.

About this author
Sahil Tanveer
Sahil Tanveer

Sahil Tanveer is an architect and thinker, running a cosmopolitan Architecture studio working across the country. Passionate about being a generalist, he constantly pursues the unknown, observing the influence of culture on architecture and design.

About this author
Sahil Tanveer
Sahil Tanveer

Sahil Tanveer is an architect and thinker, running a cosmopolitan Architecture studio working across the country. Passionate about being a generalist, he constantly pursues the unknown, observing the influence of culture on architecture and design.