Untitled. [View from the John Hancock Center looking east toward 860–880 Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan.] Brandi Ibrao, c. 2019

The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians has published a special virtual issue in celebration of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s 50th anniversary and upcoming 10th World Congress in Chicago, October 28–November 2, 2019. For a limited time, we are pleased to present the essays in this virtual issue free of charge.  In conjunction with the Society of Architectural Historians, the CTBUH will also hold a special one-day symposium about skyscraper history, First Skyscrapers | Skyscraper Firsts, on October 31. The Skyscraper virtual issue is guest edited by Sarah M. Dreller, who provides an introduction below.

Introduction: Thoughts on Two Generations of Skyscraper Scholarship in JSAH

I found a classic early-1930s newspaper photograph of the Chicago skyline when I was looking for the right cover image for this special virtual issue. It pictured some of the biggest-name skyscrapers that had recently been built along the river—the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, Carbide and Carbon among them—with a cleverly memorable title that claimed this new cohort of skyscrapers was aiming to “aspire higher.” Although there is more to unpack in the skyscraper’s-eye view of Chicago I eventually chose, the optimism in the other photograph’s catchphrase animated the question I asked while guest editing the issue: What can be done in and with the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians to expand and enrich our future understanding of this iconic building type? Since only one generation of editors and contributors remains before 2041, when the journal celebrates its centennial, now seemed a good time to wander the most recent generation’s scholarship in search of inspiration for new and compelling skyscraper history work going forward. 

The “Table of Contents” here lists all of the skyscraper-related articles and book reviews published in JSAH over the past twenty-five years. Studying it to develop observations for this introduction that might help inform editors’ and authors’ choices in the coming decades, my thoughts continued to return to three generalizations associated with skyscraper history. One takes on what is arguably this literature’s most character-defining feature, its Chicago and/vs. New York narrative. Has it really dominated architectural historians’ imaginations over the last quarter century or does Carl Condit’s legacy only seem to amplify the shadow these two cities cast? Looking over the Table of Contents here, the answer reveals itself clearly; the Chicago-New York duality has not just served as an obvious focal point but has actually accounted for well over half of all the scholarship JSAH has published on skyscrapers since the mid-1990s. For context I juxtaposed that with the total percentage of Chicago- and New York-related skyscraper histories published in JSAH since the journal’s inception, a number that turned out to be considerably less than half overall. Or, to put this another way, skyscrapers in Chicago and/or New York have consistently fascinated architectural historians but the amount of scholarship published in JSAH around these two geographic centers has increased substantially in more recent years. I would like to suggest, in this case, that the next decades of JSAH’s editors and authors push ourselves beyond the inherited American skylines not as a critique of what has already been written but because we know there are myriad urban building cultures around the world that also have meaningful stories to tell.

Next I considered who wrote the last generation of JSAH’s skyscraper history to see if the cliché connection between men and skyscrapers also held for scholarship about this building type. What I found was very encouraging: women wrote or co-wrote half the articles and fully two-thirds of the journal’s skyscraper-oriented book reviews. This number of book reviews is especially heartening, I should add, as there had only been one by a woman in JSAH’s previous fifty-three years. Bringing the authors of the books being reviewed into the inquiry yielded a similarly hopeful result: just over half of those authors were also women. There is an exciting opportunity in all this, not so much inside the journal as around it, across the other scholarly venues where JSAH-style gender parity has not yet been achieved. Surely this record of scholarship, as narrowly focused on recent decades as it is, makes an unassailable case that there are more than enough women historians interested in skyscrapers to balance every conference session and edited volume from now on.

And, lastly, I asked if architectural historians have been especially drawn to the drama and impact of skyscrapers, if it has been one of those perennial topics for which plenty of knowledge already exists. I have always imagined this assumption formed because skyscrapers were so central to Modernism’s twentieth-century self-mythology-building project. Or perhaps skyscrapers’ imprint on the landscape and lived experience of cities is so obviously extreme that we naturally expect them to have an equally substantive presence in our field’s journals. But in JSAH, at least, the number of articles and book reviews about skyscraper history is equivalent to specialized building types like museums or, to only a slightly lesser extent, libraries. Meanwhile, a longstanding interest of architectural historians, churches, is represented by three times as much scholarship and there is seven times as much about the acknowledged Modern favorite, houses. Clearly there is space here for more avenues through this immensely complicated corner of the built environment. 

Click here to read the virtual issue.