the breakthrough in design that led to the chrysler building -- 1/11/18

Today's selection -- from Higher by Neal Bascomb. With the change in construction technology to steel and elevators in the early 20th century, ambitious architects wanted to change the design of buildings. One such architect was William Van Alen, whose fortune it was to intersect with visionary automobile executive Walter Chrysler, which led to the radical new architecture of the Chrysler Building:

"In the first week of November 1928, when Van Alen started sketches for Chrysler's skyscraper, the land at Forty-second and Lexington was worth more than two hundred dollars a square foot. Only a block away, the Grand Central Terminal was fast becoming the crossroads of the world. Tall buildings shot up like weeds after a fresh rain. lt was the perfect spot to build a monument to Walter Chrysler, the master of motion and industry, and Van Alen was eager to see his designs of a towering skyscraper set in steel and stone. After years of indentured servitude as an office boy and draftsman, study at the world's best architecture school, and a partnership settled in lawsuits, he was ready.

"There were few set rules to follow in skyscraper design, particu­larly in 1928. Past skyscrapers included twenty-story palazzos or buildings with Greek temples set at their crown. Van Alen scorned these attempts to use classical architecture on modern structures. lt was high time, as he said, 'to recognize that in steel-frame construction lies the basis for an entirely new, effective and beautiful style of architecture,' one absent of the cornices, pediments, and columns that defined buildings made from masonry.

"The road to the future looked bleak. Pioneers like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius urged utility, straight lines, and engineering. To Van Alen and many of his cadre in New York, this radical European movement, of buildings stripped of any clothing or decoration, was tantamount to losing architecture's soul to the devil. As one architect said at the time, skyscrapers must not be reduced to the 'stark naked­ness of silos and grain elevators.'

Chrysler Building Spire mechanism, Popular Science Monthly, August 1930, p. 52

"Instead of mimicking the past or leaping into an uncertain future, Van Alen was looking for 'an architectural character that is effective, beautiful, expressive of the purpose of the building, of our method of construction and of the spirit of the times.' It was Louis Sullivan, with his Wainwright and Bayard buildings in the late nineteenth century, who first gave expression to the kind of design Van Alen wanted to pursue. To Sullivan, a skyscraper needed to embrace its vertical quality. 'It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing.'

"In the last decade American architects like Van Alen had begun to embrace Sullivan's words, searching for the skyscraper's true expression. In competitions and sketchbooks, they experimented with obelisks, clock towers, ziggurats, pagodas, and Mesoamerican temples. Some buildings had the shape of a staggered mountain, like a wedding cake, others looked like a 'frozen fountain.'

"Having stripped away the features of classical design, Van Alen and others searched for new methods to dress their buildings. For inspira­tion, they examined stage and film designs, attracted to the dramatic play of light and color in the sets. Most importantly, they drew upon ideas from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, which promoted a movement of interior design and furniture, style moderne as it was initially called -- later Art Deco -- that gave designers the textures, floral patterns, colors, geo­metric shapes, and materials like rare woods, glass, metal, glazed tiles, and polychromatic terra-cotta to bring their buildings alive.

"Not only was Van Alen free to shape his skyscraper in a new way, but he might avail himself of Art Deco designs that could entertain, captivate, evoke emotion, and inspire the imaginations of those on the street. Chrysler wanted such a building. With such freedom and wealth of designs from which to choose, Van Alen took the advice of his Beaux-Arts school and decided to follow his instincts."



Neal Bascomb


Higher: A Historic Race To The Sky 


First Broadway Books


Copyright 2003 by Neal Bascomb


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