MACHINES OF COMMERCE The tall building was an unprecedented technological achievement that fundamentally changed our concept of what a building is, how we work, and the shape of our built environment.
In the aftermath of the First World War, Americanism was a technological concept inextricably linked with the myth of modernity. American industrial buildings became an international model for progressive architecture. A growing faith in technology transformed the social and business culture of the country.
To mass produce cars, Henry Ford developed a mass production process based on a division of labor using specialized machines that required minimal skill to operate. Efficiency experts applied the same concept to the business office. Both radically changed the physical form of the workplace.
Albert Kahn rigorously analyzed and resolved the problems of rational factory design. The use of reinforced concrete revolutionized factory construction. Concrete buildings required fewer columns, were strong and fireproof and nearly eliminated vibrations. Daylighting from continuous windows was made possible by eliminating the need for load-bearing exterior walls.
The skyscraper was a technological achievement without precedent in the history of architecture, and therefore seemed conspicuously modern.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe refined the proportions of the building frame and the detailing of its materials with single-minded care. The components of his carefully designed grids, which appear to be industrial, were actually custom fabricated to his specifications.
Each building was part of a continuing essay on the formal and symbolic essence of a “universal architecture” that could be applied to any purpose. Their purity of form is a statement of higher values.
What was needed to promote a practical, technical, functional modern architecture was a cadre of young native architects dedicated to radical design.
Eero Saarinen used a scientific method of analysis of user needs, and followed with trial and error experimentation as an integral part of his design practice. Each building was a unique solution to the client’s program requirements and marketing image.
The shocking effect of the first glass and steel office buildings can hardly be appreciated in the cacophony of mediocre imitations, now tarnished with urban grime. The gap between the past’s idealized vision of the future and today’s harsh realities is difficult to grasp.
Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was the preeminent example of how the large professional practice had evolved to serve the needs of American business and enhance their corporate images. The partners envisioned a full range of design services in-house, including not only architectural design and structural and mechanical engineering, but also interior design, graphics, and technical research.
The professional staff was organized in teams, where production passed from specialty to specialty, providing superior design, reliable performance, uniform quality and consistent results.