A brief history of the skyscraper: 1. The earliest incarnations of the building type, such as Burnham & Root's Rookery Building and other products of the late 19th and early 20th century Chicago School, often were designed as square doughnuts in plan. The resulting central courtyards promoted air circulation and the distribution of daylight through buildings that often were no taller than 12 stories. 2. Structural advances and economic pressures compelled developers and architects to build even taller, causing a “canyon effect” of deeply shadowed streets. In 1916, New York City instituted a zoning ordinance dictating setbacks at specific heights in the mass of skyscrapers, allowing more light and air to reach pedestrians and the occupants of adjacent buildings. By the onset of the Great Depression, architects had elevated the regulation into an aesthetic hallmark of the Art Deco style, as in the stepped profiles of the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. 3. When commercial construction resumed after World War II, a new paradigm rapidly emerged in skyscraper design: the Modernist monolith, a glass box set back from the street on an open plaza. Its great promoters were European émigrés such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, architect of the Seagram Building, and American converts to Modernism such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. 4. By the end of the 1970s oil crisis, however, energy costs had plummeted. Air conditioning and electric lighting were cheap, encouraging developers to build to the lot line and dictate ever deeper floor plates, with greater leasable area. As a result, the skyscraper typology effectively devolved, and natural light and air were forced to leave the building. Fortunately, a new, more sustainable model is re-emerging today.
A brief history of the skyscraper: 1. The earliest incarnations of the building type, such as Burnham & Root's Rookery Building and other products of the late 19th and early 20th century Chicago School, often were designed as square doughnuts in plan. The resulting central courtyards promoted air circulation and the distribution of daylight through buildings that often were no taller than 12 stories. 2. Structural advances and economic pressures compelled developers and architects to build even taller, causing a “canyon effect” of deeply shadowed streets. In 1916, New York City instituted a zoning ordinance dictating setbacks at specific heights in the mass of skyscrapers, allowing more light and air to reach pedestrians and the occupants of adjacent buildings. By the onset of the Great Depression, architects had elevated the regulation into an aesthetic hallmark of the Art Deco style, as in the stepped profiles of the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. 3. When commercial construction resumed after World War II, a new paradigm rapidly emerged in skyscraper design: the Modernist monolith, a glass box set back from the street on an open plaza. Its great promoters were European émigrés such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, architect of the Seagram Building, and American converts to Modernism such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. 4. By the end of the 1970s oil crisis, however, energy costs had plummeted. Air conditioning and electric lighting were cheap, encouraging developers to build to the lot line and dictate ever deeper floor plates, with greater leasable area. As a result, the skyscraper typology effectively devolved, and natural light and air were forced to leave the building. Fortunately, a new, more sustainable model is re-emerging today.

Skyscraper. High-rise. Tall building. Office tower. Call it what you want, there is no denying that this building type plays a critical, ongoing role in architecture's lexicon. A uniquely American innovation that defines the skylines of New York, Chicago, and so many other cities, the skyscraper is the ultimate expression of modernity in building and inspires architects and engineers to push technical and aesthetic boundaries. But the evolution of this building type is not determined solely by architectural influences. Economics, zoning regulations, cultural expectations, and, yes, light, have played major roles in shaping skyscrapers over time.

In Form Follows Finance, a seminal work on the topic, Carol Willis, architectural historian and founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum in New York, observes that no matter the variations in building shape or height, one constant is the desire to maximize rentable square footage. For half a century, until the Great Depression put a halt to office construction, the availability of natural light governed office dimensions. “The quality and rentability of office space … depended on large windows and high ceilings that allowed daylight to penetrate as deeply as possible into the interior,” Willis writes. “What the industry called ‘economical depth' referred to the fact that shallow, better-lit space produced higher revenue than deep and therefore dark interiors.” In other words, architects' ability to bring natural light into the workplace helped landlords “sell” their buildings.

The advent of air conditioning and fluorescent lighting in the 1940s and '50s largely removed daylight from the equation, and led to the construction of skyscrapers with tremendously deep floor plates and unpleasant, artificially lit workspaces. The three projects discussed in this issue—the New York Times' headquarters, the Hearst Tower, and One Bryant Park, all in Manhattan—effectively restore daylight to its rightful place. Together they exemplify a new generation of tall buildings, the product of emerging design trends, architectural and lighting technologies, attitudes toward sustainability, and complexities of building, lighting, and energy codes. Each building responds to a particular set of project criteria and presents a diverse set of solutions, but, taken as a group, the lessons they offer are universal.