Jan 18, 2019 in Analysis


Current paper explores a prominent architectural design of Frank Lloyd Wright. The project, known as The Sky-City, intended to be the highest building in the world. It has never been realized because of the variety of factors, which are outlined in the essay. The paper focuses on technical, aesthetical, and functional characteristics of the skyscraper. It also depicts tendencies in architecture existing in the mid-twentieth century. The reader gets to know about such philosophy of Wright as organic architecture. A detailed description of interior and exterior peculiarities gives the reader a picture of how the mile-high tower would look like. The essay follows with presentation of similar projects of today. Through the deep analysis of these prospects and study of modern principles in architecture, this paper comes to a conclusion that nowadays it is possible to create such a ‘giant’. Nanotechnologies, computer science, and other innovations can assist in doing this. New views concerning urban design have also been explored in this paper.

Keywords: architecture, skyscraper, mile-high building, construction, Illinois

The Sky-City

1.Designing of the mile-high tower: prehistory

As it is known, the humanity cannot be satisfied with little achievements as people always need to develop and march ahead in all areas of their lives. This phenomenon is also seen in architectural principles, which evolve in terms of cultural progress of countries and nations. Construction of skyscrapers could be one of the examples showing how architectural demands have grown in the last two centuries. This paper is to explore an ambiguous project of Frank Lloyd Wright that was proposed in 1956 as the Illinois Sky-City, Mile High Illinois, or simply the Illinois Building. 

It is worth noting that Wright, as one of the most creative architects, is the author of 1,141 projects in architecture (Clark). His design structures are marked with simplicity and efficiency and, at the same time, they remain in harmony with the environment. In other words, the architect is the founder and supporter of the organic architecture philosophy. This approach to solving design issues involves respect for natural materials, fusion into the surroundings, and a real expression of the building’s function. Wright declared the idea that every construction had to grow naturally from the surrounding environment and provide emotional and practical comfort. Along with his organic views on architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright implemented principles inherent to the style of that period. Thus, he was one of the followers of the International Style, which implied combining minimalism with functionalism. 

Before further presentation, it is worth to make an excursion into peculiarities of construction and design in the times of Wright’s creativity. Therefore, the Great Depression in the 1940s caused deterioration in architecture and construction. The situation worsened even more during the World War II, while manpower and materials were engaged in war needs. After the war, architects created in the International Style, which was considered to be the embodiment of modern architectonic policy of the early 20th century. The International Style supposed using materials such as steel for exterior support, concrete for floors and interior finishing works, and glass for facades along with applying modern principles in the building process. Any ornament or decoration was not welcomed in this style. The steel skeleton-frame constructions of natural color were special design features in those days. Rectangular forms, curtain walls of glass, cantilevered projections, or asymmetrical façade were the main features of the International Style. Another specificity of the building industry at that time was redesigning of parking garages and parking surroundings in order to suit requirements of the society. Parking facilities, for example, could be built in forms of concentric ramps for easier access of owners to garages; banks were constructed so that they could accommodate drive-up windows. Frank Wright also regarded trends of the architecture, complementing concepts of the International Style with ideas of the organic architecture philosophy. His many projects, as well as the one of 1956, confirm earlier indicated intentions. 

The particular thing about Wright’s works was that the style of buildings was not a priority for him. Instead, he always focused on an enduring quality of structures. An interesting fact about Wright is that he was not a structural engineer, but nevertheless he succeeded in proposing structurally stable and logic forms. Thus, according to the author’s assurances, The Illinois Building would comply with the abovementioned high standards as well. This masterwork was declared to be the grand mile-high building having no analogy in the world. The ‘giant’ would express Wright’s imagination about consolidating urban centers and decentralizing the country. Wright once wondered why not to design a building that would be ‘really tall’ (Hession and Pickrel 47). He even stated that the Empire State Building would look like a mouse in comparison with his skyscraper (47). The design of the Mile High Illinois Tower was a refinement of Wright’s earlier idea of 1931 to build Half Mile High Tower. Despite interest in the project shown by some prominent Chicagoans, it was not affordable to build a $60 million facility at that time. Hence, the Illinois Sky-City did not advance beyond architectural ambitions, but it still led the way for future building of skyscrapers. From this point, the reader will become aware of the evidence of would-be grandiosity of ‘The Illinois’. Intended as the tallest building in the world, the Mile High Tower could be more than four times the height of the Empire State Building, and nearly twice as tall as the Burj Khalifa, the world’s current tallest building. In 1956, at a press conference called to disclose engineering details of his proposed unique skyscraper, Wright displayed a 22-foot-tall drawing to the audience. See Fig.1.



The reader can find another impressive sample of the Wright’s would-be tower at this site: http://vimeo.com/4937909. As per sketch, silhouette of The Illinois is an example of a slender beauty that impresses everyone with its greatness and unlikeness to other facilities of that scale. It is noteworthy that in his late years Wright began to embody his historical knowledge into his designs. In the current building, he would construct the Gothic flying bars supporting the spire. Wright contended that the structure spiraling to a point like a huge sword would be rigid and stable enough to resist even a nuclear attack. So, a tower had to be built from the interior to the exterior, resembling a form of a tree with branches (Al-Kodmany and Ali 399).

2. Peculiarities of the constructing process

The proposed plan of the superstructure would consist of a double triangle since the author considered this form to be the most stable because of its ability to distribute pressure. In other words, the tower could look like a massive column with a shape of an introrsely tripod, which would sink for 150 feet into the earth. The remarkable fact is that Wright developed an innovative solution for underpinning his skyscrapers, known as a tap root foundation. The creator emphasized that it would be “three times stronger in any disturbance” (Nobel). A 528-storied building with a gross area of 1,715,000 m2 was intended to contain offices, apartments, shops, spaces for the state government, and even places for concert halls. TV studios would be located on the top nine floors, including 330 foot antenna installed there for far-reaching broadcasts. Rooms of the first 20 floors would be 18 feet high while others would be only 10 feet high. The building at the bottom would provide parking for 15,000 cars and landing sites for 100 helicopters. Occupational capability of the edifice would be about100 square feet per person. In addition, it could be able to house about 100,000 people. In his Sky-City, Wright planned to use the same steel/cantilever suspension concepts as he earlier applied while constructing the Price Tower in Bartlesville and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. In the discussed project, Wright wanted to use innovative materials of the mid-twentieth-century required for construction of skyscrapers. These would include pigmented concrete floors, cast concrete walls, copper panels, embossments, and aluminum finished doors and windows. The Illinois Tower would be provided with the defense system against earthquake similar to that used in above-named buildings. According to the Wright’s beliefs, the structure would not sway at the peak despite strong winds of Chicago. 

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In his book The Testament, the architect states: “A rapier, with handle the breadth of the hand, set firmly into the ground, blade upright, as a simile indicates the general idea of the Illinois, five times the height of the highest structure in the world” (Wright 240). Numerous floors were to extend out from a central core, which had to be sheathed with a concrete layer. The central piece would support steel cables connected to a metallic curtain wall made from aluminum or tungsten plates (Al-Kodmany and Ali 399). Gold-tinted metal on the frontage had to limelight corner surfaces along eaves and balconies. Another key element of the dream-like structure was the use of Plexiglas windows set back under steel railings. “Window frames and glass walls would be set back by 1.2mm from the ceilings and parapets to avoid glare and offer a feeling of security to those working at enormous heights” (399). These peculiarities would give the building emphasis as an all metal structure (Wright 240). In his projection, Wright designed floor plans of the 320th and 528th (highest) floors, selecting them as the “base”. The plan for the 320th floor depicts an open staircase not separated from the surrounding premises in any way. Even no door is envisaged to set these units apart. Access to the 528th floor would be granted solely by a single elevator with no stairway at all. The designer of the structure believed that his building would be sufficiently fire-resistant; thus, fire precautions were not taken into account to the full extent. “To reach the building’s upper floors, Wright proposed atomic-powered elevators that could carry 100 people per trip with the speed 96 km/h” (Al-Kodmany and Ali 399). Because of the building’s height, upper floors would be pressurized as in an airplane. Additionally, it should be mentioned that the facility would contain 56 elevators, each having five-floor verticals of cabs mounted to serve blocks of 5 floors simultaneously (Al-Kodmany and Ali 399). Therewith, it was planned to divide these 56 conveyors into five groups, each of which would serve a hundred-floor section of the premise. The elevator banks would protrude beyond exterior walls in different places, giving the tower the look of a stretched pyramid with overlapping parapets. The complicated premise like the discussed skyscraper would require many technological advances, especially innovative tendencies for evacuation and access would be necessary. 

The Mile High Illinois would be fitted with fluorescent lighting, widespread air-conditioning, and ventilation. Improvements in technology of that time made building of skyscrapers more permissible and accessible through increased efficiency of steel-frame structures and improved elevator designs. By the mid-twentieth century, it was possible to erect skyscrapers in just 12 months by crews of workers consisting of 5,000 men with assembling four floors in a typical week. Hence, it can be supposed that The Illinois could be erected approximately in 2-3 years. Though modern approaches to constructing high-risers prevail, the basic model of the starting process remains the same. After the foundation gets finished, cranes raise a steel frame up vertically. As it grows upward, the team of workers lays floors and fixes curtain walls. A variety of elevators delivers constructional materials to higher levels of the building. Inside installations should be finished earlier than the whole structure of a skyscraper. Steps that are listed above would be in all probability used in the Wright’s gigantic project. It is also worth mentioning the surroundings, which would environ the structure. 

Wright is known for his dislike for crowded cities, but despite this he wanted to create a colossal construction. He explained such an idea by the need of preserving the land through packing a city of 100,000 into a single mile-high tower (Nobel). He reckoned that The Mile High would absorb, justify, and legitimatize the gregarious instinct of the humanity and would “mop up what now remains of urbanism” ("The Mile High Illinois"). Wright wished that the personnel working in the Sky City would be surrounded by a green zone rather than dozens of towers and would be released from pollution, overcrowding, and dense traffic. The tower ought to have five extended terraces at the ground. Levels of terraces and elevators had to correspond with each other, providing moving comfort for individuals. 

3. If it was built today

Thus, the Mile High Illinois was planned as a perfect example of Wright’s organic philosophy, which still remains on the paper. However, the latest projects of modernity demonstrate some resemblance to the Wright’s intention. These are known as Buri Khalifa in Dubai and Kingdom Tower expected to be constructed in Saudi Arabia. Information taken from these projects can come useful while investigating how such structure as the Mile High Illinois could be erected nowadays. At first, it is reasonable to turn back to factors that impeded realization of the Wright’s fancy. Besides the high price of the project, critics pointed to an inability to raise such a construction with the technology of that time. Despite Wright’s assurances of the tower’s stiffness, experts assumed that it would be unsteady because of flexibility of steel. Another argument influencing feasibility of the structure building was the overwhelming amount of space necessary for utilities, fire stairs, and elevator equipment. All these would occupy the upper third of the high-rise. Since 1956, the building technologies have significantly advanced: mechanical systems are more efficient, lifting mechanisms are faster, and concrete is stronger. In addition, present challenges include finding elements and materials to replace cement and steel and assigning new methods for elevating people. 

It is stated by many experts that the humanity can afford constructing super-tall buildings technologically, but nowadays only economics can restrain heights. Building skyscrapers is possible through wealth. Under the circumstances of the money shortage, no investor will risk major outlays in projects like skyscrapers. Although construction of tall buildings is financially intensive, big cities need them in order to save energy, reduce carbon-affected areas and car dependency, and save lands intended for agriculture. In other words, conception of building skyscrapers remains topical and exciting nowadays. However, height decision for a skyscraper will always be a matter of debate. While taking into account all the advantages of tall towers, the society can ask itself if it is reasonable to build a mile-high construction. Many people see it as nothing more than attention-seeking competition of rich countries. Notwithstanding, there is the Kingdom Tower skyscraper of 1km in height presently under approval. Therefore, through the example of the latter and exploration of modern trends of architecture, this paper will try to recreate the picture of the prospective super tall tower. Firstly, the mile-high tower of today would look esthetically attractive with big glass windows. The dissent among architects against glass is growing since many experts find this design out of time. Some of them are working even on developing vented facades and low E-glass technologies. However, traditional glass coating can have positive footprints. New challenges of today force creators of skyscrapers to reform them through accepting solar panels, photovoltaic cells, wind turbines, or other issues to put forth renewable energy sources. Some rows of installed glass windows, for example, could work as energy accumulators, contributing hereby to the green environment conception. Another peculiarity of glazing would be the use of low-conducive glass to reduce cooling expenses by lowering thermal loading. The main theme for construction should follow the rule that the design of tall buildings appears as a part of the surrounding ecology. The super high structure of today could have a triangular or quadrangular base area and a sloped exterior to withstand wind loads. It would have over 200 floors, each of which would be accessed by high speed elevators. The speed travel, according to the Kingdom Tower plan, can be about 10 meters per second. Faster- moving abilities can not be recommended because a quick change in air pressure may cause sickness. Elevating system could be divided into three parts along the vertical, each having separate service station. As opposed to the Wright’s ‘arrow’, the high-riser of today would have multiple fire-rated stairs available at upper floors as well. Vertical circulation executed by a single device would be off-limits by code. That is to say that access even to the highest levels should be accomplished by both staircase and lift. Cooling of the tower can be performed in two ways: either through taking cooler air from the upper area and allocating it through the building via a conditioning system or through orienting the construction in the way that no façade would face the sun. The crew of 3,000 industrial assemblers could be engaged in the building process. Special safety program should be applied to workers since working in the heights is fraught with risky occasions. Presently, it is possible to build super tall towers thanks to computer power. Through the use of digital computer technology, architects can try multiple alternatives before selecting the optimal solution (Ali and Al-Kodmany 416). Façades of modern skyscrapers are made to be sustainable constructions with the use of double- or triple-skins that are perfectly ventilated. In comparison with the Wright’s mile-high building design, modern drafts of skyscrapers involve advanced smart materials concerning luminous, acoustical, and thermal constructing environments. More than that, the high-rise of today should provide not only visual amenity, but also healthy, safe, and comfortable working or living conditions for thousands of people. This would be achieved by employing innovative indoor transportation modes, HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning) technologies, and innovative structural systems. Such substances as carbon fiber, composites, and nanomaterials would be used if the mile-high building were built nowadays. Nanoskyscrapers of the 21st century will employ hydrophobic coatings, embedded sensors, heat-reflecting paint, polymer optical fiber lighting, and heat-absorbing switchable windows (Ali and Al-Kodmany 417). Besides technical developments, other qualities are equally important during the construction work. Thus, designers of multistoried buildings must take into consideration the entire longevity of the latter ones and view them as a part of interrelated environmental and biological systems. 

In recent years, there has been a tendency in urban architecture to seek new forms of constructing, which would meet demands of time. So, when cities become denser and movement of city members increases, it is not possible anymore to stay at the same phase of development. The city cannot bear more growth without engaging other complementary systems and ranges such as parking, transport, and undergrounds supposed to favor freedom of movement. Such a situation has an influence on current urban designs, including tall buildings. The sky-city of today can help eliminate the radius of human activity. A vertical town can comprehend various social services, ranging from schools to parks. Health and school facilities are preferably to be located on the lower floors; while offices, apartments, and hotels can be settled higher. Gardens and flower beds can cover outdoor balconies or terraces of many levels, compensating thereby beyond-reach greenness. A new trend in architecture, however, goes beyond the idea of saving from urban density with the help of skyscrapers. The novel approach involves a combination of vertical and horizontal forms in building designs. Multistoried constructions can be connected at upper levels with the series of bridges. If speaking about bindings in an ultra tall building, the aforementioned configurations can be used to a certain degree as well. It will not impair general impression if additional high structures are attached to the main tower on the lower levels. Joining the edifices by bridges increases fire safety; this makes it easy to move between them in case of fire. These bridges can also contribute to the area, integrating life of the street into the “pathways” of the upper levels. Some bridges can be used for transition between the towers; others can have accommodating functions. Thus, the city in the 21st century can and should be connected at higher levels to reduce crowded conditions of the urban environment. 

Finally, it should be concluded that the idea once being proclaimed by Frank Lloyd Wright remains topical and interesting nowadays. With the development of technology, erection of such a project has become a reality. Although constructing the mile-high building is considerably expensive, operability and utility of the latter leave no doubts. The most important mission of any skyscraper is to combat urban density of cities. As a matter of fact, high-risers should match the declared purpose along with bringing people the aesthetic delight.               


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