Higher, bigger, brighter, richer, New York City has come to epitomise the heart of American civilisation and its constant quest for greatness. The 'city that never sleeps' has always aimed for greatness, and architecture has traditionally been one of the city's favourite ways to demonstrate its power and wealth.
Two developments in the nineteenth century paved the way for the skyscraper. The first was the invention of safe elevators in 1853, with a safety device that kept them from falling if a cable should break. On top of this, the invention of a grid of steel beams and columns that were strong enough to support any stresses a building might experience meant that the race for the tallest building could begin.
New buildings popped up at the speed of light. By 1902, 65 skyscrapers are being constructed. In the early twentieth century, corporations built skyscrapers for promotional value to increase name recognition. Among the early skyscrapers in Manhattan were the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower (700 feet, 50 stories), the Woolworth Building (the world's tallest from 1913-1930 at 792 feet, 60 stories), the Bank of Manhattan (927 feet, 71 stories), and the heavily decorated Chrysler Building (briefly the world's tallest in 1930 at 1046 feet, 77 stories). The Chrysler Building soon lost its crown to the Empire State Building, built during the Depression by a real estate developer, which reached a stunning 1,250 feet and 102 stories. The Empire State Building would reign supreme among skyscrapers for 41 years. And in 1972, the World Trade Center surpassed all other constructions (1,368 feet, 110 stories).
Glass walls became very popular after World War II, because they are weatherproof while providing ample natural light, and also because they are so much lighter and cheaper than masonry or concrete. Interestingly enough, the architectural styles of these constructions find their roots in older civilisations (Italian Renaissance, Greek temples, Golden pyramidal shapes on top of the towers etc.).
In 1998, for the first time in history, the title of the world's tallest skyscraper left the United States when the Petronas Towers were built (1483 feet, 88 stories) in Kuala Lumpur. Today, Taiwan and Dubai are higher on the list than any building in the US, but after the financial crisis and more than a decade after the 9/11, there has never been more construction than in Manhattan today. Among them, Jean Nouvel’s new tower, and a fresh new neighbourhood in Hell’s Kitchen. Witnessing the work of the carpenters on these streets is a testimony of a real display of force.
Alexandra Breznaÿ is a French documentary photographer who graduated from the International Center of Photography in 2010. After having lived three years in New York, she is currently based in Paris. Find her at www.alexandrabreznay.com.