Tearing Down the Towers
Critics of the Skyscraper

"The needs of American industry have made skyscrapers indispensable; the wealth created by that industry pays for their construction; and the incongruous designs of the majority of skyscrapers reflect the same heedless activity, the same concentration on output rather than results, the same elevation of industry above mankind, that have caused the year 1930 to be distinguished in American history for the extent of its industrial depression and unemployment" (Dewing, "Towers" 594).

It did not take long for the euphoria of the skyscraper to wear off. Despite the efforts to place the Chrysler Building within the continuum of the past, some reacted against the effects of the steel behemoths. Headlines cried out "What Price Tall Buildings?" and worried letters to the editor asked, "Must we soon travel vertically from home to office?" As the depression worsened, people saw the skyscraper as a symbol of the excess that had caused the financial collapse. Skyscrapers sent the price of real-estate soaring almost exponentially, making high buildings even more necessary. The higher the price of land, the bigger the building had to be to make a profit. This vicious cycle was creating an urban jungle.

There were many critics, not just of the Chrysler Building, but of the urban environment that was being created in a matter of a few short years. There were many solutions offered: city planning, restrictions, and development of suburbs. Although these ideas did come to light, they did not kill the skyscraper as we can see in our cities today.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was not a reactionist to technology, but he thought it should be used to escape from the city.

"All of our modern inventors and that amazing thing, the machine, have taken away from the city the excuse for its being. We don't need it any more. The city is centralization to the nth degree and the4 skyscraper is its peak. The centralization ideal died when democracy was born (qtd. in "Skyscrapers" 324).

Wright was not against the skyscraper itself--but its position in the city. He believed in his "Broadacre City" plan, where medium-sized communities would be like the rural townships of the 19th century. In this setting the skyscraper would be acceptable, "In certain strategic locations in every village, town or city, tall buildings and as tall as may be should be permissible." Wright himself came up with a design for a mile high skyscraper to be built in the countryside. In an article entitled "The Tyranny of the Skyscraper" Wright equated the move to the country as the destiny of a democratic nation.

"Why do we continue to allow a blind instinct driven by greed to make the fashion and kill, for a free people in a new land, so many fine possibilities in spacious city planning" (329).

Wright posing in 1956 with his plan for a mile high skyscraper in the country.

Others agreed with Wright's ideas and thought city planning and rezoning would solve the problem of the urban jungle. In his article "What Price Tall Buildings?" Oliver Whithall Wilson proposed his solution.

"There are two necessary steps to take. First, there must be a drastic revision of the zoning sections of the building code. Second, stringent bulk-cubage limitations that were worked out some years ago must be put in force...In other words, where tall buildings exist, new buildings in the same block must be low...There is an evident and growing need for proper and adequate public appreciation of city and regional planning" (127).

For more on planned communities in the 1930's see the following sites, all of which are part of AS@UVA's project on America in the 1930's:

The City section of Reaping the Golden Harvest, Pare Lorentz: Poet and Filmaker.

The Boulder City section of The Hoover Dam site.

The Democracity section of Iconography of Hope: The 1939-1940 New York World's Fair