Redeeming the Skyscraper


August 1930

December 1937

July 1939

While the Empire State building began to rise from the streets of Manhattan island, further downtown the stockmarket fell into nearly irredeemable depths. The crash of 1929 spurred the financial ruin of mass America that began what is known as the Great Depression.

As America fumbled to regain its economic footing, it sought a scapegoat-- someone or something to blame for its unfulfilled monetary needs and the increasingly visible impoverished state of the city. Because it was both an expensive enterprise and "the most conspicuous feature" (84) of the modern city, the skyscraper easily became an image of blame.

To the lower and middle classes, the skyscraper represented all that was scornful about the urban landscape and their current economic depravity. To men of business and, more specifically, to the editors of Fortune magazine the skyscraper was a technological and economic feat in need of celebration.

In the prophetic conclusion to its "Skyscraper" series of 1930, Fortune comes to the defense of the skyscraper:

    "...a city of free clear columns walled in metal and glass rising forty or sixty or eighty stories into the air...a city beautiful from the air and from the sea. What it will be from street level the oracle neglects to say. That is a problem for goverments. And the actions of governments none can forecast."

By viewing the skyscraper from above, the Fortune editors displace its location, severing the relationship between the image of the skyscraper itself and the actuality of the city streets.

Artistic renderings of the skyscraper on the cover of Fortune reveal this same desire to celebrate rather than deprecate these metropolitan giants. The covers of August 1930 and July 1939 portray the city from above the streets, releasing the skyscraper from the complications of social conditions, allying them instead with other new technologies: the typewriter (an invaluable instrument to the efficiency of the business world) and the airplane--from which the view is taken--(representative of potential traveling efficiency and further expansion of the business marketplace).

On the cover of the December 1937 issue, the skyscraper is celebrated as a symbol of financial prosperity by assembling it as a Christmas tree thereby forcing a relationship between the profits attained from this frenzied buying season and the image of the skyscraper itself. It is viewed neither from above nor below; it is completely disassembled from its place in the urban landscape and transformed into a symbol of corporate wealth.

Amidst a slew of existant anti-city, anti-skyscraper propaganda, the Fortune editors sought to create an urban image that separated corporate enterprises from political, leaving its readers with a view of economic optimism that ignored the city's social ills. Fortune's skyscraper is an image of business, profit, and a rising economy--an image achieved through an alliance of the economic and the technologic with the aesthetic.


For more on the history of skyscrapers, see
"Building the Chrysler Building: the Social Construction of the Skyscraper"

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