Carol Willis

Building tall: the vernaculars of capitalism

Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia © Creative Commons

The development of a city is influenced by many economic regulations, policies, and technologies. The space reserved for work shapes a city’s image. Through the comparative study of the development of Chicago and New York from 1890s to 1940s, Carol Willis explains her theory of the vernaculars of capitalism, where rules and urban factors produce various three-dimensional expressions.

Carol Willis is an urban planning and architecture historian, a specialist of the history of building American cities.

Jesse Seegers is an architect, journalist, architecture critic and graphic designer.

(Interview by Jesse Seegers)

Jesse Seegers : Let’s begin by discussing the thesis of Form Follows Finance. The book covers the history of the invention and development of the skyscraper in Chicago and New York from the 1890’s up to World War II. You argue that the driving force for the development of the skyscraper was the extent to which it will return a profit. You then examine the details of how New York and Chicago developed differently due to a number of factors. Each city’s unique qualities had greater effect on the overall form and progression of the skyscraper than any willful gesture by the architect.


Form follows profitability, and light

Carol Willis : As I framed the book, I looked at the history of the skyscraper and found there was a natural break around the Post-War Era. There is clearly a difference between the earlier era and the Post-War skyscraper revival of the 1950’s. While often explained simply as a stylistic change, this visual distinction stems from other very important reasons. If you define the development of the skyscraper as an expression of economic, cultural, and stylistic forces, then each of the two eras I present take a radically different approach to the typology of the skyscraper. I start my discussion on the beginnings of the skyscraper, though dated by some as the 1870’s, in the 1890’s when buildings start to get truly tall. In New York, they achieve 20 stories, surpassing pre-1880’s heights of 9 to 14 stories. During the period of 1900-1920’s, building tall is highly desirable and there is interest in becoming the world’s tallest building. You see the expression of the commercial, capitalist impulse in the skyline. But those buildings are shaped, or constrained, you could say, by very different forces than post-World War II.

Most architectural historians tend to attribute this distinction to the rise of the International Style and the expression of the modern materials, steel and glass, and the technologies, curtain walls and air conditioning. While these were certainly important in the Post-War Era, style is the key term here. The dramatic shift post-World War II seemed to me a discrete development, needing to be described in its own terms. Taking the 50-or-so year period, from the 1890’s to the 1940’s, I argue why these buildings are largely the same.


Form Follows Finance, 1995 © Carol Willis Archives - The Skyscraper Museum, New-York

I ask the question: If the office is the generator of the building plan, then – taking Corbusier’s dictum that the plan is the generator – why is the three-dimensional expression of the office so different when comparing New York and Chicago, even though they are using the same office? I saw that there were two dramatically different types, one in Chicago and one in New York that one can see through the 1910’s. Then in the 1920’s, some people say the two cities tend to look more alike, but if you really get into New York versus Chicago in the 1920’s, as I do in the book, they really are quite different. It seemed that other scholars had misread these buildings, and I wanted to show how and why Chicago buildings looked like Chicago buildings, and New York buildings looked like New York buildings.

I identified important generative characteristics and constraints. Common to both cities, I found that economics was the key generative factor and daylighting illumination the major constraint. They needed to have large windows and a short core-to-exterior-wall distance. This consideration drives the form of the building, requiring light wells to be cut out of the space, commonly in the center of the building or as a U-shaped court. Two differing factors for New York and Chicago were the plotting of the land and the municipal building codes. Whereas in 1893, Chicago put a cap on building height, in New York there was no such constraint on building form or size until 1916. In Chicago zoning allowed for the “square-donut-plan,” which while occupying the size of a normal lot, or quarter of a Chicago block, featured a cut in the center by a mews or a service corridor. With a half block, you could have a normal building footprint. Conversely, in New York, buildings are allowed to reach taller but with much smaller footprints due to limited lot size. It makes sense in this context to have a tower with shallower offices on the perimeter of a solid and dark circulation core.

Form Follows Finance, 1995 © Carol Willis Archives - The Skyscraper Museum, New-York

The constraints of daylight, size of the lot, and municipal codes create a formula for the best economic expression of development forces of that site. Lo and behold, all of the buildings in Chicago from that period look like each other and all of the buildings in New York look like each other. Well, not all of them, but the tower becomes typical.

Jesse Seegers : And after 1916 in New York, only a few – like a few of those by Raymond Hood – were towers.

Carol Willis : Yes, Hood maintains his preference for the tower and figures out how to trick developers into building what he wants rather than building what the zoning law says you should build.

Jesse Seegers : If we could talk about the concept of the grid: going back all the way to Hippodamus in Miletus, the grid is the example of speculation in urban form. Being able to quantify land and sell it speculatively, often in relation to the value of the land around it, is the embodiment – one could say the urban vernacular – of capitalism. If we try to imagine how the New York grid transforms with that third dimension of height, the drawing by JL Kingston in 1929 is an amazing attempt to do that, perhaps the best example of capitalism’s reaction to the 1916 Zoning Law. The alternate title that you wanted was Vernaculars of Capitalism. Could you talk about how this might also be applicable to the city as a whole, not only the economics of singular buildings in the early 1900’s, but also now jumping to the contemporary city?

Carol Willis : In the period post-World War II, though economics, and zoning in the case of New York, continue to generate the buildings, technology becomes the most important factor. Often overlooked is the development of fluorescent lighting, which burns cooler, allowing deeper spaces. Even though windows are afforded in first-class office buildings today for views and exterior connection, you can have a deep floor plate stretching 40 feet away from a window, with large, open areas of clerks or Dilbert-esque cubicles and office machines in the back. Air conditioning and fluorescent lighting — plus a taste for the modernist style of glass curtain walls on a steel frame – make a tectonic of floor plates allowing much larger, bulkier buildings. This simply wasn’t possible in the 1920’s.

Then how does this apply to the city? Clearly in New York, zoning is the most important and visible determinant of building form. The 1916 Zoning Law shapes the buildings as wedding-cake towers, or as diagonally-sliced setbacks with sky-exposure planes, in that very indelible quality of Manhattan’s grid. The new formula based on this code direct the massing of buildings such that they are set back from the street and appear as singular objects in an open space; the street-wall is thereby broken.

The character of New York has been episodically altered, but I think the most important thing about New York is that it is composed of individual buildings on single lots: it is a developer’s city, if you want to think of it that way. You can try as hard as John D. Rockefeller did to make Rockefeller Center a center, as a model for future development, and Modernist planners preferred superblock development and towers in plazas, but New York trumps such gestures by having so many parcels of ownership that are developed separately. That is what gives Manhattan its vernacular. I like to talk about the buildings as a vernacular, in strong contrast to an architect-personality explanation, celebrating the ego and individual expression. Buildings are absolutely shaped by general forces, just as Anasazi cliff dwellings and Italian hill towns are shaped by local geology. The term vernacular makes sense to me, therefore, to explain the landscape of the city.

Jesse Seegers : One interesting case is the Empire State Building. In the book you tell the history: the developers of the Empire State Building determined that the most cost-effective return on investment on the full-block site would be a 70-something story tower, but if they went ten more stories to be the tallest building in the world, another elevator core would be required, reducing the rentable area-per-floor and resulting in a less economically viable project. But, if they had the title of “World’s Tallest Building,” they projected that they could charge higher rents and collect them faster, therefore gambling on actually having the most economical solution in the end –

Carol Willis : – And of course they were wrong, because timing plays an important role in building development and urban development. Had things worked out well and the stock market continued to rise and companies continued to expand, they might have succeeded in establishing a new center on 34th Street. Location matters enormously in urban development. I don’t believe there is any determinism in development, whether technological or economic, because each building is an equation that economists would call an over-determined equation; there are simply too many variables.

Chicago aerial View © D.Delano

Regulation and evolution

Jesse Seegers : Could you talk a little bit more about how buildings follow the basic logic of capitalism and economics despite so many variables? What prevents buildings from each being a unique response to such case-specific variables? Is there a tension between the specifics of the site and the over-arching tendency towards standardization?

Carol Willis : In New York, we don’t build the world’s tallest buildings anymore, principally because it’s not legally possible. In addition, I think we have a bit of an animus against tall buildings and an appreciation of human scale, sidewalk life. I think you can have both of these things at the same time, and it makes sense if a city is going to grow.

Jesse Seegers : Do you think that the 1961 Zoning Law (that capped height) in New York is analogous to 1893 when Chicago put a cap on building height, resulting in many companies’ decision to move to New York because they could build taller, and in the long run was detrimental to Chicago’s economic growth?

Carol Willis : You have to look at it historically, because when a city constrains height, it is usually in a moment of that city’s phases of development and politics. These classic phases repeat in cities around the world. I’ve talked about this, but have not yet written about it. The phases are:

1 – Laissez-faire

2 –  Regulated, when zoning laws come in. In New York this would be 1916 and just after, in the 1920’s.

3 – Masterplanning, when regulation evolves into actually trying to make planning decisions, rather than just trying to control or shape development and regulating the individual lot. This would be 1960’s in New York under Robert Moses.

4 – Pushback, or what I call “Highly Evolved Urbanism,” which is where we are now in New York. In Paris, and Europe in general, it has been highly evolved since Haussmann and after, or London in 1900. European cities maxed out long ago on what they thought was permissible development. New York maxed out in the 1980’s or so, and we entered this stage of Highly Evolved Urbanism, which is a kind of public consensus governed by dominant politics.

World Trade Center © J. Witkins

Jesse Seegers : You have stated that the main differences in major towers in the 20th and 21st century is that they were once (1) constructed of steel, (2) office buildings, and (3) in the United States, there has been a skyscraper paradigm shift, and they are now predominantly (1) concrete, (2) mixed-use, and (3) more likely to be in Asia or the Middle East. If we are shifting from a business-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, how do you think that change will affect the skyscraper? Are we already witnessing this with the shift wherein skyscrapers are now mostly residential and people can work from home? Are the same amount of office skyscrapers being built, but simply dwarfed by a vast increase in tall buildings for mixed-use and residential?

Carol Willis : It matters a lot what city you’re talking about. New York has been extraordinarily lucky, or let’s say smart, during this last downturn; its identity as a global city has kept it competitive in the world economy. That has kept New York – across classes – in better stead than certainly any other city in the US. Apropos building use, New York zoning laws don’t really encourage mixed-use buildings. The Time Warner Center is what some call “the first Asian skyscraper in New York,” because it has separate towers and complementary uses, with a major shopping mall as the podium/base for the towers. If you look around the world, you see that this is the solution for towers throughout Asia: a mixed-use tower with offices on the lower floors, services in the middle, and a hotel on the top. There will almost always be a hotel on the top, which needs shallower floor space and often has an open courtyard or atrium space that cuts through the whole space. In plan this works extremely well for a spire that narrows as it ascends. This takes on the characteristics of a sleek, aspiring, slender sky-scraper. It merits the romantic term for the super-tall building: not high-rise, but skyscraper.When you look at the type around the world, mixed-use is the way to create an urban enclave in the vertical dimension. You can encompass all of the complementary uses that exist in New York already because of its neighborhoods.

Jesse Seegers : They just happen more horizontally.

Carol Willis : Yes, and until we had the latest fiscal crisis, the highest and best use of New York land was luxury apartments, and a majority of development was going into apartments. Again, timing really matters in the developer’s mindset, where function follows finance, and finance follows function; they are reciprocal.

Jesse Seegers : To talk more about the present and the future: in the past 15 years we have witnessed the phenomenon that a developer building a condo building could hire a “star” or “brand-name” architect and charge 10-15% more on the prices of those condos, for high-design value. Could you comment on that and how it relates to your theory?

Carol Willis : Well, the first sentence of the book says, I picked the term “form follows finance” because I liked the alliteration, and because economics is obviously important and has been far too undervalued. It is certainly about money, but it’s not only about money. Even if it’s 90% about money, that doesn’t mean that spending a little bit extra gets you a little bit more in the end. I think that is the argument for high-style design, or star-chitecture or branding, however you want to think about it. In the 1920’s that might have been a Park Avenue Apartment design by Rosario Candela. A name well recognized for gracious design or “Society Design” was important, but the address was the thing you were buying. People certainly still “buy” addresses, or neighborhoods, for example Williamsburg, or SoHo, or High Line. The idea is that a named-neighborhood has greater value than some place that is on 23rd Street. I think good design does matter, just for its own purposes, and starchitects are good architects. It’s not just that they are celebrities with ersatz reputations. They win a Pritzker prize because they’ve done work of real merit. So you are buying cashmere instead of wool. They may all keep you warm, but some of them are going to feel better and look better.

Jesse Seegers : What is the follow-up book to Form Follows Finance?

Carol Willis : In the book, I skip the second half of the century, because it would be its own book and would take far too long given my current projects to devote the amount of energy that I gave to Form Follows Finance. The first book evolved over quite a few years and various thought-processes. It’s very reductive as a text, but it took a long time to think through the research and to figure out how to make it shorter. While I love Modernism, I’m not convinced that it is so richly explicable as the first half of the twentieth century is, because with Modernism, style really does matter. 

SOM, Burj Khalifa, Dubaï UAE © SOM Architects

This show on “Supertall” really interests me, to try to look across countries, rather than just at one city or one era, to see how buildings were the same and to say, “What can you say about the 21st century?” There is now a natural break between the 21st century and the 20th, and because of 9/11 in particular – after 9/11 radio journalists and newspaper editors were proclaiming the death of the skyscraper and running headlines asking, “Will there be any more skyscrapers?” And there have been more than ever before in any decade of history. I want to ask: If you look at what has happened and what is happening based on this first decade of design, what do they have in common? They have strong characteristics in common, but when you talk to the architects individually, they say each one of these buildings is really a one-off, because each developer wants each building to be iconic in that city. They are both of those things at the same time. Further, concentrating large numbers of people together allows for mass transit and common public space shared by everyone and that is well programmed, attractive, and publicly accessible. I think that’s a logical way to use the planet.

(This article was published in Stream 02 in 2012.)