Finishing off the semester with a great couple of days in Chicago with Iowa State’s entire CHRG (Construction History Research Group)–all two of them.

Since receiving the CTBUH’s first Student Research Award, Shawn Barron (far L) and Saranya Panchaseelan (far R) have been working to build digital models of key mid-century high rises, focusing on the relationships between skin, structure, and environmental response.  While most of this era’s structures are interpreted as a dialogue between cladding and structure, we’re trying to show how mechanical and environmental systems–air conditioning and lighting in particular–were part of the mix.  And, how cladding technologies had to go beyond simple advances in connections and fabrication.  Skins had to achieve fairly good performance in terms of insulation and heat absorption before they became reasonable solutions to skyscraper exteriors.


Alcoa Building, Pittsburgh, PA.  Harrison and Abramowitz, 1953-1954.  Model by Shawn Barron

So of particular interest is the brief appearance of the solid curtain wall, represented in particular by the 1953-54 Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh, which came just after Solex heat absorbing glass came on the market.  Harrison and Abramowitz opted not to use it, possibly because of negative publicity about cracking that occurred in early applications at the U.N. and Portland’s Equitable Building.

SOM was at the forefront, of course, of much of this development.  Lever House (1952) is often thought of as the paradigmatic curtain wall, but it has a couple of details that make this claim a bit suspect.  I’m going to hold back for now on what our research has shown, but it’s more in the Alcoa tradition than it appears, and the glass skin is really only slightly more transparent, in terms of percentage of actual clear glass in the facade, than Alcoa’s.


Lever House, New York, NY.  SOM, 1952.  Model by Saranya Panchaseelan

What our work is heading toward is an understanding of Chicago’s Inland Steel Building as a key moment in the successful architectural combination of insulated, heat-rejecting glass with air conditioning and fluorescent lighting in creating a truly deep plan, thin-skinned high rise, what we think is the first to do this without recourse to solid fireproofing or insulating elements between floors and ceilings.  To figure out whether this is the case or not, of course, the CHRG team is going to tackle Inland and several contemporary ‘glass boxes’ this spring, looking in particular at the interface between floor plates, mechanical systems, and cladding.

To do this, SOM has very generously let us look through original construction drawings for these structures.  Thanks to the hard work of their librarian and archivist, we spent a day poring over ductwork plans, lighting layouts, and cladding details, all the while trying not to get distracted by the view of a wintry Grant Park outside their offices in the Railway Exchange Building.  (The architectural history there is so thick you can slice it…).  We presented some preliminary work to the office over happy hour, and were happy to be invited to see a floor of Inland Steel that’s being renovated.  To go from drawing to actual building was priceless, and we were able to establish that we were looking at original ductwork, cabling, etc., from what we’d seen in the archives.

Throw in dinner at Harry Caray’s with some of SOM’s designers and ISU alums, and it made for a solid weekend.  Lots of work to do once the team gets back together in January, and undoubtedly some surprises ahead as we unpack the drawings and figure out some of what made these buildings tick.

A million thanks to Karen Widi, Jen Masengarb at CAF who helped make connections, Bill Baker, Neil Katz, Michael Jividen, and ISU alums Kyle Vansice and Scott Steffes for a memorable and productive couple of days.

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