Analysis Of John Wellborn Root’s Essay: A Great Architectural Problem

The initial design of American tall office building is based on commercial and economy. It could be first easily identified from the transformation of the word that used to describe skyscraper. Tall office building was not original been called skyscraper. Actually, there is no commonly agreed name for tall office building at the very beginning. In John Wellborn Root’s essay, “A Great Architectural Problem”, he described tall office buildings in detail but didn’t give them a name at all. Later, people directly name them “business block” by their function.

It became more literal when people started to call office building “commercial style”. 10 years later, the word “skyscraper” started to gain common acknowledge. From these three names, skyscraper, business block and commercial style, there are three major characteristics of tall office building could be analyzed: tall, rectangle and functional as office. All three characteristics were formed because of the local social and commercial condition at that period of time. First of the all, what is the most significant feature of American office building at first glimpse?

Of course, it’s the height. American office building has more stories than European architecture and the reason behind it is direct, too: population growth. From 1790 to 2000, U. S. population had been always growing. In 1790, the total population increased from 3,929,214 to 291,421,906. Despite the large base of local American inhabitants, the largest factor for the increase of population is immigration. The end of civil war and gold rush in the 19th century let people from all over the world come to U. S. and seek for greater opportunities.

With the increasing population, two to three-story buildings in European style didn’t fit social needs anymore. Considering the use of land, if there is a limitation of building horizontally, the alternative way is building vertically. Second, the reason why plans transformed into rectangular shape is city planning. Skyscrapers are mostly located in the city, more specifically, downtown. In order to maximize the use of valuable land, rectangle is the perfect shape that largely reduces space waste, which made city planning become more efficient and easier. Third, increasing population also caused a blooming in American business.

The need of office spaces for companies grew rapidly on market. Architects changed their focus from residential to functional as office. Therefore, early skyscrapers in U. S. has a tall, rectangular and functional as office qualities because of economic growth, intensive use of land, city planning, and blooming of American businesses. In order to achieve all three qualities, high, rectangular and functional, technical innovation and new ways of thinking of the form is definitely needed. Fisher Building in Chicago could be a perfect example to demonstrate.

This tall office building used an exterior structure called The Chicago school style, also known as commercial style. The Chicago school style mainly introduced new technology of steel-frame construction in commercial buildings. Unlike Monadnock across the street, which used earlier masonry wall-bearing type of construction, fisher building used skeletal steel columns to support the entire structure. The exterior wall doesn’t support the whole structure at all, instead, surface of exterior wall decreased and changed into windows to provide sufficient sunlight for interior space.

There are also some high level technical advances in the Fisher Building. One of the most unique features is the use of twenty-five foot piles under the foundations in order to accommodate the high pressure on the footings. This had never been done before until 1896 because normal buildings won’t reach a height of eighteen stories. The use of Chicago school style is not only just a technical innovation, but also an innovative thinking of forms. In European architecture, architects mainly focus on the form and didn’t need to worry about how much they spend on the building.

However, Chicago architects gave this new theory, form follows finance. It means the design should first be economical and the form could be determined based on it. For example, an important factor of “form follows finance” is the economic height, which is totally different with engineering height. The economic height means the number of stories that a building had should produce the highest rate on money investment. In fisher building, the use of steel structure reduces the cost of construction period and labor.

The fact is that the completion of Fisher building only took nine months with minimum waste, which was significant at that time. The use of terra cotta instead of brick is also an important factor of “form follows finance”. Although brickwork is the most popular material for U. S. architecture, for practical consideration, the whole building barely use any brick. The most important reason is terra cotta is mush lighter than brickwork, which could largely decrease loading pressure on steel structure. On the other side, terra cotta also works as fireproofing and protecting element.

Despite form follows finance, the second principle that Fisher Building applied is “form follows function”. This principle suggests that the shape of building should be primarily based on its intended function or purpose. “Form follows function” was firstly coined by Louis Sullivan and also was the spirit of the Chicago School style. The plans of Fisher building had taken full consideration of the function as an office building. In order to create large open office area, the amount of columns in interior is minimized. However, windows are maximized to give working space more sunlight during daytime.