Better Questions?  Better Definition?

RSVP Tue, Dec 8, 2020 at 6:00 PM

As a final session of our fall semester, Museum Director Carol Willis offers an overview of the themes explored in the series and proposes a set of characteristics to define “skyscraper” that includes 21st-century developments. She argues that looking backward from today makes clear that a standard definition that cites “steel skeleton” is woefully outdated and proposes some key characteristics that have defined the skyscraper typology across the past 150 years.

The standard narrative of the birth and development of the skyscraper has always stressed steel replacing masonry. But today, concrete is employed in a range of structural systems and a heavy concrete core is the standard feature of all supertalls. The engineer of the next world’s tallest building (if completed) Jeddah Tower, describes its structure a “pure bearing wall.”

A better definition of the skyscraper and its history uses more lenses than a focus on materials, technology, and structural systems, as our series of speakers have demonstrated in their talks. But there is a fixation on certain questions in the popular press and even in scholarship such as the recent publication of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) titled First Skyscrapers | Skyscraper Firsts.

“What was the first skyscraper?” presupposes we know what a “skyscraper” is. Willis will attempt to frame some of the points of a definition and discussion for a continuing dialogue.


Carol Willis, “Fractious Firsts,” in First Skyscrapers | Skyscraper Firsts,

The Structure of Skyscrapers in America 1871-1900:
Their History and Preservation

RSVP Tue, Jan 19, 2021 at 6:00 PM
In this new book, The Structure of Skyscrapers in America, 1871–1900, historian and structural engineer Donald Friedman presents a thorough history of the development of high-rise buildings, not only in New York and Chicago but across the country in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Providing a rich historical context for the emergence of the skyscraper, he details the range of the technical aspects of the construction of this new building type.

Donald Friedman, co-founder of Old Structures Engineering, has thirty years of experience as a structural engineer, working on both the construction of new buildings and the renovation of existing structures. He has taught at the Pratt Institute, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute School of Architecture, and the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He is the author of numerous articles for technical publications and five books on construction, renovation, and engineering.

Book cover of Modern Mobility Aloft

Modern Mobility Aloft:
Elevated Highways, Architecture, and Urban Change in Pre-Interstate America

RSVP Tue, Feb 9, 2021 at 6:00 PM
In Modern Mobility Aloft: Elevated Highways, Architecture, and Urban Change in Pre-Interstate America, Amy Finstein reveals the utopian roots of elevated highway designs in the first half of the twentieth century, connecting built projects in New York, Chicago, and Boston to high-style and popular discourse about cities of the future. Highlighting New York’s role in this pattern, she introduces us to the architects and sculptor responsible for the West Side Elevated Highway, who also were designing iconic Manhattan skyscrapers. Finstein will discuss how New York’s experience connects to a broader pattern of design that synthesized local concerns for economic vitality, urban movement, and architectural modernity via the sinewy forms of elevated highways.

The Invention of Public Space:
Designing for Inclusion in Lindsay’s New York

RSVP Tue, Mar 9, 2021 at 6:00 PM

In The Invention of Public Space: Designing for Inclusion in Lindsay’s New York, Mariana Mogilevich details a watershed moment when designers, government administrators, and residents sought to remake New York City in the image of a diverse, free, and democratic society. Bringing together psychology, politics, and design, her new book considers a broad array of projects in open spaces to affirm the value of city life in a moment of “urban crisis,” and reveals the emergence of a concept of public space that remains today a powerful, if unrealized, aspiration.

Mariana Mogilevich

Mariana Mogilevich is a historian of architecture and urbanism. She is editor-in-chief of Urban Omnibus, the online publication of The Architectural League of New York, and has taught at New York University, Princeton University, Pratt Institute and Cornell University.

Book cover of Wright and New York: The Making of America's Architect by Anthony Alofsin. Copyright Yale University Press.

Wright and New York:
The Making of America’s Architect

RSVP Tue, Apr 6, 2021 at 6:00 PM
Wright and New York turns upside down the conventional notion that Frank Lloyd Wright hated the city, and the city was antagonistic to him. In this illustrated lecture based on his new book, Anthony Alofsin outlines the developments in Wright’s life and work that demonstrate how New York turned around his career in the late 1920s and early 1930s to position him for the glory—and branding—of his final decades. The talk focuses on Wright’s visionary design for an immense Modern Cathedral to serve all religions and for the skyscraper, he designed for the church of St. Marks-in-the-Bouwerie in New York’s East Village.

Anthony Alofsin, FAIA, is the Roland Roessner Centennial Professor of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. A practicing architect and art historian, he is known internationally as a leading expert on Frank Lloyd Wright. The author of a dozen books ranging on subjects from the architecture of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire to the history of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, he has also written review essays for the Times Literary Supplement, The Atlantic, and The Burlington Magazine.