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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image The Birth of the Skyscraper The First U.S. Zoning Law
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The First U.S. Zoning Law
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Architects began to experiment with how you could design a building using the requirements of the zoning law and get something that was spectacularly dramatic on the skyline. The design that influenced New York architects was actually a losing design for the Chicago Tribune competition. This was a design that was submitted in 1922 to the Chicago Tribune competition by the Finnish immigrant architect Eliel Saarinen. It was the second-place design, so it did not win the competition, but it was widely published and it had a tremendous impact on New York architecture. Saarinen was inspired by the New York zoning law, even though this law was not in effect in Chicago. He designed a building that used the ideas of the zoning law but did so in a dramatic way. The building has a very solid base. It is anchored to the ground, and the base has large round arches. It is only about two or three stories tall so that it has a relationship to the pedestrian. There is a solid, rather horizontally massed base, and then on top of this dramatically vertical massing; the windows are in vertical bays and they are recessed between vertical piers that shoot right up the building. And then there is a series of cascading setbacks, each one marked by buttresses in a very dramatic manner so that your eye goes cascading up the building and through the setback until you reach a dramatic buttressed top to the building.

Saarinen took the idea of the New York zoning law and turned it into something dramatic and expressive. Almost immediately, New York architects were inspired by Saarinen's design. In 1922, the architect Arthur Loomis Harmon designed the Shelton Hotel on Lexington Avenue. And you can see how similar this is in its massing to Saarinen's Tribune design: it has a very solid base anchored to the ground, in this case a stone base with brick above; it is horizontally massed in a proportion that worked very well with the pedestrian on the street; and then you have soaring setbacks and strong verticals rising up above. And this building—like the Flatiron Building before it—captured the imagination of the public. This building was painted in a number of views by Georgia O'Keefe, who found this building to be one of the most dramatic buildings on the skyline of New York. She actually lived in the building and would go out and paint it because of its soaring massing and dramatic setbacks.


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