Inventing the Multistory Building
In the second half of the nineteenth century, at the beginning of the restructuring process known as the era of urbanization, the architecture of residential and commercial buildings changed in fundamental ways. Up to that point, a building as a rule represented a self-contained, straightforward entity with at most one or two stories above the ground floor. As the autonomous sphere of an extended family and the domestic servants included in its collective, the “house” evoked, for instance, that sentimental image of the “integral house” that the cultural historian Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl attempted to breathe life into one last time in his well-known work Die Naturgeschichte des Volkes (Natural History of the German People) of 1854. But what appeared there as the evocation of a lifestyle already in the process of dissolution—in view of the first “sad, bleak apartment blocks of our large cities”—lost its significance entirely by the end of the century. Riehl’s defense of an economic and social community under one roof became irrelevant to the extent that the house intended for a single family all but disappeared in the burgeoning cities, to be replaced by a new type of building.
In several respects, the new five- or six-story tenement houses that became a defining architectural feature of European cities between 1860 and 1900 began to extend and diversify the image of the house. For one thing, their vertical extension led naturally to the individual building being divided into a multiplicity of units housing a great variety of residents, a practice that dismembered the model of an “integral house” once and for all. For another, this extension pointed in a less visible direction: the simultaneous appearance of advances such as central heating, sewerage, intercoms, elevators, and, a little later, electricity ensured that from the 1870s on, the interior of the building was criss-crossed by a complex of pipes, cables, and shafts. Beneath the visible surface there arose an invisible network that organized the circulation of energy, data, and people. In the end, this process of mechanization and electrification made it necessary for the formerly independent unit of the house to become networked with its surroundings, for only the connection to external power sources and centrally regulated reservoirs and generators ensured the functionality of its technical installations. The demarcations between the individual buildings of a residential neighborhood became more and more porous.
The elevator played a major role in this profound reorganization of the building. Even the creators of the first multi-story structures in New York and Chicago emphasized that above a certain number of floors, this means of conveyance was the basic prerequisite for further increases in building height. The installation of the elevator propelled the expansion and diversification of the building, and not just in the obvious sense that it is what made buildings of more than five or six stories possible in the first place. In the form of a cab closed to view from outside and moving through the middle of the building, it created a novel, hermetically sealed conduit. One of the most important characteristics of modern apartment and office buildings is that they consist to a large extent of previously unknown semi-public spaces such as stairwells and corridors. Suddenly, in the traditionally encapsulated family sphere of the residential building, it was possible to encounter strangers almost anywhere, and such encounters became even more focused in the elevator. Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl saw the incipient decline of the “integral house” in the contraction of the once generously proportioned communal spaces of urban middle-class houses “to a tiny corner.” The multistory apartment and office buildings that were standard by the end of the nineteenth century no longer had such spaces. The floor plan was divided into private residential or commercial parcels on the one hand and spaces devoted solely to traffic circulation on the other—a fragmentation vehemently criticized a century after Riehl by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space: “In Paris there are no houses, and the inhabitants of the big city live in superimposed boxes.” And precisely that fact raises a question that we will revisit in the following chapters: to what extent did the appearance of the new architectural element “elevator” (a shaft that in equal measure domesticates and obscures verticality, a conveyance in which for the first time one can reach the upper levels of a building without the slightest effort, a cab that irritates its occupants with its cramped interior but is invisible from the outside) determine the organization and perception of multistory buildings or, especially in European cities, massively reshape an already existing order?
Emerging in New York in the 1850s, the elevator became established at different rates of speed in Europe and the United States. In the United States it was already a standard feature of large East Coast hotels by the early 1860s, and by 1870 was installed in New York’s Equitable Life Building (its first use in a multistory office building), but this means of conveyance remained almost unknown in Europe well into the late 1860s, at the most occurring as a purely hand-operated device for moving freight between floors in a factory. Only with the development of the extremely safe hydraulic elevator first exhibited at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair (with its cab attached to a piston located below ground level, which pushed the elevator upwards when filled with water under pressure) did the apparatus begin to find widespread use in France and soon thereafter in Germany. For instance, the acceptance of the hydraulic technique led to the installation of passenger elevators in Berlin hotels and commercial buildings in the 1870s. The earliest articles on elevators in engineering and construction journals, however, revealed how unusual the device still was. An 1874 article titled “Hydraulic Elevators for Passengers and Light Freight” in Berlin, for example, listed every single building equipped with the new conveyance. “Up to now,” according to an 1887 monograph, “the number of passenger elevators installed in Berlin is small. The majority are in hotels, a smaller number in buildings with many offices, etc., and finally, a very small number in purely residential buildings.” In large American cities of the time, there were hardly any multistory residential or commercial buildings that could get by without an elevator. In Germany, by contrast, the vertical transportation of people remained an exception well into the 1890s, when elevators operated either directly or indirectly by hydraulics were replaced by installations with electric drives.
Besides this difference in the speed with which elevators proliferated, there was also a difference in their location within buildings. In New York, Boston, and Chicago, the elevator soon functioned as the core of the building. From the 1870s on, every new multistory building was constructed around an elevator shaft. Open stairwells retrofitted with elevators, even today still frequently to be found in apartment buildings in Paris or Vienna, virtually disappeared in the United States by the end of the nineteenth century. Thus in large American cities, the verticality of the buildings was determined much sooner by the conduit of the elevator. In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas provides a particularly vivid image of this essential status of the elevator shaft when he describes the demolition of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, beginning in 1929, and the start of construction on the Empire State Building on the same site. At a time when very few German buildings existed with a floor plan clearly determined by the elevator, it had long been utterly standard that the elevator shafts constituted the center of a building in the birthplace of this means of transport. “The destruction of the Waldorf is planned as part of the construction. Fragments that are useful remain, such as the elevator cores that now reach into the as yet immaterial floors of the Empire State.” The supervising architect even mentioned the elevators in his autobiography, as quoted by Koolhaas:
“We salvaged four passenger elevators from the old building and installed them in temporary positions in the new framework.”
The inseparable link between the rise of the elevator and the vertical extension of the building, especially in the United States, is well documented in the literature on the history of high-rise buildings. As early as 1891, a New York architectural historian noted, “The perfection of elevator work is the one fundamental condition for high buildings,” and in the first monograph on the origin of the skyscraper, Francisco Mujica writes this lovely sentence: “The entire history of skyscrapers contains an homage to the inventors of the elevator.” This homage would need to point out that in the 1850s and 1860s, it would have been perfectly possible to construct hotels and commercial buildings with more than the prevailing six-story limit, but hotel guests or renters could not be expected to climb an even greater number of stairs. The author of an 1897 article addressed the increasing lack of space in the business districts of Manhattan: “Limited as to the ground, business sought in the air. It had to be done; but how? To pile up more stories on the sixth was useless, since no one would climb up to them. The problem became mechanical, and the financier and the architect were as helpless as the mason.” The solution to the problem took the form of an automatic means of conveyance: “The passenger elevator was the solution… It was to be to modern building what the steam-engine is to transportation, a revolutionary agent.”
In New York around 1875, the elevator enabled an increase in building height to about eleven stories. A series of insurance and newspaper buildings were constructed during those years and dubbed “elevator buildings,” enshrining their sine qua non in their very name. Eleven or twelve stories, however, was their vertical limit, since for any additional stories the walls of the lower floors would have to be so massively expanded and stabilized that any gain in space and rent would be negligible. “There came a time,” continued the same article on the commercial buildings of Manhattan, “when to go higher with the solid masonry method was to lose more income at the bottom than was won on the top.” This dilemma was famously solved at the beginning of the 1880s, in the wake of the great Chicago fire, by the development of steel frame construction, which greatly increased the potential number of floors by transferring the load-bearing function of masonry walls to a steel skeleton. For a period of ten to fifteen years, the elevator machinery itself—the previously obligatory hydraulic apparatus—suddenly seemed to be the limiting factor. Thanks to steel frame construction, it would already be possible to construct a fifty-story building, but the hydraulic technique imposed a limit of eighteen to twenty floors. “To build higher than that would be entirely uneconomic, due to the slowness of elevators and the excessive space occupied by them and their voluminous machinery.” In the end, it was electrically powered elevators with their more modest space requirements and improved speed (from 5 feet per second of hydraulic elevators to 9.8 to 16 feet per second within a decade) that cleared the way for almost limitless increases in building height, a jump whose extent is suggested by the fact that in the 1890s, the highest building in the world was the twenty-story Masonic Temple in Chicago, but the Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, stood at fifty-five stories. In the twentieth-century literature on the history of architecture, there have been frequent debates about which element—the elevator or steel frame construction—was decisive for the rapid increase in vertical expansion. Even if one doesn’t adopt the consistent position of the earliest historian of the skyscraper, who accords the elevator exclusive credit for this development (“It is the elevator that is the initial cause of the skyscraper. Steel skeleton is a consequence of the elevator”), there is no question of the fundamental role played by this means of conveyance. No one has expressed this more succinctly than a German commentator on the opening of the Woolworth Building: “It must be admitted that the possibility of a fifty-five-story building is founded primarily on the perfect operation of passenger elevators. (Climbing to the top floor on steps with risers of 4.7 inches would take about 3⁄4 of an hour!)”
A donkey, wearing a harness and reins held by a man,
in front of an elevator inside a building, Chicago, 1903.
Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
It is not the ambition of this book to be either solely a study of technical and architectural history or an intrinsically literary study that extracts the “motif of the elevator” from fictional texts. Rather, it will attempt to use a heterogeneous corpus of texts that includes novels and plays as well as legal regulations, articles from professional construction engineering journals, medical treatises, and handbooks of public hygiene to come to grips with what one might call the “imaginative organization” of the building within a particular time period. Among my questions are these: How was the collective image of multistory residential and commercial buildings changed by the element “elevator” in the decades before and after 1900? What effect did the technical apparatus have on the conceivability and expressability of what happens inside the buildings, about the distribution of spaces and people? With Michel Foucault, one could call this enterprise an “archeology” of utterances about the building with respect to the elevator. In discrete cross-sections through the strata of legal, scientific, and artistic utterances, primarily between 1870 and 1930, this work hopes to illustrate the multifarious ways the elevator disrupts familiar standards for the organization and perception of buildings and how its appearance puts its stamp on the principles of building codes as well as the concerns of the hygiene movement and the topography of the urban novel. Precisely because this book is concerned not just with the history of architectonic artifacts but also with the processes of historical imagination, it is essential that its textual material include both works of fiction and nonfictional documents. The structures and limitations of an epoch’s topographic imagination leave traces in equal measure in building codes and the spatial conceptions of literary texts.
I am interested in the preconditions for the possibility of judgments or fantasies about the building, and a basic impulse for this book is the suspicion that the elevator fulfills the function of such a precondition, that one can understand it as a “technical apriority” for utterances about multistory buildings. This assumption, however, has consequences for how one treats the historical material and even how one understands historiography itself. The more we direct our attention to the preconditions for what is expressible, the more problematic becomes any reconstruction of “historical truth,” any recounting of “what actually happened.” On the contrary, in place of the most complete possible duplication of the past, we must attempt to extract those things about an epoch that it could not tell about or reflect upon itself—since for contemporaries they were far too self-evident, constituting as they did the unshakable foundation of their own words and deeds. Thus the following analyses will not necessarily be concerned to uncover the intentional core of scientific or literary texts, but will focus rather on what one might call their “unconscious” (to use a parlous term), those unspoken parameters of perception and imagination that can reveal themselves in the most marginal places—in the introduction to a monograph, for example, or in a dependent clause in a building description. In this context, it is important to always keep in mind the imaginative category of the multistory building before the advent of the elevator, a time that could not yet conceive of a vertical shaft running right down the center of a building. For this study stands exactly at the divide between the old and the new organization of a building, a divide that opened up around 1900.
One look at how the chapters of current histories of technology are organized or how informational material is presented in historical museums reveals that the way technical innovations become established continues to be portrayed as a chronicle of triumphant progress, an unbroken series of adjustments and improvements: an apparatus that is at first imperfect and exotic becomes progressively improved, right down to the present day. Half a century ago, Georges Canguilhem countered such a strictly teleological perspective by directing attention to a completely different kind of knowledge. Although he was addressing historians of science, his words apply equally to the history of technology:
The history of science is not a retrospective history of progress nor the depiction of outmoded stages leading to today’s truth. Its aim is rather to investigate and illuminate the extent to which concepts, attitudes, or methods that appear outmoded today represented progress in their own time and the extent to which, as a result, the outmoded past remains the past of an activity that must still be called scientific.
For our study of the elevator, this involves repeatedly highlighting those historic turning points when what is today obsolete or taken for granted made its first appearance and began to unleash its disruptive power. This is precisely the reason the primary emphasis of this book, with the exception of its final chapters, will be on the early history of the new conveyance, the time before 1920 or 1930. In the early years, the recalibration of the building’s system was clearly evident. What Sigfried Giedion once said about the chronicler of “anonymous history” in Mechanization Takes Command is particularly relevant for someone writing about an object that is so omnipresent and unspectacular today (at most, only capable of provoking irritation by its spatial constriction): “He has to see objects not as they appear to the daily user, but as the inventor saw them when they first took shape. He needs the unworn eyes of contemporaries, to whom they appeared marvelous or frightening.” The following pages will attempt to restore to the elevator, an object that has become dull and inconspicuous in the twenty-first century, the luster of strangeness.