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Skycraper sculptures

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Skyscraper Rivals: The AIG Building and the Architecture of Wall Street By Daniel M Abramson. Princeton University Press, 2001. 208pp. £35

The classic image of New York is still the 1930s view of the Financial District as seen from an approaching ship, a cluster of towers stacked around the end of Manhattan Island.

In essence that view was created in 1928-32 when a variety of companies and developers, in defiance of the great depression, rebuilt the Wall Street area as a corporate stronghold on an unprecedented scale.

In architectural terms, the leader was the 66-storey tower of the Cities Service Building, now occupied by the insurance firm AIG. This was closely rivalled by the yet taller tower at 40 Wall Street, originally a speculative venture and now named Trump Tower in honour of its present owner.

The popular story of the New York skyscraper generally strides straight from Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building (1916) to the mid-town icons, the Chrysler Building (1930) and the Empire State Building (1931). Wall Street features only as an also-ran. By contrast, Daniel Abramson identifies a worthwhile history in the way the Financial District was transformed, to create not just a famous skyline, but a series of cities within the city, each with a character of its own. Height was a crucial ingredient, he admits, but not the only quality by which skyscrapers should be judged.

The difficulty from which no historian can escape is that the stacking of offices skywards is essentially a formula for maximising land values within the requirements of the building codes: 'a machine that makes the land pay', as Cass Gilbert put it.Architectural creativity is constrained by that formula, and of course by technical and engineering requirements.

Abramson nowhere summarises those constraints, but he deals cogently with subjects such as the building investors, the Building Code of 1916 - which generated the familiar set back profile of inter-war skyscrapers - and technical services such as lifts and lighting. He is less interested in the design of the foundations and steel frame, and nowhere does he examine the argument that skyscraper construction was promoted by the steel industry as a way of dealing with its surplus capacity.

The new office towers of the Financial District each housed huge working populations: 40 Wall Street had a daytime population of 10,000, the Cities Service Building 7,500.We know about the elevator halls through which they passed, and the reception rooms where banks and corporations met their public, but the analysis of the typical office environment is something which eludes Abramson - like most other historians. The glamour of women elevator attendants is recorded in plenty of photographs, but surely there must be more that can be said about the lives of those they transported to and fro each day?

Life in the country house and life in the factory are now the subject of detailed scrutiny, but the skyscraper is still treated as architectural sculpture rather than as a working environment. Abramson tells a splendid architectural story aided by excellent illustrations, but the people who experienced the end product have still been denied their voice.

Robert Thorne is a historian at Alan Baxter and Associates

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