If one point in our modern building history should be recognized as a starting point for the challenges relating to form, space, structure, and visual expression of multistory buildings, it must be the period starting in Chicago in the late 1870s and continued into the 1890s, which has later been known in architecture as the Chicago School. This phase is characterized by the introduction of the metal frame as a load-bearing device, with cast iron columns and wrought iron or cast-iron beams – until steel was available in sufficient quantities and was cheap enough to be of use. Buildings of 10 to 20 stories were erected, and wind bracing was provided by the surrounding masonry shell, the facade, still in a neoclassical style that refer to earlier classical epochs. The first building that went up with a bracing strategy incorporated in the metal frame itself was allegedly the 17-story high Old Colony Building from 1893–94 by architects Holabird and Roche (see Fig. 1). After this, the masonry facade became truly non-loadbearing, and the curtain wall was born.
Typical of the buildings in Chicago of this era was that the metal structure system was seen as an impressive novelty that enabled fast erection of taller and taller commercial buildings, in which only a minimum of space was occupied by the structural elements themselves. This guaranteed that valuable floor area was not lost for renting. This was a truly pragmatic view on structural decision-making, where efficient and cost-effective solutions were preferred. Building in iron-based materials also meant that structural elements had to be covered by brick or concrete as protection against fire.
A highlight of this period is the 15-story Reliance Building from 1894–1895 by Burnham and Root, and architect Charles B. Atwood, with E. C. Shankland as lead structural engineer (see Fig. 2). This was erected in “no time” and displays large glass windows as a primary material in the facade. Rigid connections between columns and beams provide bracing of the metal structure. If we study floor plans, we see four rows of columns along the length of the building, but the columns do not align in the other direction (see Fig. 3). There is no column grid. Column positions seem to be decided by where they might fit in with the location of partition walls, to interfere with building functionality as little as possible. This is a well-known strategy that is found in many of the buildings of the Chicago School. There is a certain correspondence, though, between the columns along the periphery and the way the facade is designed, where the size of window openings informs us about the ordering of the column structure behind.
Important as this era has been for later multistory buildings, there was, however, no real interest in having the structure contributing to neither the spatial experience nor to significant architectonic expression. The load-bearing structure is for the most part treated as a technical necessity crucial to the ambition of constructing tall buildings. Later American efforts in the architecture of multistory buildings during the twentieth century mostly show examples of the same attitude: even Mies van der Rohe habitually treats structures as a way of expressing and controlling his multistory building facades. The so-called “international modernism” disregarded even this point, and settled for prismatic, glass clad boxes, except for some worthy examples of tall buildings where the structure system is proudly displayed on the exterior.
Two noteworthy American exceptions (among several others) to this way of thinking about structures in multistory buildings in the twentieth century are Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis I. Kahn. Wright’s 14-story Johnson Wax Research Tower from 1944–1950 is a prominent example of an architecturally integrated structure both enabling, organizing, and dominating the interior spaces. His so-called “taproot” structural system is also the architectural key to his 19-story Price Tower of 1956. Likewise, Louis I. Kahn and engineer August Kommendant designed the 8-story Richards Medical Research Laboratories, finished in 1965, with a pronounced, structural idea guiding the whole complex. In his 30-story City Tower project of the 1950s Kahn anticipates later tall buildings with particularly expressive, structural exteriors.
In Europe, reinforced concrete seems to have been the material of choice for buildings of a certain height at the beginning of the twentieth century. When new building technologies and new materials gradually replaced traditional masonry structures, several buildings applying “le système Hennebique” after the French inventor of modern concrete construction, came to light. From the perspective of fire resistance this material obviously needed no separate fire protection and could be displayed for what it is. Of particular interest is the work of engineer Robert Maillart who just before the 1st World War pioneered a slab/column technology that made superfluous the need for underlying beams in slabs. This proved to be important for the architectural development of the “free plan” that sought to make spatial organization independent of the structure system.
Architect Auguste Perret’s works are important in this context. He remained true to his preferred material of RC during his whole career, and he made the column his most important structural element and a necessary attribute of his interior spaces. His apartment building in Rue Raynouard in Paris from 1929–1932, also housing his own flat and studio, is a particuarly good example of an interior structure acquiring a spatial presence: concrete beams and columns are displayed in the raw, flanked by panels of oak, and subtly framing in and suggesting spatial limitations while giving the space a distinct character borne of the use of noble materials and a clear statement of the act of construction (see Fig. 4). It is also classical and modern at the same time, a particular signature of Perret. Regardless of style or age, this continues to be a great example of a successful integration of structure and space in an apartment building. Later, when during the 1940s and early 1950s he rebuilt the French city of Le Havre, he was able to continue his work on establishing and evolving architectural projects by way of structural strategies, both in housing and in monumental buildings (see Fig. 5).
To suggest additional examples of interesting relationships between structure and space in, especially, apartment buildings of the twentieth century, one could do well to look at the British architect Denys Lasdun, the Italian Angelo Mangiarotti, and the Spanish architect José Antonio Coderch. Among office buildings work by the American architect Eero Saarinen and much of SOM’s work of the same period stand out, among others. However, when the tradition of the originally British, so-called High-tech architecture set in during the 1970s, structures became for the most part exposed to the exterior, to the climate, with the implicated problems that accompany this strategy. These problems are further amplified by the fact that many of the buildings in this category are in steel. Great buildings were erected by several of the world’s most gifted architects, but the leaning towards a design of flamboyant and exposed structure systems may seem to exclude that approach from serving as a relevant way forward today.
There are role models, though, among contemporary architects who do interesting work in this area of structure and space, and who can inspire the design of multistory buildings.Footnote 4 These would include architects like Christian Kerez of Zurich, who relatively recently did the office building Confluence Îlot A3 in Lyon, a work of high quality that picks up on some of the best traditions in reinforced concrete structures, resulting in most pleasant interior spaces and an attractive exterior. Also, the Chilean office of Pezo von Ellrichshausen has for years worked with the relationship between structure and the architectural space. Working mostly in smaller scales, their architecture can nevertheless inspire design of multistory buildings for housing as well as for commercial purposes. Likewise, the Tamedia building in Zurich by Shigeru Ban stands as a particularly refined example of the contemporary interest in wood, glulam as well as CLT. To mention just a few, one could also include a second Zurich based office, that of E2A Architects by Eckert and Eckert, who has designed many interesting buildings that take on a particular importance in our context, as well as the Danish office of Lundgaard og Tranberg Arkitekter who continuously delivers well-structured office buildings and apartment buildings of impressive quality.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of buildings of this type are mediocre when it comes to the particular qualities we call for here, not least when we look at the Norwegian scene. For too long, structures for multistory buildings, which probably represent the most common building type in the world, have been seen by architects and developers alike as a necessary tool for construction, and not as a potent medium to generate spatial qualities and to inspire architectural articulation. There are possibly many reasons for this, and cost is just one of them. In later years the seafront of central Oslo has been revitalized by many new office buildings and residential buildings, notably the row of multistory buildings called Barcode. Distinctly different as they appear on the outside with various elaborate facade designs, if stripped of their cladding all would look the same. The structures are virtually all of the same type, a standard, efficient framework that can accommodate all functions and all exterior expressions, but otherwise take no part in the architectural design. These buildings, however, are situated in Norway’s most expensive area and houses Norway’s most wealthy companies. And yet, no effort is made to create interior spaces with more convincing and lasting qualities, and qualities that relate to the tectonic aspects of architecture represent a likely opportunity. This is probably a matter of attitude, capability and financial will. When cost is seen purely in a short-term perspective architecture can be denied those qualities, and long-term architectural value as well as financial value can both be lost.
As we have seen, there are numerous examples of single accomplishments within this building category when it comes to activating the structure architecturally, and that by doing so one has been able to generate architectural qualities not likely to be achieved by other means. Even so and judging from the history of modern architecture and from what we can see around us daily, one can claim that, on the whole, there is a lack of an architecturally relevant structural tradition in the design of multistory buildings.