The Metal Frame Revolution - 3.7 out of 5 based on 3 votes

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The use of metal in building structures came much later in the West than in China, but when it came, it was a revolution that changed Western architecture forever. It all started in factory buildings in the late 18th century in Britain, and then it inspired stunning developments that eventually made skyscrapers possible.



The Flatiron Building, built 1902, New York City — one of the early metal frame skyscrapers, photographed in 1903

Metal structures changed everything because they allowed for stronger, taller constructions, and they freed the walls from carrying all the weight in a building, so the windows could be larger than ever. Metal frames were also stronger against fire than wooden structures, which was one of the reasons for their early development in cotton factories, which were major fire hazards.

James Tingle, Cotton factory floor illustration, c.1830

In more formal buildings, metal was not always considered beautiful at first, so it was often hidden. During the 19th century, however, architects embraced it and built wonders:

Henri Labrouste, French National Library, built 1854-1875, Paris — Photo by Georges Fessy

One of the earliest wonders of metal and glass was the Crystal Palace, built in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851:


Joseph Paxton, Crystal Palace, built 1851 — Photos from Victoria and Albert Museum c.1910

The Crystal Palace was destroyed in 1936, but other buildings it inspired in the 19th century can still be visited today:

Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, Palacio de Cristal in Buen Retiro Park, built 1887, Madrid

Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, Palacio de Cristal in Buen Retiro Park, built 1887, Madrid — Photo by Mercedes Gómez

Charles Girault and others, Grand Palais, built 1897-1900, Paris — Photo by Mirco Magliocca

The Grand Palais during a Yoga assembly in 2013

The metal and glass roof of the Grand Palais, Paris

Metal frames are also what made the first skyscrapers possible in Chicago and New York in the late 1880s. Here is what is considered to be the very first:

William Le Baron Jenney, Home Insurance Building, built 1884 (destroyed 1931), Chicago — Photographed after 1884, United States Library of Congress National Digital Library

From that point on, building techniques developed quickly and the race for the tallest building in the world started. The US kept that record from 1908 to 1998 thanks to metal frame buildings in New York and Chicago, including these:

Cass Gilbert, Woolworth Building, built 1910-1913, New York

William Van Alen, Chrysler Building, built 1928-1930, New York

Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, Empire State Building, built in 1930-1931, New York

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Sears Tower / Willis Tower, built 1970-1973, Chicago — Photo by Daniel Schwen

By the time the metal frame revolution spread to other major cities worldwide, it had supported some of the most important architectural styles of the 19th and 20th century, including Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and International Style. It had also revolutionized infrastructures, with bridges, towers, train stations, airports, and all the other engineering marvels it continues to make possible.