On the Black Skyscraper – An interview with Adrienne Brown

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New York's Chrysler Building, 1953
New York’s Chrysler Building, 1953

Adrienne Brown’s forthcoming book The Black Skyscraper teaches us how early “sky-scrapers” shifted our perception of race in America.

You’re working on a book called The Black Skyscraper. What is a skyscraper? And more specifically, what is a black skyscraper?

ADRIENNE BROWN: Oh, my gosh, those are really big questions. “Skyscraper” is an interesting word because it has really changed a lot. The Home Insurance Building in Chicago was once considered the “first skyscraper,” but it was only 10 stories tall. It wasn’t even the tallest building in Chicago at the time. But it’s called a skyscraper because it had a steel frame. We tend to think about the skyscraper now as merely a tall building, but when the word was invented it referred to a building structure that’s not wedded to construction rooted in walls or masonry that holds the weight of the building. Instead, a steel interior holds the weight.

Originally, the word was hyphenated—“sky-scraper”—to point out the artifice of the term. The early language with which we talked about skyscrapers was childlike, poetic, almost utopian.

My project is really around the invention of the skyscraper. For me it’s not only about the invention of a building type, though that’s certainly important, but also the invention of a new language or descriptive language to describe height, density. The skyscraper is really a symptom of an era. It came of age in the late-nineteenth century with urbanization, mass immigration to the U.S., and industrialization. The skyscraper is a product of all of these forces and movements, but it’s also contributed to these discourses at the same time.

I’m interested in this early moment of the skyscraper when people are learning how to live in dense spaces, how to live and operate on different stories, but more importantly for me, it’s about learning to perceive. How do you go about and understand your world when the scale of your world is changing, the density of the world is changing, the height at which you see is changing, the height at which you work is changing? As skyscrapers become taller, as they evolve aesthetically and structurally, those questions of what it means to see and how you see change, too. […]